A Sickness Called Fear
  • Thu, 01/01/2004
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by: Sheikh Salman al-Oadah

There are certain types of fear that are extreme and that can even be described as a sickness. We are not talking here about the fear of Allah, but about fear as a sensation and an emotion when it gets out of hand. We shall focus in this article on two types of neurotic fear: timidity and anxiety.

Timidity

Timidity results from a lack of self-confidence. It manifests itself as a feeling of confusion and nervous apprehension when having to face important or unfamiliar people. When a person suffers from this feeling, his mouth becomes dry, his tongue becomes tied, and when he tries to speak, he says things he does not mean to say.

Al-Dhahabî, in his monumental biographical work entitles Siyar A`lâm al-Nubalâ’, records the following remarkable story about someone’s meeting with a prime minister. One day, Ibn al-Jassâs called upon the Prime Minister Ibn al-Furât. He was carrying with him some camphor. At the same time, Ibn al-Jassâs felt the need to spit. He intended to hand the camphor to the Prime Minister and spit in the Tigris River.

Instead, when he approached the Prime Minister, he spat in his face and tossed the camphor in the river. The Prime Minister was taken aback. Ibn al-Jassâs became frightened and bewildered and blurted out: “I swear by Allah Almighty! I made a mistake and did the wrong thing. I had intended to spit in your face and throw the camphor in the Tigris!”

The Prime Minister replied: “But that is exactly what you have done, you ignorant person.”

As a result of his timidity and anxiety, Ibn al-Jassâs got confused in both his actions and his words.

Such a situation may be highly unusual. However, there are common problems that timidity can cause for anybody. Timidity can cause a student not to participate in class. Even if he knows the answer to a question posed by the teacher, he cannot muster up the confidence to say it out loud. When this student has a problem with something he does not understand, he is too timid to ask the teacher about it.

The same timidity is what prevents a person from speaking in the mosque, giving lectures, or leading the prayer. It makes him overly anxious that he will make a mistake. If he attempts something and makes the slightest mistake in front of people, it finishes him off entirely. He never forgets his little mistake and sees it before his eyes whenever he has to face the public again. That little mistake becomes the death of all his natural talents and his dreams.

Timidity makes it so that a person cannot advise others and guide them. He can see someone committing an error right in front of his face, but he cannot find the will to tell that person about it. Though he may know all the evidence needed to prove that what the other person is doing is wrong, his knowledge is of no avail to him. His lack of self-confidence makes him too timid to advise anyone, even someone his own age or younger than himself.

Timidity prevents a person from being able to negotiate properly when buying and selling so he cannot bargain with others and get a fair price.

Timidity makes a parent unable to refuse the wishes of his children. Even if his children want something that he knows is bad for them or un-Islamic, he gives in to their wishes. He simply does not know how to say “no”.

Other people can easily take advantage of a timid person and manipulate him do or say whatever they want, since the timid person does not have the assertiveness to refuse or to object.

A timid person feels that the spotlight is always on him and that everyone is looking at him. If someone smiles at him, he thinks that person is laughing at him. When he sees two people gossiping, he assumes that he is the topic of their conversation. He is overly sensitive and unable to handle anything difficult or serious.

These are but a few examples of the problems caused by timidity. Happily, there are ways by which timidity can be overcome.

1. Practice

If a person puts himself repeatedly into certain situations, he can overcome his fears that are associated with them. For example, if he fears public speaking, he can accustom himself to it by offering a short word at home. Soon, he will be able to present a little speech to his friends in his study circle. He can then start giving lessons at the local mosque. In this way, he will lose his shyness of public speaking.

If you were to go to some of the world’s most famous public speakers and orators – people to whom others throng to hear them speak – and ask them how they got started, you will find that in most cases they had initially been quite frightened to speak. However, they did not let their stage fright stop them and they forced themselves to speak the first and second time. They did not let their small mistakes get the best of them. Some of them even went on later to speak about their nervousness so they could set a positive example for others.

2. Taking matters step by step

A person should take things gradually. When it comes to public speaking for instance, a person might start off reading from a book. For many people, reading from a book removes their fear altogether.

The next step is to compose a speech on one’s own and write it out fully. Reading one’s own speech is one step ahead of reading someone else’s words from a book.

Soon, the person will only have to jot down his main ideas on a piece of paper along with a few supporting details. This will be enough for him to be able to stand before others and deliver his speech.

Ultimately, he will be able to stand up in public and give an entire speech from his heart, relying solely upon his memory.

In the same way, a person can gradually increase the seriousness of his subject matter and the size of his audience.

