Most of us experience a broad spectrum of emotions throughout our lives; some of them are so common we talk about them openly with others, such as love, desire, anger and sadness. Others, however, make us so uncomfortable we hardly ever talk about them at all. One such emotion is shame. There is no universal definition for shame, and depending on where you are or what group of people you’re with, how it is expressed and interpreted will differ. Islam defines shame according to whatever acts God deems unlawful (haram) or disliked (makruh). In other words, any behavior that is displeasing to God is what renders it shameful and anyone who engages in such acts should feel a strong sense of shame. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, “If you have no shame, do as you wish.” For this reason Islam encourages people to adhere to living modestly in every aspect of life, such as in one’s speech, dress, and manners. Understanding shame and modesty as practical behaviors may be easy for the average Muslim, but most of us are unaware of the damaging effects that shame, as an emotion, can have on our personal development, relationships, and social behavior.
According to Dr. Harriet Lerner, author of “The Dance of Anger,” and “The Dance of Fear,” shame is one of the most debilitating of all human emotions because it is hidden underneath several other emotions such as fear, anger, and anxiety and becomes difficult to talk about. This is often a result of a lifetime of being shamed by others. People may make what they perceive to be “helpful” comments about our weight, hair, and appearance but by doing so they not only expose our vulnerabilities but often cause us to suppress our feelings and hide behind our shame. In many ways, this can hinder our individual development and promote a very shattered self image. Unresolved shame can lead to eating disorders, weight problems, addictions and obsessions, anxiety disorders, and depression.
Collectively, as a society, we need to become more cognizant of how we speak to others. As parents, children, siblings, friends, co-workers, etc., we have an incredible power to seriously hurt and damage our loved ones if we do not reflect on the power of our words. By using descriptors that are shaming, we silence and suppress the people in our lives which can potentially cause a lifetime of devastating pain. Being gentle in our interaction with others, especially when we are advising them is necessary in maintaining healthy relationships.
For many Muslims, when it comes to social protocol, it’s simply confusing trying to distinguish between “cultural” and “Islamic” shame. For example, some people in the Muslim community feel it is shameful to discuss private or personal issues with another person even if they are a therapist, scholar, or a teacher. Contrastingly, in the early days of Islam, both men and women had direct access to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and would often ask very personal questions. Aisha, the wife of the Prophet (peace be upon him) narrated that once an Ansari woman asked the Prophet (peace be upon him) how to take a bath after finishing from the menses and he replied directly to her.It’s hard to imagine such an exchange ever taking place in a mosque today!
Moreover, confusion about shame can often lead to much bigger problems. When someone’s skewed understanding of or unresolved shame paralyzes them into silence and overshadows their basic instinct of self-preservation then major issues like domestic violence, substance abuse, marital discord and/or depression are kept secret and go untreated. The best way to heal shame is to begin talking about it with an objective individual, such as a therapist or a Muslim scholar/counselor, where your information is kept confidential and you are provided a safe opportunity to work through the shame.
As Muslims, we need to reaffirm our understanding of what is truly shameful; that which is displeasing to God. Being judgmental and hurtful towards others with our language is no doubt displeasing to God. Again, we are reminded by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) that, “Whoever believes in God and the Last Day should speak a good word or remain silent.” We need to show restraint in the way we judge others and remember to be kind and gentle as we are reminded to do so in the Prophetic tradition, “O ‘Aisha! God is kind and lenient and likes that one should be kind and lenient in all matters.” Above all, we need to remind ourselves as well as others that there is no shame when it comes to our mental well-being or our safety and the safety of our loved ones. If you or anyone you know is being silenced by “shame,” please seek help. A starting place could be learning more about your shame. There have been many wonderful books written on the subject of healing from shame. Additionally, many mosques and Islamic centers have social service departments and can provide additional resources .