Anger Management

by Habiba Anwar

The Light (UK), December 2008 Issue (pp. 1–6)

Through the research that I have done to put together this talk on the topic of ‘Anger Management’, I have learnt so much myself, and hope I can share something new with you today. At the start, I want to say that anger — or indeed most emotions — are something we all experience, so I hope we can all benefit from the extracts I have put together today.

To start with, let us define anger. A dictionary, any dictionary, is likely to tell you that “anger” is a strong feeling of displeasure; a strong emotion; a feeling that is oriented towards some grievance. But this is not a phenomenon that needs defining for most of us. We know of and understand anger in more real terms. When we think of anger, we think of raised voices, shouting, misunderstanding, arguing, maybe in extreme cases even violence. Whether on a small level or a grand level, we almost always associate anger with some sort of destruction: destruction of relationships, destruction of trust, destruction of love.

It is no wonder that every religion condemns anger. Before we focus on Islam and Muslim perspectives, it is worth noting what some of the other world religions have to say.

Take Hinduism for example. Anger is linked in Hinduism to desire, and is considered a response to desire — a response even more deadly than desire itself. One group that I identified as The Peetham writes: If we throw a rubber against the wall, it bounces, in other words it returns to us. The ball thrown is desire and it is the same ball that becomes anger as it bounces.

If we look at Christianity, Matthew George Easton’s Bible dictionary published in 1897 defines anger as:

“The emotion of instant displeasure on account of something evil that presents itself to our view. In itself, it is an original susceptibility of our nature, just as love is, and is not necessarily sinful. It may, however, become sinful when causeless, or excessive, or protracted.”

The seven deadly sins denounced in Christianity also include anger, alongside lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, envy and pride.

Buddhism states a similar set of negative mental states that are supposed to be suppressed in order to attain enlightenment. Anger is placed alongside sensual desire, boredom, restlessness and doubt. There is also a Buddhist saying that you may have heard:

“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”

For something that is so widely condemned, so universally recognized for its negative effects, yet still witnessed on a global scale, you may wonder what the causes of anger are in the first place, why it even exists. Psychologists have divided the causes of anger into two categories: internal causes and external causes.

Internal causes of anger include the following:

  • Emotionally reasoning or interpreting that an event has happened in a particular way that causes a person to become irritated and angry; or
  • Having a low frustration tolerance threshold; or
  • Having unreasonable expectations; or
  • Rating people in negative and dehumanizing ways, thus making it easier to be angry at them.

External causes of anger include:

  • People making personal attacks against us;
  • People attacking our ideas; and
  • People threatening our needs.

The internal causes I identified are so multifaceted and involve so many deep psychological issues that I am in no way knowledgeable enough to talk about these. Each one of us is so different that we can’t possibly generalize about why we react a certain way in a certain situation. This will always vary depending on our individual thresholds, our individual expectations, individual priorities and emotions. But what I can talk about is external causes of anger and how we can and should deal with them, which will be the area topic of my talk today.

It should be noted that not everyone necessarily views anger as negative. There are people that will ask why should we “manage” our anger, when it’s not a negative thing that needs to be controlled? Modern psychology in particular encourages the expression of anger in a number of contexts; for example, whilst negotiating. Experiments conducted at the University of Amsterdam on “The Interpersonal Effects of Anger and Happiness in Negotiations” concluded that anger on the part of an opponent during negotiations is more likely to result in compliance by the negotiator, whereas happiness on the part of the opponent usually leads to exploitation. I found even more details on the positive side of anger in Stress Management for Dummies, from which I will quote to you now:

  • Anger is activating and mobilizing. When you are angry, you feel as if you are doing something about what is triggering your stress. You feel there is a response you can make, a way of expending energy toward resolving the distressing situation. It can get you to take action and do something about the problem.
  • Anger makes you feel powerful. Anger can make you feel like you are in charge, even when you aren’t. When you tell someone off or give them a tongue-lashing, you feel stronger and in control. Anger enables you to express yourself in a forceful way.
  • Anger often gets results. By becoming angry, as opposed to remaining calm and pleasant, you may get what you want. Many people are intimidated by anger and are more obliging when confronted with it than they normally would be.
  • Anger is often a respected response. We often interpret anger as standing up for ourselves and not letting others take advantage of us. And other people may see it the same way. Our anger may be labelled as assertive, strong, and confident.

