Practice, Spirituality

The philosophy of crying in Islamic thought

Once the eyes start welling up or, God forbid, a tear rolls down one’s cheek, you are not a strong person anymore. Crying, particularly amongst men, is commonly viewed as a sign of weakness in several cultures. Why is this, when it is a natural physical reaction and the first thing we do as babies as we enter the world? In this article we will attempt to examine what Islam, through the teachings of the Quran and the Ahlulbayt (peace be upon them), says about crying.

In certain areas, Islam does not conform to the status quo and crying is one of these areas. It is, therefore, refreshing to see something like the Man-Up Campaign being promoted recently, as it links to the Islamic view on crying.

Whilst common custom is to criticise, defame and mock people who cry for their lack of strength, Islam elevates the person who cries to the highest status. If anything, one of the signs of the pinnacle of a human being is their ability to cry. This is why Prophet Muhammad said: “Verily, tears are a mercy that God has placed in the essence of His servants”.

Frowning at a person crying, therefore, is mocking one of the blessings of God. This is why Imam Ali, in his final will explains how a lack of tears is a “sign of misfortune”. When one examines these nuggets of wisdom, it is evident that we should be thankful towards God that we have it within us to actually shed a tear. If we lack this capacity, we must re-examine ourselves to see why God has not granted us this favour. Crying is clearly a positive attribute as opposed to a negative one.

From a spiritual and ethical point of view, many argue that the root cause of most wrong actions is due to a hard heart, something Islamic literature has vast teachings on. Suffering this spiritual ailment kills the compassion of the human where he/she will not have sympathy nor the ability to listen to one’s innate moral compass. Disobeying God’s laws is the obvious way to regress into this state but, on another surface, this can be caused by allowing the ‘self’ to take command of us. In other words, arrogance causes a hard heart that is unable to shed tears. Prophet Muhammad explains in the Quran:

“Surely, those who were given knowledge before it, when it is read unto them, fall down and prostrate on their faces in reverence, saying: ‘Glory to our Lord! Verily, the promise of our Lord must be fulfilled. They fall down on their faces, weeping, and it increases humility in them.’” (The Holy Quran 17:107-109)

The Messenger says regarding this verse: “He who has been given knowledge that does not make him weep has not been given knowledge that will benefit him. Whoever can weep, let him weep, and whoever cannot should fill his heart with sorrow and feign weeping. Surely, the hard heart is far from God, but you do not feel.” This highlights that one of the signs of someone who has a soft-heart is the ability to cry when they receive wisdom and an enlightening truth. There are several occasions where the human reads something or converses with someone which causes their eyes to water. When this happens, why is it that we think of such a reaction as odd? The Quran and the Prophet Muhammad clearly tell us that weeping is a virtuous act when receiving knowledge. It is a sign of humility that you are able to shed a tear in the face of a spiritual truth.

Furthermore, the hardness of the heart can also be seen in the issue of repentance; someone in this state will not have the capacity to speak to God and shed tears in front of Him since they have lost the quality of reciprocal love and affection. Once again, the arrogance does not allow the tears to flow. In the etiquette of conversing with Allah, the Ahlulbayt have shown shedding tears to be amongst a common trait of theirs, since they humble themselves and realise who they are speaking to. An arrogant heart cannot do this.

Tears show devotion to God and such devotion elevates the intellect and soul to a higher degree. In Dua Kumayl, a supplication by Imam Ali, he speaks to God and asks Him: “For which of them (my affairs) should I lament and weep?” When speaking to God, Imam Ali is encouraging us to pour our hearts out in confession to the one who will listen to our affairs since He loves to hear from us. This is why towards the end of the supplication, Imam Ali describes tears as an object of strength rather than weakness: “Have mercy on one whose only capital is hope and whose weapon is tears.” The shedding of tears is a powerful weapon that opens the door to God’s mercy and benevolence. If it is such a precious weapon, and the only weapon we have, then why such a stigma attached to it? Isn’t a weapon used to protect us?

However, when it comes to shedding tears, the greatest spiritual act through this means comes from weeping for the tragedies of the Ahlulbayt but in particular for Imam Hussain . There is no doubt about this. Crying for the tragedy of Karbala is a natural reaction to someone who has a heart that is alive. That said, English historian, Edward Gibbon makes a bold claim and says the story of Imam Hussain “will awaken the sympathy of the coldest reader.” Even those whose hearts are hard, therefore, can be resurrected by connecting to Karbala. The resurrection of the heart and purification of the soul through shedding tears for the Master of Martyrs can only be a beneficial thing since it opens the door to crying for other matters in front of God.

Imam Zainul Abideen was once asked why he cried so much after witnessing what happened in Karbala. His response was beautiful: “Do not blame me, because when Jacob lost one of his children (Joseph), he cried so much that his eyes became white, and yet he knew that his child was alive and had not died. But I saw fourteen of my family members slaughtered in one morning. Do you want the sorrow and pain which I feel for them to leave my heart?” He shows us that it is natural for humans to cry and this crying should not be suppressed.

The key figures and texts of just about every religion discuss crying as a positive attribute, from Buddha to Guru Nanak to the Abrahamic prophets. If these magnanimous figures in human history cried, there is no doubt it can only be a good thing. Hence it is time we shift our way of thinking and look at crying as a virtue rather than an illness. Next time a person cries in front of you, embrace them, encourage them and do not make them feel weak for doing so. According to Islam, a religion that nurtures our intrinsic human nature, crying is a sign of humility, enlightenment and a soft heart. Not valuing this highly spiritual act is opposing these Godly values.

It is only fitting that we end with the famous supplication of Imam Jafar Sadiq, where he asks God for mercy on the people who shows grief for the Ahlulbayt:

“Have mercy on those eyes which shed tears on us with sympathy.
Have mercy on those hearts which have grieved impatiently and distressed, and burned for us.
Have mercy on the wailing, screams that were for us.”

Head of Religious Education, Philosophy & Theology / Secondary School Teacher / Philosophy Graduate / London

1 Comment

  1. Hello and thank you for this systematic and well-explained article. I am personally not a Muslim but I live and work in the Middle East with an organization that helps Syrian refugee women with food, clothing, health education and psychological support. We aim to show benevolence without disrespecting the worldview or religious beliefs of the Syrian women (most are Muslim). As you can imagine, these women have experienced terrible trauma and the crying that they do is usually related to clinical depression and/or PTSD. Your article focused on the religious benefits of crying in relation to pondering spiritual topics, but does the Islamic faith likewise view emotional distress from earthly traumas to be beneficial? I understand that one of the key features of Islamic theodicy (explanation of the existence of evil and suffering) is that earthly suffering spiritually cleanses the believer in a way that is somehow beneficial to them in the hereafter. In your view, where does psychological intervention fit in the Islamic worldview? I am interested in respecting the religious views of these women while improving their quality of life. However, I have noticed that a great many of them lapse into an attitude of acceptance to the point of not availing themselves of available services that would improve their situations — such as free contraceptives, free counseling, medical testing, and health education. Is this because they view suffering as beneficial or because they view sorrow/crying/depression from earthly problems as virtuous in and of themselves? Thank you for your perspective and I hope I have not offended any Muslims by my question.

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