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The Muslim Worldview

The Muslim Worldview, Maulana Dr Mansur Ali
© Cardiff University, Muhammad Mansur Ali

A worldview is a person’s orientation and philosophy of life; it influences one’s thinking, perceiving, actions, and doings. It is how people understand, experience, and respond to the world. Worldviews act upon individuals as well as on entire communities.

To understand how worldviews work, let us use a metaphor. Imagine we are looking at the world from a distant place. Our vision is blurred, and we can only take a closer look using a telescope. Now depending on the scope, power, aperture and colour of the lens, our experience of viewing the world would be different. In this example, the world is a constant and the telescope is our worldview. Our worldview shapes how we experience the world.

A person whose worldview is shaped by a belief in the existence of a deity (a god or goddess, or anything revered as divine) will experience the world differently from the one who believes in no God. For example, someone who believes in the existence of God may attribute the cause of an earthquake to the wrath of God. In contrast, an atheist (someone who does not believe in God) will argue that it is the movement and colliding of tectonic plates deep in the bowels of the earth that has caused the earthquake. A postmodern relativist may deny any forms of absolute truth and believe that truth is what we humans make in our daily interactions: for them, there is no truth outside of our collective experience.

There is a two-way relationship between worldviews, and beliefs and practices. Worldviews are responsible for shaping people’s thinking and how they act in the world. On the other hand, what people believe in, and their ethics, impact their worldview. For example, imagine a spade that is required to dig the earth. Does the spade impact on us or do we impact on the spade? The answer to this question is, both. The spade is a creation of the human being. People must make spades; therefore, people impact on the spade. However, by using the spade, people’s lives are enhanced. The builder builds and the gardener digs. There are certain types of jobs which cannot be done without a spade.

Our worldviews influence our ethics, morality, beliefs, and behaviour. In return, our practices and interactions shape our worldview. For example, it is within the Muslim worldview that everything happens with God’s will and no benefit or harm can reach a person if it has not been willed by God. This may inculcate deep beliefs of reliance on God, bringing about contentment in people’s hearts and may help as a coping mechanism or a source of resilience. People who are ill may not refer to doctors or take medication because they are content with whatever God has chosen for them. Here, we have a situation where people’s worldview vis-à-vis God is directly impacting on how they behave.

On the other hand, personal trauma may result in people reconfiguring this worldview. During study circles in the mosque, I was trying to gauge people’s understanding of Islamic belief toward freedom, choice and fate. One elderly attendee adamantly denied any form of personal choice or freedom. Whilst others tried to reason with her that Islam does allow freedom of will and choice, she vehemently held on to the belief that humans are like mere leaves floating in the wind without any personal autonomy. On a later occasion she disclosed to me that her belief in freedom was shattered when she received news that her son was diagnosed with end-of-life stage cancer and there isn’t much that anyone can do about it. Whilst in the Islamic general order of existence there is a fine balance between choice and fate, here we have an example of how one’s personal situation affects their worldview.

The late Professor Malik Badri, a world-renowned Muslim psychiatrist, in his book Contemplation (Badri 2014), provides an example of how certain acts of misunderstood piety can very quickly morph into what he calls ‘toxic religiosity’ eventually manifesting in some form of mental health problem. In Islam, additional optional prayers to the mandatory daily ones carry more reward and function as penance for the shortcomings in the offering of the latter prayers. The tahajjud prayer (optional night prayer) is deemed to be the most rewarding of these optional prayers as it takes discipline to wake up in the middle of the night, ritually wash and engage in worship.

Badri recalls a Muslim patient who he treated for depression. The patient’s mental health spiralled when he missed the optional night prayer, setting off a chain reaction of doubts, self-blame and reproach – ending with severe depression. The patient believed that since no human being can offer their devotion to God with full sincerity and commitment, the optional prayers provided a form of compensation for these shortcomings (quantity of prayers to make up for the lack of quality). By missing the optional night prayer, he became convinced that his mandatory offerings have now become unworthy of God, and that he was only fit for eternal damnation in Hell.

In the next step, Dr Ali explains why it is important for practitioners to be aware of the Muslim worldview, and to take it into consideration when providing mental health support.

© Cardiff University, Muhammad Mansur Ali
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