So why does religion insist in restraining something that can clearly have so many positive psychological and emotional gains? Well, first of all, did you notice how all of those supposedly positive aspects of anger are beneficial to you. You feel powerful; you feel stronger; you are in control, confident and getting results. What about the person on the receiving end of your anger?

In Islam, humanity and love for your fellow man is so important. Specifically on the topic of anger, it is reported that a man said to the Prophet [Muhammad (pbuh)],

“Give me some advice”.

The Prophet said:

“Do not become angry and furious”.

The man asked (the same) again and again, and the Prophet said in each case,

“do not become angry and furious”.

In another hadith, the Prophet has said:

“He is not strong or powerful who throws people down, but he is strong who masters his anger”.

In yet another hadith, he said:

“One who subdues anger is really a courageous man. A man of strength is not one who overpowers an opponent; but it is he who, in a moment of intense provocation, exercises restraint”.

If you, as a Muslim, were not content with this inner satisfaction of restraining your anger, and were looking for some sort of incentive, there are countless; perhaps the greatest one of all is that Allah is pleased with those who do so, and those that Allah is pleased with are granted the greatest reward of all: the promise of heaven. Chapter 3, verse 134, states:

الَّذِیۡنَ یُنۡفِقُوۡنَ فِی السَّرَّآءِ وَ الضَّرَّآءِ وَ الۡکٰظِمِیۡنَ الۡغَیۡظَ وَ الۡعَافِیۡنَ عَنِ النَّاسِ ؕ وَ اللّٰہُ یُحِبُّ الۡمُحۡسِنِیۡنَ ﴿۱۳۴﴾ۚ

“Those who spend in ease as well as in adversity and those and those who restrain (their) anger and pardon men… Allah loves the doers of good (to others).” (The Holy Quran, 3:134)

In the footnote to this verse in the translation by Maulana Muhammad Ali, he writes:

“Restraining of anger, pardoning and doing good to each other besides being great moral qualities, strengthen the bond of union which is so necessary for success. This verse has on many occasions inspired the noblest thoughts of toleration and charitableness. Hasan’s servant having on one occasion upset a boiling hot dish on his master obtained his liberty, along with monetary help by reciting this verse. Thinking that he would be punished for his fault, he repeated the words:

‘those who restrain their anger.’

Hasan said he was not angry.

‘And pardon men,’

added the servant. Hasan said:

I pardon you.’

‘And Allah loves the doers of good,’

concluded the offending slave.

‘I give you liberty and 400 pieces of silver,’

was the response.”

Dr Zahid Aziz also offered some excellent commentary of this verse in his book Islam, Peace and Tolerance. He writes:

“The words translated as

‘those who suppress anger and pardon people’

mean literally:

‘suppressors of anger and pardoners of people’,

“and the word used for ‘people’ here means mankind in general. This, then, is how Muslims ought to appear in the world, as suppressors of their anger and pardoners of mankind. As the beginning of this passage tells Muslims to rush to seek forgiveness from God, these words indicate that to gain that forgiveness we must suppress our rage against others, forgive them and in fact do good to them. Have we not done things which would make God angry; so do we want Him to display His anger towards us? If not, then we must similarly restrain our anger towards those who have wronged us.

“This passage teaches three degrees of response towards those who have wronged us, and we should rise to the level that is most effective in the circumstances. The least which is required is for us to restrain our anger, and that is the minimum that we must do. Any reaction based on anger is bound to be excessive and unjust, and damaging even to the aggrieved party. Therefore our response must be limited to being proportionate and rational. Beyond suppressing anger, we may forgive those who wrong us rather than seek their punishment, if that would make them recognise their injustices and mend their ways. Finally, we may even proceed to returning good for evil, again if it would turn them away from their wrongdoing.

“According to this passage, the way to heaven is only through suppressing your anger and forgiving other people.”

Despite knowing that the greatest of all rewards is honoured by Allah to those that successfully suppress their anger, why do we still get angry almost everyday in some way or another? The Prophet [Muhammad (pbuh)] is reported to have said:

“He who withholds his anger, Allah will withhold His punishment from him on the Day of Judgment”.

