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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

What is cognitive dissonance and how does it develop among Muslims?

This article was inspired, edited and enriched by Arssal Shahabuddin.

            Shattered glass 2

A famous experiment was conducted in the 1950’s that involved several social scientists infiltrating a doomsday cult by enlisting themselves as fellow doomsday members. The message of this particular cult was simple: the world will come to an end on December 21st, 1954.

Thus, hiding in plain sight, the social scientists covertly investigated a simple, but undoubtedly interesting, phenomenon: what would happen if, on that very day, the world remained as it was?

What do you think happened? Perhaps you believe, in the face of excruciating evidence - i.e. everyone is still alive - people would just leave their humble doomsday temple never to return? If the entire cult’s philosophy revolved around earth’s destruction on a particular day, and it didn’t happen, then perhaps it’s time to pack your bags and look up some other doomsday cult or at least re-evaluate your beliefs, right? Actually, if people were so simple, I would’ve never started this blog.

Instead, what actually happened was quite surprising indeed: the doomsday members became ever more adamant in their convictions. In fact, the leader congratulated everyone, and explained that the whole world was spared as a result of their faith. Thus, nothing actually changed; well, nothing besides the fact that many people left their jobs and gave away all their possessions beforehand. They did however gain something with all that sacrifice: a hard-hitting dose of cognitive dissonance.

What is cognitive dissonance?

Cognitive dissonance is a very interesting phenomenon; it’s the feeling of discomfort that arises when you hold two (or more) conflicting thoughts/beliefs/convictions. To put it briefly, it generally arises when your actions directly contradict your beliefs and it most certainly underlines the conflict you experience when reality opposes what you accept as true. In the example I mentioned above, a massive amount of cognitive dissonance would have kicked in the moment the cult members realize they quit their jobs in the wake of an apocalypse that never was.

Cognitive dissonance is a very powerful feeling because nobody likes to face a reality that directly contradicts their worldview, regardless of how ‘objective’ or ‘rational’ they claim to be. In this post, I’ll briefly illustrate just how relevant cognitive dissonance is to Muslims today, by discussing two separate examples as to why it’s so significant. Please note that the roots of a Muslim’s cognitive dissonance can be many, and thus it’s impossible to review them all as everyone has a unique developmental history.  In my experience however, it seems that the overwhelming majority of cognitive dissonance I’ve observed among Muslims can be attributed to 1) theological misunderstanding and 2) psychological issues. Furthermore, it’s beyond the scope of this article to discuss the rationalization process involved in fixing the cognitive dissonance. Unfortunately, this means we won’t be touching upon why the doomsday members remarkably decided to remain in the cult once the apocalypse failed to happen, however this makes a good topic for another article inshAllah.

Example 1: Unattainable perfection

“Why do I keep sinning? Why can’t I completely focus on Allah in my acts of worship?”

These types of questions implicate a conflict between the conviction that true faith requires 100% sincerity, and the reality that we are sinful and forgetful creatures by nature. Indeed, this sort of dissonance appears quite often amongst Muslims (often those who are newly practicing, but not always). Essentially, some Muslims erroneously believe that faith is an all-or-nothing phenomenon, and that by sinning, one is undoubtedly a terrible Muslim. Such individuals often express statements along the lines of “If I was truly a Muslim, or if I truly believed, I wouldn’t be committing the same sin over and over again.” Other Muslims may not attribute their faults to sins, but instead evaluate their focus during prayer as a benchmark of their sincerity towards Allah. Here, again, some brothers or sisters find it difficult to acknowledge the moments they lose their concentration, and they become distressed for not being flawless. You’ll notice that both examples significantly emphasize perfection; either you’re perfect, or you’re not. Of course, nobody’s perfect, hence the cognitive dissonance can become so severe, that some people will begin interpreting their ‘non-perfection’ as a fundamental flaw in their faith, and may even begin to gravitate towards letting go of Islam all-together as to avoid the anxiety being a ‘perfect Muslim’ necessitates.  Indeed, we sometimes exacerbate this issue by turning our primary examples, the Prophet’s companions, into superhuman models of devoted worshippers. The fact remains they were real people with real issues – like us – as has been recorded in our hadith literature: spousal abuse, alcoholism, concerned with money, feeling insecure in living up to Islamic ideals, and sexual temptations, just to name a few.  They don’t seem much more different than us now, do they?

