Anger Management. Surah al-Maidah
Updated: May 31
A very important incident from Surah al-Maidah has a profound lesson for all of us. Verse number 32 of Surah al-Maidah says: “Relate to them, the true story of the two sons of Adam. When they both presented an offering, it was accepted from one of them and not from the other. The latter said, ‘I shall kill you!’ The former said, ‘God accepts [things] only from the righteous. If you raise your hand to kill me, I will not raise mine to kill you. I fear God, the Lord of the Universe.’” (5:27)
This incident is about Adam’s two sons Cain and Abel. When a difference arose between them, Cain killed Abel and the latter did not retaliate. This is not simply an incident that once happened between two brothers. It gives us a universal principle of sublime character. Every verse of the Quran has two aspects: first, its primary connotation and second, its extended application. In the literal sense, the above incident may have happened only once in history – the story of being killed without any attempt to fight against the killer. But there is also an extended application of this Quranic verse – that is, in terms of spirit, it gives us a high moral value, which is relevant for every individual as well as for every group at all times.
What is the eternal spirit of this behaviour? It is positive attitude in spite of negative behaviour. Life is full of problems and differences. In such a situation, every time you have to make an option between two kinds of behaviour: negative behaviour in response to negative behaviour or positive behaviour in response to negative behaviour. Abel’s culture is to opt for the second kind of behaviour, that is, positivity in response to negative behaviour from the other party or adhere to peace even in the midst of non-peace. In this sense, this Quranic verse gives us a great principle for success that is applicable everywhere for all times.
This is not a simple matter. Two questions arise here. First, why at all should you be positive? When someone makes you angry, you are outraged, the fire of vengeance burns inside you, you seek to give a befitting reply, even turn violent at times. So being positive is counter-intuitive. It goes against your natural way of thinking. Why at all should we do so? The reason is that we are doing it for our own sake. This is the most powerful incentive to be positive. If you are negative, your mind will become a jungle of negative thoughts, tension and stress. You will become less efficient – ruin your own health and become unfocused. If you are positive, you will retain your normalcy, focus and continue your work unaffected.
The second question is who can be positive in the first place? What does it reflect about your personality or your way of thinking? One short emotional outburst is all that is needed for violence to be indulged in, unlike peaceful action, which requires serious thought to be given to it. Adopting a peaceful course of action is possible only when there is a very strong justification for peace. While violence is instinctive, peace calls for strict mental discipline and self-control to be exercised. Staying peaceful requires a reason or rationale, a principle that holds you back. This is what truly makes you a human who is capable of serious thinking. Being peaceful is not cowardice, it is the ultimate demonstration of being a purposeful person, driven by a cause which you do not want to be jeopardized by involving yourself now and then in fights, quarrels and disputes. You will avoid all such situations for the sake of your purpose.
Second, we must see the whole matter from Cain’s perspective. The Quran says that he regretted his action of having killed his brother. Clearly, anger makes you do things for which you feel remorse. If you think in retrospect, you lament being angry and taking wrong steps.
How to deal with anger? How to understand anger?
We must understand the neuroscience of anger. The amygdala is the subcortical region of the brain. It is the more emotional and reactive part of the brain. The pre-frontal cortex represents the wise, rational part of your brain. When you are angry, instantly you lose contact with the rational pre-frontal cortex and instead the reactive amygdala hijacks your brain. In essence you have put your 4-year old self in the drivers' seat. This is indeed very dangerous.
How do we get the adult back in the drivers' seat? This is where spirituality, thinking and deliberation come in. Research shows that mindfulness practices support the growth of fibres from the pre-frontal cortex to the lower regions of the brain. This helps in bringing the wiser brain to come online when anger is present.
The Prophet has said whoever is silent, finds salvation. This also means we need to become silent especially when we are angry. We must pause and take a deep breath or drink water. This allows you to come back to a relaxed state. When you notice anger, tensions, first practice slowing things down by taking deep breaths. The Quran says that true believers practice forgiveness and compassion when they are angry. Research on compassion shows that it can decrease cortisol levels, the stress hormone, and increase the feel good hormone oxytocin.
Most importantly, we need to understand that anger is a form of energy. We need to channelize this anger energy. This is released only when you are provoked. In normal times this energy does not get unleashed. This ‘anger energy’ is thus precious and should be diverted to the rational part of your brain and not the emotional part of your brain. We should use it for constructive purposes and not destructive purposes.
An example from scientific history is very pertinent here. Neils Bohr’s, one of the founders of quantum mechanics proposed his atomic model based on quantum physics. This model was challenged by the brilliant Albert Einstein. Bohr didn’t vent his anger at Einstein. Rather he came out with an argument for every doubt that Einstein presented for Bohr’s model of the atom. This means that anger is very special. We need to learn to make it our ally. We should use it as a constructive, transformative force. We must not use it destructively. Anger inspires action, it helps you see what we had not been seeing before.