Surely, there can’t be any bigger incentive than that, yet we still find ourselves in an angry state of mind more than often. In the famous words of Aristotle:

“Anybody can become angry, that is easy; but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way, that is not within everybody’s power, that is not easy.”

In the Holy Quran, even prophets that are Allah’s chosen ones, even they are said to have experienced anger. Take Prophet Moses, and the incident of the golden calf. When the prophet visited Mount Sinai, a man claimed that he had disappeared, and thus the Israelites were to find a new God. So a golden calf was constructed and was being worshiped when Moses returned, and it is said in chapter 20 verse 86:

فَرَجَعَ مُوۡسٰۤی اِلٰی قَوۡمِہٖ غَضۡبَانَ اَسِفًا ۬ۚ

“so Moses returned to his people, angry, sorrowing.” (The Holy Quran, 20:86)

So unfortunately, unlike perhaps other sins, it is really not quite as easy to restrain anger. In The Message of Islam by Khwaja Kamal ud Din, he says:

“Lust and anger, the Quran says, are root passions in their natural condition. They should not be killed, as suggested by some other religious systems, for they are the bedrock of spiritual edifice. The [Quran] lays down rules whereby, out of them, may be evolved such ethics and religion as shall clothe us in the Divine garb. Anger, the [Quran] says has its righteous use, and so has lust, when they are refined so as to assume their noble form. Anger, when reformed, becomes justice, forgiveness and chastisement, bravery, courage, high-mindedness, seriousness and serenity of mind, tolerance, meekness, magnanimity, patience, perseverance, pertinacity of character, while the same passion in its mean form becomes malice, hatred, enmity, revenge, hot temper, hastiness, ride, rashness, recklessness, foolhardiness, stubbornness, timidity, cowardice and so forth…”

So, the impossible is not expected of us; that is, to never get angry again. Rather, we have to manage anger, deal with it and express it in the right way, which doesn’t seem so impossible after you hear examples from the life of the Holy Prophet [Muhammad (pbuh)] and his companions. When you hear about real situations that they encountered and experienced without resorting to anger, suddenly the situations that we do get angry in seem so small. In The Ideal Prophet by Khawaja Kamal-ud-Din, he recounts the following story:

“Umair bin Wahab was a bitter enemy of the Prophet. He was sent to Medina by Safwan bin Umayya on promise of a great reward if he should succeed in killing the Prophet and thus taking revenge for those Quraish who had fallen in the battle of Badr. Umair, having given his sword a temper of poison, went to Medina; but guessing his intention, Umar wanted to punish him. The Prophet stopped him from doing so, but made Umair sit near him, and, in the course of conversation, disclosed to him the purpose of his shameful mission; on hearing which Umair was thunderstruck that the Prophet did not even chide him. He straightaway embraced Islam, and on his return to Mecca became a missionary for Islam — an utterly transformed man.”

What is demonstrated here is in situations where your anger can very easily be justified, if you hold back, you never know how great the results can be.

Once, someone accosted the Holy Prophet Muhammad by distorting the greeting as-salamu alaikum (“peace be upon you”) and saying it as as-samu alaikum, which means

“death be upon you”.

His wife, Ayesha, retorted:

“and upon you be death and curse”.

The Holy Prophet told her:

“Be calm Ayesha, Allah loves that one should be kind and lenient in all matters”,

or according to another version he said:

“Be calm Ayesha. You should be kind and lenient, and beware of using harsh and bad language”.

From his companions, there were many times that during his caliphate, Hazrat Umar was spoken to harshly. One time, a certain man kept saying

“Fear God, O Umar”

and others wanted to stop him. However, Hazrat Umar said:

“Let him say so; of what use are these people if they should not tell me such things?”

Here is a ruler who could easily have used his position and his power to restrain someone from addressing him in such a way. But his response shows us that when someone says something that we may not like, may even find insulting, it’s important to not react with anger. Many times when we are in such a situation, we become so blinded with fury at the guts of somebody to say such and such to us, that naturally we don’t actually listen to what the person is in fact saying. But, like Hazrat Umar, if we take the criticism objectively, we benefit from being able to judge if there is any truth in what someone is complaining of, and can therefore deal with it accordingly, detached from our emotions. This is not advice from an ordinary man. This was the man who established a state and public treasury, he’s known as the pioneer of Islamic democracy, during the 10 years he rules as caliph, the Persians, Romans and many others were defeated. He is surely a man whose character is worth emulating.

