Trauma is a psychological or an emotional response to a deeply distressing event.1 Most people experience some form of trauma in their lives. From an Islamic worldview, no one is exempt from exposure to distressing events in their lives:
Do the people think that they will be left to say: We believe, and they will not be tried? But we have certainly tried those before them, and Allah will surely make evident those who are truthful, and He will surely make evident the liars.2
It is noteworthy that trauma is based on the response to the distressing event and not necessarily the event itself. It may be the case that one event is causing distress for a person and the same event is not for another person. It may even be the case that a distressing event at one time in a person’s life causes trauma but in another phase in a person’s life there is no response to the very same event.
Trauma can lead to destructive doubts due to cognitive distortions. A cognitive distortion is a thought pattern that is irrational or exaggerated which is linked to the onset or perpetuation of psychopathological states, such as depression and anxiety.3 To put it simply, cognitive distortions are thoughts that cause someone to perceive reality inaccurately. Thus a mapping of how trauma is linked to destructive doubts is:
Trauma → Cognitive Distortions → Destructive Doubts
An example of how this is manifest would be a person who grew up in a conservative Muslim household and witnessed constant spousal physical abuse by one of their parents on the other. Such a person may causally link the practice of Islam to the physical abuse they witnessed and as a result preceive Islam to be false.
Since trauma can cause cognitive distortions, this will impact a person’s worldview. For example, a woman who has been subject to sexual abuse by a man may develop a cognitive distortion that all men are evil and as a result adopt extreme feminism as the lens by which she views reality (i.e. her worldview). When she thus looks at some of the rules in Islamic Law, she views them from the paradigm of the ‘injustice of the oppressive patriarchy’ and deems them unfair. If you recall from the section on the components of a worldview, this person has certain, perhaps subconscious, ontological, epistemological, anthropological and teleological commitments that impact her judgment about Islamic law and can be traced back to cognitive distortions that emerged from her underlying trauma.
So, how do we deal with trauma? First, we should refer to strategy #7, finding a specialist. In this regard, the specialist would be a therapist that could help uncover and deal with trauma by the various means that they have been trained in.
Second, we should consider standing in the possibility that the meaning we have given our trauma is misplaced. In highlighting the value of the meaning we give our trauma, David Kessler, speaking about the trauma of losing a loved one, says,
“meaning comes through finding a way to sustain your love for the person after their death while you’re moving forward with your life. Loss is simply what happens to you in life. Meaning is what you make happen.”4
Based upon the meaning you attach to trauma, there can be post-traumatic healing and even post-traumatic growth. Najwa Awad and Sarah Sultan outline the following five areas where this could be possible:
A greater appreciation of life – After being buried in grief and overwhelming trauma, emergence from the rubble can lead to a changed perspective and much gratefulness, making the mundane details of life seem like extraordinary blessings.
Increased closeness in relationships – Experiencing the severance of a relationship or living through trauma can increase the appreciation we feel for significant people in our lives and allow us to be more empathetic toward them.
Identification of new possibilities – Life-changing events shift our priorities. Suddenly things can seem clearer and opportunities that may have been there all along are suddenly discernible.
Increased personal strength – Before enduring particularly difficult circumstances, you may have thought that everything you are currently handling would have been impossible for you. Once you’ve been through tremendous hardships, future challenges do not seem as daunting.
Greater spiritual development – Going through suffering can result in a sense of spiritual and religious renewal and a greater sense of closeness to Allah ﷻ. When our priorities change, God becomes a more integral part of our daily lives, which adds to a sense of stability and growth.5
When we stand in possibility of an alternative meaning to our suffering, it would allow us to identify a negative meaning we may have given it and replace that with the meaning that Allah gives to the suffering. Of course, the meaning that Allah gives to suffering must be rooted in the Islamic worldview and its answers to fundamental existential questions i.e. questions about our existence: How did I get here? What is my purpose? What happens when I die? According to the Islamic worldview, Allah has created us so that we may worship and draw near to Him. It is from this vantage point that we can appropriately apply meaning to our trauma that is sound.6
Let us conclude by juxtaposing two different conceptualizations of ‘meaning’ to pain, suffering and trauma. The first comes from the worldview of an atheist, Richard Dawkins:
“On the contrary, if the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies like the crashing of this bus are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind. In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice.The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”7
The second comes from the worldview of a Muslim:
“Your pain and suffering will be rewarded with eternal bliss in paradise. If you suffered for a whole lifetime and you were dipped in paradise for a moment you would feel that you have never suffered. Evil and suffering exists to test you, elevate you and facilitate a higher spiritual state. It is meant to bring you closer to the Divine, therefore closer to paradise. As a believer, any pain or suffering is a means to absolve you from your shortcomings and sins. When you are tested with evil and suffering it is a sign of Divine love, for He knows you have the ability to overcome the trials in your life. He knows you better than you know yourself.”
1 See Today, Psychology. “Trauma.” Psychology Today, March 17, 2009. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/trauma.
2 القرآن الكريم. “Surat Al-`Ankabut [29:2-3] – The Noble Qur’an.” Accessed March 28, 2022. https://legacy.quran.com/29/2-3.
3 See Helmond, Petra, Geertjan Overbeek, Daniel Brugman, and John C. Gibbs. “A Meta-Analysis on Cognitive Distortions and Externalizing Problem Behavior.” Criminal Justice and Behavior 42, no. 3 (October 17, 2014): 245–62. https://doi.org/10.1177/0093854814552842.
4 Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth, and David Kessler. On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss. Simon and Schuster, 2014.
5 See Awad, Najwa, and Sarah Sultan. “Your Lord Has Not Forsaken You: Addressing the Impact of Trauma on Faith.” Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research. Accessed March 28, 2022. https://yaqeeninstitute.org/read/paper/your-lord-has-not-forsaken-you-addressing-the-impact-of-trauma-on-faith.
6 For a comprehensive analysis on the meanings and wisdoms behind trauma under the Islamic paradigm, see Sulamī, ʻIzz al-Dīn ʻAbd al-ʻAzīz ibn ʻAbd al-Salām, and Muḥammad ibn Abī Bakr Ibn Qayyim al-Jawzīyah. Trials & Tribulations: Wisdom & Benefits, 2004.
7 Dawkins, Richard. River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life. Basic Books, 2008.