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How to Manage Religious OCD: An Islamic Perspective

Religious obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a kind of OCD characterised by a preoccupation with spiritual phobias. It is also known as scrupulosity or spiritual OCD.

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Religious obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a kind of OCD characterised by a preoccupation with spiritual phobias. It is also known as scrupulosity or spiritual OCD.

The American Psychiatric Association defines OCD as “a disorder in which people have recurring, unwanted thoughts, ideas or sensations (obsessions) that make them feel driven to do something repetitively (compulsions).”

Around 2% of the global population has this mental disorder. It has been studied that women are more at risk of suffering from OCD than men – while some studies revealed that men have more chances of having OCD in their childhood or adolescence than women in their twenties

Religious obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a kind of OCD characterised by a preoccupation with spiritual phobias. It is also known as scrupulosity or spiritual OCD.

As the name implies, those who suffer from religious OCD are preoccupied with irrational fears and rituals related to their religious or moral convictions. The symptoms of intrusive religious thoughts and compulsions include obsessive religious concerns and fears, unwanted blasphemous ideas and pictures, compulsive religious rituals, seeking confirmation, and avoidance. Other symptoms include obsessive blasphemous thoughts and images.

Individuals with religious OCD also have a deep fear and dread of the divine. Even non-religious individuals can be scrupulous because of fear of moral compromise or upsetting others. Those who suffer from religious OCD often have a twisted perception of God or a moral authority figure. They worry that they will be punished in some way, either here or in the afterlife, for their unwanted “blasphemous” thoughts. A few examples of obsessive religious compulsiveness (or scrupulosity) are:

  • Fear of lacking sufficient faith
  • The concern of ending up in hell
  • The concern of becoming sick from eating contaminated food
  • Anxiety over committing a sin
  • Unsolicited sexual or otherwise improper thoughts towards religious leaders or God
  • Rituals include compulsive cleaning, praying, combating unwanted thoughts, frequenting the mosque, etc.
  • Asking people if you acted properly
  • Conducting repeated analyses of behaviour
  • Excessive apologies or requests for pardon from God
  • Reading, studying, or contemplating religious works, books, or materials to an excessive degree
  • And many more different obsessions about oneself, parents, children, siblings, relatives, friends, religion, God, Prophets, and other religious figures

According to Islam, waswasah (unwanted thoughts) is a normal human occurrence. Nevertheless, waswasah that is severe or overpowering beyond the typical human experience is referred to as waswas al-qahri, and a person who experiences waswas al-qahri may have a mental condition if their thoughts impair their everyday life.

It is considered that waswas al-qahri better satisfies the requirements for scrupulosity, a disorder that affects individuals of all faiths and needs not only a therapist but also a person with a theological understanding of Islamic knowledge on faith and worship.

There is a method for diagnosing waswas al-qahri (OCD). A person with this disorder can either self-diagnose or get confirmation from a doctor or Imam that they have this condition.

There are three frequent forms of extreme waswasah: ibadah (worship), taharah (purification), and aqeedah (faith). Waswasah relating to ibadah affects patients who believe they are doing obligatory acts of worship improperly, which might imply that they are not upholding the fundamentals of their faith, rendering them subject to Allah’s punishment.

Many individuals with waswas al-qahri about taharah have an unreasonable fear of being contaminated by impure substances or performing wudu wrongly, thinking that awful things would occur if they do not clean themselves properly.

In Islam, Aqeedah refers to unwavering faith in the religion or doctrine. There are doctrines that are universally acknowledged. Waswas al-qahri in aqeedah is characterised by intrusive religious-related thoughts and uncertainties.

Treatments

Imams with Clinicians

Waswas al-qahri (OCD) needs both a clinician who is a specialist in the illness and the collaboration of an imam or a person with specialised understanding of Islamic knowledge about belief, worship, and Wasawas (unwanted thoughts).

Imams are known to be able to assist patients with religious OCD. Patients sometimes have unpleasant, offensive, and blasphemous thoughts about religion, and the Imam may provide them with great guidance in this regard. The Imam’s initial action will be to reassure the patients that this is not their fault and is instead the devil’s whisper or a medical condition. The Imam also needs to provide them counsel on “how to deal with repetitive blasphemous thoughts” in relation to religious matters.

In his book “Brain Lock,” Jeffrey Schwartz described OCD as a “Devilish” condition. I have personally seen how Muftis and Maulanas benefited a few of my friends who have been diagnosed with OCD (with religious themes).

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

CBT is a form of psychotherapy that teaches individuals how to recognise and alter harmful or distressing thinking patterns that negatively affect their behaviour and emotions. 

Imams can play an integral role in helping the therapist address cognitive distortions of a client related to religion. It can be done by explaining the meaning and implications of the Quran and Prophetic traditions. The majority of individuals with religious OCD lack the necessary Islamic knowledge, a factor that also contributes to their religious OCD.

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Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy

Commonly referred to as ERP, this therapy encourages the patient to face his or her fears and let their obsessive thoughts flow without trying to “correct” them or “neutralise” them with compulsions.

ERP is consistent with the Islamic approach of waswas al-qahri. In many areas of the globe, ERP is the standard treatment.

Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT)

It has been proven that ACT, a type of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, can be highly effective in alleviating the symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

During this process, clients are able to accept their thoughts and emotions without judging or labeling them.

Culturally-Spiritually Competent Therapist

This may help patients with OCD learn to reduce their specific and generalised fears, but must be cautious about emphasizing that they are not endorsing the blasphemous thought.

Practice Self-Care

In the management of religious scrupulosity, practicing self-care is important. The more you practice kindness to yourself, the more relaxed you feel.

Do not be harsh on yourself for having unwanted thoughts. Engage yourself in activities that are good for your minds such as physical exercises, meditation, spending time with your loved ones, and pursuing your hobbies and interests.

Always keep in mind that managing religious scrupulosity takes time and effort. Be patient with yourself and seek professional support immediately when you need it.


References

apps.who.int. “Lexicon of Psychiatric and Mental Health Terms,” n.d. 

PubMed. “Epidemiology of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: A World View,” 1997. 

“OCD More Common among Women vs. Men,” July 2, 2020. 

Greenberg, William M, MD. “Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: Practice Essentials, Background, Pathophysiology,” n.d.

Najwa Awad, “Clinicians, Imams, and the Whisperings of Satan | Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research,” Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research, January 19, 2023

Cherry, Kendra. 2022. “What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)?” Verywell Mind. August 10, 2022. 

“What Is Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP)? | OCD-UK.” n.d. Ocduk.Org. 

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