3. Observing others and their mistakes

Observing others can show a person how to conduct himself. For instance, a student observes his classmate giving a speech in front of the class. That classmate makes a mistake and all of the other students laugh. He laughs along with them. When he finishes his speech, he sits down in his seat normally like nothing happened. He is fully prepared to try again the next day.

The student who observes this behavior in his classmate can ask himself: Why can’t I be like him?

By looking at others and their mistakes, a person can acquire the confidence that he needs to overcome his own inhibitions.

4. Keeping things in perspective

A timid person perceives others as seeing him in a certain way. This can even be the cause of his timidity. If he only realizes that people are not all that concerned with him, it will make things much easier for him. If he makes a mistake, they will no doubt talk about it. However, just as soon they will forget all about it and the matter will be over and done with. They will never talk about his mistake again. Within a week, he should be able to get up and speak to them again without any problem.

Even if the speaker stumbles over his words a little bit or stammers, his audience may not even notice it. It is often the case that they think the speaker delivered his speech in the best possible manner. This is something well established by experience.

People in the audience are not privy to the inner thoughts and feelings of the speaker. They cannot always detect the speaker’s nervousness. However, if the speaker feels that his audience senses he is nervous, this makes him even more nervous and he becomes a weaker speaker as a result.

Anxiety

Anxiety is a sickness where a person’s fears and worries become distorted and magnified. Anxiety comes as a result of fearing or expecting that something bad is going to happen in the future. It can manifest itself in many ways.

A. Anxiety about death

Fear of death in and of itself is not a sickness. In fact, if it leads someone to increase his good works and to hasten to do virtuous deeds, then a person’s fear of death can actually be something praiseworthy. However, when a person obsesses about death all the time, when he is eating, drinking, at work, and upon going to sleep, it becomes a sickness.

We must keep in mind that fear of death, taken on its own, is not something praiseworthy. Ibn al-Qayyim recognizes this point when he writes in Zâd al-Ma`âd:

Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) did not focus in his sermons on the inevitability of death and on the trials associated with it. He did not focus much on the experiences of the bodies in their graves and other similar topics.

Instead, he focused on greater matters, like encouraging the acquisition of useful knowledge, engaging in good works, being guided, and teaching the religion of truth.

Ibn al-Qayyim then turns his attention to the orators and preachers of more recent times who memorized some formulas while forgetting their real meanings. He mentions how many of them began to speak excessively about death and to focus on topics like how the worms consume our corpses when we die. This inspires in the hearts of the listeners a harmful fear of death, not a positive fear that encourages virtue and inspires people to hasten in performing good deeds.

Death is something a believer can sometimes look forward to. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “Whoever loves to meet Allah, Allah loves to meet him, and whoever hates to meet Allah, Allah hates to meet him.”

B. Anxiety about sickness

Some people are afflicted with an inordinate fear of falling ill. If such people experience the slightest headache, they fear that it is a brain hemorrhage. They imagine that every stomach pain is a kidney failure. They are constantly worried about contracting a serious illness.

Such a fear of sickness is a sickness in itself. Indeed, it can be far more serious than the dreaded physical ailments.

There have been confirmed instances where people have supposedly died of the plague, but when an autopsy was carried out, it was found that their bodies were completely free of infection. It was the severity of their fear of the plague that induced within them plague-like symptoms and ultimately death.

C. Anxiety about failure

Many people are unable to engage in study or in gainful employment or in business or in calling people to Islam because of their fear of failure.
A mild fear of failure can inspire a person to study and plan his work so he can successfully achieve his goals. It causes a person to go for necessary consultations and to refrain from undue haste.

However, when this fear grows to a degree where it becomes a sickness, it becomes constrictive and prevents the person from going forward. Such fear is definitely a sickness that needs to be treated and cured.

D. Anxiety about responsibility

There are people who loathe responsibility. They postpone marriage because they do not want to be responsible for a family. They shun the responsibility of steady employment. They do not want to be responsible for students so they pass up an opportunity to teach. They do not want to assume the responsibility of having to deal with anyone.

E. Anxiety about having to think for oneself

There are many people who fear having to think about matters. They are frightened by having to solve problems. They always see things in a superficial way, since they are uneasy about investigating matters to any depth. If such a person reads a book, he never reflects upon what he reads. He does not think about its arguments or the information it provides. He does not try to determine if its conclusions are correct or if its arguments are supported by sound evidence. He does not worry about whether the claims it makes are factual or mere speculations, nor care about whether the author discusses the matter in sufficient detail.

Such a person is content with passively accepting whatever he reads. He accepts uncritically whatever a particular person, group, school, or family member tells him without bothering to look into matters for himself.