Imagine taking a long walk through the forest and getting lost. You desperately walk further and further in the hope that you can catch a signal on your mobile phone to help you navigate your way back to where you parked your car. You finally find a patch where the signal picks up and it shows that you are miles away from your car. As you start your long walk back to your car, you realize that you are familished and that you didn’t pack anything to eat. As you look around, you see various types of berries. One type of berry is bright red in color, has a distinct shine and seems like it would be very satisfying to eat. You see another group of berries and they are dark purple in color and also look very appealing. You imagine that either of these berries would offer a tantalizing burst of flavor in the mouth, being simultaneously sweet and refreshing. There is yet another group of berries but these berries are of a drab purple color and seem like they would taste quite dull.
The first group of red berries are called ‘chokecherries’. The second group of dark purple berries are called ‘pokeweed’ and the last group of drab purple berries are in fact not berries but grapes. Chokecherries and pokeweed are poisonous berries. The point here is that an inability to make the distinction between chokecherries, pokeweed and regular grapes could have serious ramifications. Such is also the case if we fail to make the distinction between whisperings (waswâs), valid questions and shubuhāt.
Whisperings are thoughts that you do not agree with, do not believe and have a psychological aversion towards. In an article titled, ‘Clinicians, Imams, and the Whisperings of Satan’, Najwa Awad defines waswasah (whispering) as follows: “Waswasah consists of intrusive thoughts that cause cognitive dissonance (mental distress due to contradictory beliefs, values, or thoughts), and poses a risk to a person’s spiritual and psychological homeostasis.”1
Whisperings can occur in a number of different domains (Awad categorizes them into three: acts of worship/ibadah, purity/taharah and belief/aqeedah) but for our purposes of dealing with destructive doubts, the domain in question is that of belief or faith. These intrusive thoughts that cause cognitive instability are recognized by the sufferer as problematic. The very recognition of the intrusive thoughts being problematic is a sign of faith as is mentioned in the following ḥadīthreport:
It was narrated that Abu Hurayrah (may Allah be pleased with him) said: “Some of the companions of the Messenger of Allah, came to the Prophet and said to him, ‘We find in ourselves thoughts that are too terrible to speak of.’ He said, ‘Are you really suffering from that?’ They said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘That is a clear sign of faith.’”2
Distinguishing between a whispering and an actual destructive doubt has to do with the stance of the fundamentals of Islām in the heart (this is also the case in distinguishing between a valid question and a destructive doubt). If one is subject to intrusive thoughts that one does not agree with, one does not believe and has a psychological aversion towards, then these are whisperings that are in fact a sign of faith. On the other hand, if one is unsure about the fundamentals of the Islamic faith, this would be categorized as a destructive doubt. Awad provides an excellent analogy to elucidate this point:
“An analogous example for waswâs al-qahri3> regarding aqeedah is postpartum OCD in which new mothers have intrusive thoughts about harming their child. The vast majority of mothers—if not all—love their children and do not want to harm them.4 Mothers with postpartum OCD don’t clandestinely have desires to hurt their children, and in fact, it is love for their children that causes distress when the intrusive thoughts cannot be controlled. The same applies to waswâs al-qahri in aqeedah in that the person’s devotion to God is part of what causes the distress when experiencing intrusive negative thoughts about religion.”5
The Prophetic advice when one is subjected to whisperings is to not act upon them and not speak about them:
It is narrated from Abu Hurayra (may Allah be pleased with him), who ascribed it back to the Prophet (may peace and blessings be upon him) that he said, “Truly, Allah has overlooked for my Ummah that which is whispered, or that which is thought about in the lower self, as long as they do not act upon it, or speak about it.”6
Valid questions are not doubts that undermine your belief or lead you to distort Islām in some way. They are also not intrusive thoughts or whisperings. Rather, they are sincere questions coming from a vantage point of trying to understand a concept or phenomenon, all the while not doubting the fundamentals of Islām. The act of questioning and seeking clarification are in fact encouraged in the Islāmic worldview. The Qur’an states the following:
“So ask the people of knowledge (dhikr), if you do not know.”7
The companions of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ would ask a range of questions related to theological issues, matters of Islamic law, ethics, etc. as is evidenced by the frequent phrase found in the Qur’an, “yas’alūnaka” (“They ask you concerning…”).
Valid questions can even be about the fundamentals of Islām (e.g. the existence of God, the veracity of the prophethood of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, the truth claims of the Qur’an, etc.). So long as they do not undermine the fundamentals of Islām or lead you to distort Islām, they are valid questions.
Let us present an example to clarify the distinction between a valid question and a destructive doubt. Assume you have two people who have a question about the existence of God, person A and person B. Person A inquires about the various rational, intuitive and spiritual means to establish the existence of God, not because they doubt the existence of God themselves but because they would like to be able to use that knowledge to invite others to Islām. Person B on the other hand, inquires about the various means to establish the existence of God because they are not sure if God exists or not. In this scenario, person A has asked a valid question while person B may be subject to destructive doubts.
Destructive Doubts (Shubuhāt)
If something is not a whispering and not a valid question, then it stands to reason that it is destructive doubt. Whisperings and valid questions do NOT undermine the fundamentals of Islām. The key identifier with regards to a destructive doubt is that it is a falsehood that DOES undermine the fundamentals of Islām or distorts Islām in some way. When one is unsure about the truth of the fundamentals of Islām, they may be subject to shubuhāt. In this case, one or more of the other nine strategies would need to be employed to deal with the destructive doubt.
1 Awad, Najwa. “Clinicians, Imams, and the Whisperings of Satan.” Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research. Accessed March 22, 2022. https://yaqeeninstitute.org/read/paper/clinicians-imams-and-the-whisperings-of-satan.
2 Qushayrī, Muslim ibn al-Ḥajjāj. Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim
3 waswâs al-qahri refers to ‘overwhelming whisperings’ or ‘extreme whisperings’
4 International OCD Foundation, and Jonathan Abramowitz. “Postpartum OCD Fact Sheet,” 2009. https://iocdf.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Postpartum-OCD-Fact-Sheet.pdf.
5 Awad, Najwa. “Clinicians, Imams, and the Whisperings of Satan.” Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research. Accessed March 22, 2022. https://yaqeeninstitute.org/read/paper/clinicians-imams-and-the-whisperings-of-satan.
6 Bukhārī, Muḥammad ibn Ismāʻīl. Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī
7 القرآن الكريم. “Surat An-Nahl [16:43] – The Noble Qur’an.” Accessed March 23, 2022. https://legacy.quran.com/16/43.