The Holy Prophet has even told us what to do when we feel anger rising inside us. His advice ranges from the simple to the detailed. In one hadith, he said:

“Much silence and a good disposition; there are no two works better than these”.

In other words, when you feel angry, hold your tongue and resist from saying anything at all. In another, he explained that

“Satan was created from fire. Fire is extinguished only with water. Thus, when one of you finds yourself angry, perform the ablution”.

Ablution (or wudu) is the simple ritual of washing your hands, face, arms, and feet. The water cools down your body and immediately tackles the heat of feeling enraged. I couldn’t help but think when I read this that as wudu is a prerequisite to our five daily prayers anyway, if we are observant of those and thus perform wudu five times a day, surely we would be constantly cool.

The Prophet also said that if one is not in proximity of clean water to perform the ablution, or should tempers flare in threat of a quick-blow up, an easy way to calm down would be to take a seat upon the onset of rage; should this not help, it is advisable to lie down.

Even though there are huge rewards in the afterlife for suppressing your anger, there are immediate rewards for us here and now as well. I read you an extract from Stress Management for Dummies earlier about the positive aspects of anger; well, here is another extract from the same book:

Anger can make you Sick:

When you are angry, your body reacts much the same way it does when you are experiencing any other stress reaction. Your anger triggers your body to take a defensive stance, readying yourself for any danger that may come your way. When your anger is intense and frequent, the physiological effects can be harmful. Your health is at risk, and any or all of those nasty stress-related illnesses and disorders can become linked to excessive anger.

Anger can break your Heart [Literally]:

Recent research now indicates that your heart (or more accurately, your cardiovascular system) is particularly vulnerable to your anger and its negative effects. In his book, Anger Kills, published by Harper Perennial, Duke University researcher Redford Williams describes a number of possible ways hostility can negatively affect your cardiovascular system.

Following are a few of the study findings:

  • When potentially hostile individuals were angry, they had larger than normal increases in the flow of blood to their muscles (suggesting an exaggerated fight-or-flight response). They also experienced an increase in their levels of important stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, which can have negative effects on the cardiovascular system as well.
  • Potentially hostile individuals with higher levels of blood cholesterol were found to secrete more adrenaline than those individuals with lower levels of cholesterol. For these individuals, the linkage between higher adrenaline secretions and higher cholesterol levels means they have a greater likelihood of arteriosclerotic plaque build-up.
  • People who scored high on measures of hostility tend to have fewer friends. This lack of strong friendships means a weakened social support system. Being able to talk to someone about what’s stressing you can lower your blood pressure — and having no one to talk to certainly doesn’t do anything to help you.
  • Research has shown that socially isolated individuals excreted higher levels of stress hormones in their urine than those who had strong support systems.
  • Hostile individuals typically don’t take good care of themselves. They tend to engage in a number of destructive health behaviours, including smoking, drinking, and overeating. All of these behaviours can have negative effects on the cardiovascular system.

Although I am not qualified to talk about the medical effects of any emotion, from my very basic research I can tell you that one of the effects of anger is the increased production of hormones. Your heart has to work harder, and therefore, not surprisingly, your heartbeat increases. For this reason, people with heart problems are actively endangering their health when they become angry. People put themselves at risk of heart attacks. Your blood pressure goes up, which is of course another health hazard. Diabetics are also advised to control their temper, as increased adrenaline can raise blood sugar.

To close, I would like to read you a short story:

“There was a little boy with a bad temper. His father gave him a bag of nails and told him that every time he lost his temper he must hammer a nail in the back fence.

“The first day the boy had driven 37 nails into the fence. Then it gradually dwindled down. He discovered it was easier to hold his temper than to drive those nails into the fence. Finally, the day came when the boy didn’t lose his temper at all. He told his father about it and the father suggested that the boy now pull out one nail for each day that he was able to hold his temper.

“The days passed and the young boy was finally able to tell his father that all the nails were gone. The father took his son by the hand and led him to the fence. He said:

‘You have done well, my son, but look at the holes in the fence. The fence will never be the same. When you say things in anger, they leave a scar just like this one. You can put a knife in a man and draw it out. It won’t matter how many times you say ‘I am sorry’, the wound is still there.’”