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Waswaas: Obsessions and Compulsions

Obsessions can be of anything, from counting and making sure everything around you is an even amount to being paranoid about microbes, thus obsessively washing your hands. You can be obsessed with neatness to the point that it cripples your thoughts, and of course you can be obsessed with certain aspects of religious rituals. The obsessions, the compulsions, the doubts and whispers! The constant anxiety and panic that accompanies obsessive compulsive disorder, also known in religious text as Waswaas, can take any person and reduce him to a mere object of ritualistic behavior. OCD can really cripple a person, and when the disorder affects your religious duties, it can make something that is supposed to ease the mind, like a daily prayer, un-enjoyable at best and impossible at worst.

What is OCD?

OCD is part of a group of psychological/psychiatric disorders and consists of recurrent obsessions and compulsions which help relieve the obsessions. It is believed to be caused by a chemical imbalance, mainly a lack of serotonin, which is also the chemical that causes depression. Here are the “medical” criteria for diagnosing OCD, but please keep in mind that one does not have to show all the symptoms to be suffering from this problem:

Obsessions are:

  • Recurrent and persistent thoughts, impulses, or images that are intrusive and inappropriate. The thoughts cause severe anxiety or distress.
  • The thoughts, impulses, or images are not just excessive worries about real-life problems.
  • The person tries to ignore or suppress the thoughts, impulses, or images, or to neutralize them with some other thought or action.
  • The person recognizes that the obsessional thoughts, impulses, or images are a product of his or her own mind, and are not based in reality.

Compulsions are:

  • Repetitive behaviors or mental acts that the person feels (s)he must perform in response to an obsession, or according to rigid rules.
  • The behaviors or mental acts to prevent or reduce distress or prevent some dreaded event or situation; however, these behaviors or mental acts either are not connected in a realistic way with what they are supposed to neutralize or prevent or are clearly excessive.

How Can This Affect My Religious Duties?

Obsessions can be of anything, from counting and making sure everything around you is an even amount to being paranoid about microbes, thus obsessively washing your hands. You can be obsessed with neatness to the point that it cripples your thoughts, and of course you can be obsessed with certain aspects of religious rituals. When the obsessions are regarding your daily religious rituals, that is when we refer to the disorder as Waswaas, which literally translates to “whispers” or “obsessions”.

Let us say you have just finished your Wudhu and are getting ready for your noon prayers, and you know you did everything right, but a doubt lingers in your head that you didn’t cover your whole arm with water! You know you did, but this doubt will not go away until you redo your Wudhu. Now, finally, you can relax and go pray, but now you feel as if both arms were not “evenly” covered in water, and you know it does not matter, but you can’t get your thoughts off of this insignificant issue, so now you go and wet the other arm to make it feel the same. Okay, now you are all ready for prayer, you get on the rug, and you say the Takbeer and start. You say everything right, but you have a persistent doubt that you messed up on some word during Sura Fatiha, so you start over. Then you start doubting whether your Wudhu is still valid, and then you think you missed something in the Salat, and so on.

We can see how this can really mess a person up, leading to constant anxiety and needless worry that although should be ignored, the person really has little control over it. So let us look at the above scenario and see how we can help that person rid himself of his obsessions.

In the Context of Islamic Jurisprudence

The Resalah (manual of Islamic laws) of every Religious Authority contains within it a section on Kathir al-Shak, i.e. a person who doubts too much. Please refer to your own Marja Taqleed for specific rulings on the matter.

Treatment Options

There are many professionals who can assist in various behavioral therapies and cognitive treatments. There are also medications that can be taken, such as a group of drugs called “selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors”.

But the first step in treating the obsessions and compulsions is within your own self. You have to have the will to work very hard in getting yourself treated, and although you probably will never be completely cured, you can greatly improve your quality of life. If you have a serious case of OCD, whether or not it’s affecting your religious duties, you should visit your family physician and explain your symptoms and get advice from your doctor as to what the next steps should be. I know from personal experience that this affliction is very hard on a person, because all day long you are busy touching things, counting things, cleaning things, and it becomes mentally exhausting. If you don’t pay attention to the obsessions, it leads to anxiety and panic, and thus the cycle continues.

Like we mentioned, many great treatment options are available, and a lot of religious leeway is given for people with this affliction. If you have further questions, you can refer to your physician.

About Arsalan Rizvi

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