Imam Ali recommended patience as a tool for countering anger, as patience increases one’s threshold for tolerance and endurance.
“Don’t be angry – anger is bad!”
Is it? As a famous saying says, anger is not actually bad; anger can be a very positive thing, the thing that moves us beyond the acceptance of evil. Is it possible to witness oppression and injustice, cruelty and dictatorship, prejudice and repression – whether it is in our own communities or anywhere else in the world – and not feel angry? Is it fine to be indifferent to the mass murder and suffering of the people of Palestine, Afghanistan, Sudan or Yemen, to community leaders behaving unjustly, to attacks on Islam, or to rights being usurped?
Such situations not only warrant our anger, they necessitate it. Imam Khomeini mentions in his Forty Hadith that it is the power of anger which plays a great role in the establishment and maintenance of social order and civic life. If it weren’t for the power of anger, we would certainly be falling prey to continual subjugation and paving the way for destruction to disseminate.
Although a true believer’s anger is fi sabeel Allah, we find our anger is not always purely for the sake of Allah, and this is where the selfish ego tends to dominate. It is this type of anger that our Prophets and Imams (peace be upon them) have taught us to be mindful of, because such anger (alongside overblown anger) can lead even the best of believers astray. As Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq (peace be upon him) tells us, “Anger destroys faith as vinegar spoils honey.” (Al-Kafi) We have all been angry at some point in our lives, but in order for us to determine whether or not it is justified, we must question: is the felt fury ego-inflated?
We can take a lesson from Imam Ali’s (peace be upon him) fortitude in the Battle of Khandaq (Trench). When Amr bin Abduwad had fallen to the ground and Imam Ali was just about to kill him, Imam suddenly stood up and walked away. When he was later asked why he acted this way, he replied, “At that moment where I was just about to strike Amr with my sword, he spat on my face. Had I killed him in such a condition, it would be because he had angered me. I therefore waited for my anger to subside so that when I went back to strike him, I knew it would be purely for the sake of Allah.” Such was the strength of this sublime personality; he was able to suppress his anger even on the battlefield.
Yet even if egos are unable to be kept aside, it is absolutely critical for anger to be kept within limits. Regardless of whether one is right or wrong, displaying aggressive and hostile behavior during feelings of enragement will help nobody, and more often than not, shouting and creating a furor over a mishandled situation will achieve little (if anything). The Dalai Lama once said, “It is not that I don’t get angry, I do. But I control my anger, it doesn’t control me.” Granted, it takes much strength of mind to implement and maintain such levels of self-discipline, and although most people (including myself) have probably said or done things in the past in a state of anger that were later regretted, it is certainly possible to achieve and worth every ounce of effort.
Why is it that Imam Ali said anger begins with insanity and ends in remorse? In studying the physiology of uncontrolled anger, we find our body goes through a complex series of physiological changes including higher blood pressure, increases in heart rate and breathing, and a narrowing attention span such that one can soon take note of nothing else. Neurotransmitters and hormones in the brain trigger high levels of arousal that significantly decrease one’s ability to concentrate, until one’s judgment of reason and conscience is lost. Indeed, Imam Sadiq has said, “Anger destroys the heart of even the wise man; he who cannot control his anger cannot control his mind.” (Al-Kafi) Effectively, such a person is no longer thinking straight, and his/her actions subsequently end in guilt and remorse. The scary thing? It is hard to imagine how quickly all this happens within us.
As a result of this unbalanced mind state, believers hurt their fellow believers, but the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him and his progeny) says, “One who aggrieves a believer but later decides to atone for it by offering the whole world, it will not compensate for the hurt he had caused, and he will also not be rewarded for it (the compensation).” (Mustadrak al-Wasael) Imam as-Sadiq also narrates that Allah says, “One who hurts My believing slave has actually declared war against Me, and one who honors My believing servant remains safe from My anger.” (Al-Kafi)
Anger therefore cultivates major sins. It also leads to hatred and malice. In fact, Imam Khomeini states, “There seems to be no limit to such monstrous acts that man may commit at the time of outbreak of this faith-consuming fire [anger] that also destroys many homes. As such, it can be said that this habit is the mother of all spiritual maladies and the key to each and every evil action.”
In order to cure or shield ourselves from this spiritual malady, we must learn how to control and restrain it by adhering to the teachings of the Prophets and Imams:
Imam Ali recommended patience as a tool for countering anger, as patience increases one’s threshold for tolerance and endurance. He has said, “Anger is a raging fire – he who suppresses it extinguishes the fire, and he who sets it free is the first to burn in it.” (Ghurar al-Hikam)
The Holy Prophet also commanded, “if one of you finds some of this [anger] in himself, if he is standing, he should sit, and if he is sitting, he should lie down. If he is still angry, he should perform ablution with cold water or bath, for fire can only be extinguished with water.” (Ihya al-Ulum)
And Imam Baqir has further advised, “Whoever gets angry with his kinsman, let him approach him and pat him; for the feeling of consanguinity, when stimulated by touch, induces calmness.” (Ibid.)