Two causes may be implicated in this cognitive dissonance (please bare in mind that these are theoretical assumptions, and may not necessarily reflect your experiences). The first is the misunderstanding that a Muslim is expected to be perfect. Ironically, if that were the case, we would undeniably be angels or pre-programmed robots, thereby destroying the significance of our “humanity.” In fact, the Prophet Mohamed (salAllah alaihi wa salam)  tells us: “I swear by Him in whose hand is my soul, if you were a people who did not commit sin, Allah would take you away and replace you with a people who would sin and then seek Allah’s forgiveness so He could forgive them.” [SahÄ«h Muslim (2687)]. Thus, a Muslim’s purpose isn’t perfection – it’s redemption. Secondly, there is quite a psychological significance to the need of ‘perfection.’ Notice here I didn’t use the words ‘excel’ or ‘be the best,’ for both of those can still be associated with flaws. Another possibility may not be a result of misinformation or desiring perfection, but rather when an individual’s bad habits clash with their correct understanding of an Islamic framework. An obvious example of this is addiction (to smoking, alcohol, pornography, etc.); the person finds it excruciatingly difficult to refrain from committing sins, and thus experiences an incredible dissonance regarding their actions and their faith.

Example 2: Unjustified difficulties

“Why won’t I heal? Why am I not getting married?”

The conflict here is the following: “I’m a good Muslim, so why is Allah putting me through this difficult trial?” The trial in this sense can refer to almost anything: not finding a husband/wife, divorce, illness, death of a loved one, mental health concerns, not finding a job, lacking funds, etc. They’re the sort of trials that are difficult to bare and necessitate an outstanding amount of patience, usually because their remedy is – to an extent – beyond our control. However, a challenging trial doesn’t automatically generate cognitive dissonance; no, the cognitive dissonance arises when an individual see themselves as undeserving of the trial - a “good Muslim” in our example. In other words, they believe that by virtue of all the good they’ve aspired to do according to the Quran, Sunnah, or whatever moral framework they’ve personally adopted, they’re somehow immune to such dramatic tests because, essentially, they’re righteous lives don’t deserve them. “Why have I been diagnosed with cancer? I pray and I fast and I stay away from haram!” or “Why am I not getting married? I put on hijab every day, and I see countless of non-hijabis getting married left and right!” I’ve come across such statements, and many more, from a myriad of different people who ultimately are asking the exact same thing: I’m good, so why is bad happening to me? This is a quintessential example of cognitive dissonance, which can have serious repercussions – i.e. losing faith in God, doing less charitable actions, etc.

The causes, again, could be many. Right off the bat, we can perceive a certain misunderstanding/ignorance in Islamic creed. Without having to indulge ourselves too much with the plethora of Quranic ayat (see Nahl 16:97 for example) and Prophetic ahadith that clearly demonstrate how life’s a test. I will present a single conclusive counter-example: the Prophet Mohamed (salAllah alaihi wa salam) was the most beloved person to Allah, and he was tested like none other. Thus, there are absolutely no theological grounds to assume that being “good” absolves you from being tested. With regards to the psychological dimension, things become a little tricky, and clearly many things depend on the circumstance of the trial (i.e. for marriage, are you doing everything you can to get married, if not, why?). Nevertheless, perhaps we can assume that the type of thought-process outlined above clearly implicates how you deal with stress (from the trial), as well as a certain “quick-fix” attitude that is so common in society today, among other things. I’d rather not speculate too much, as I feel rather unequipped to do so, and I believe this topic makes for a very good discussion.

So what should I do?

Fundamentally, cognitive dissonance in an Islamic sense can generally be attributed to a misunderstanding or miscomprehension. The origins of misunderstanding are plenty, and too numerous to elaborate upon in this post. Nevertheless, let’s entertain two possibilities. The first possibility is entirely a function of misinformation; for whatever reason or another – culture, ignorance, etc. – an individual was incorrectly educated with regards to Islamic theology. This ties in very well with the misconceptions I outlined earlier: faith necessitates flawlessness, and “bad” things don’t happen to good people. Misrepresentation of Islam, in my opinion, appears to be one of the most significant variables involved in the cognitive dissonance of Muslims – especially amongst those who struggle with their faith as a result. If this is the case, then the person would require – at the very least - a re-education of Islam in order to clarify the misconceptions. If you feel this is the case, then I recommend you contact a scholar immediately. If psychological dimensions are involved, based on the few I mentioned throughout the article or others you may have perceived, I recommend you speak to a Muslim scholar regardless to ensure that the cognitive dissonance is not due to misunderstanding, and then consider seeking a counselor or therapist for help as well inshAllah. And Allah knows best.

Note 1: As always, please bear in mind that all of the above are just assumptions on my part, and there’s no better judge of the decisions you make or your convictions than yourself, and Allah.

Note 2: The social scientist I mentioned above is Leon Festinger, and you can check out his book “When Prophecy Fails” for more information on the social experiment introduced at the beginning. 


  1. This was a very well-written and very informative piece, masha'Allah!

    Thank you!

  2. Jazakillah Khair for your writings. I am a Psychologist practicing in Mumbai and I constantly strive to connect my understanding of mental health with my Islamic faith. Your articles; by the grace of Allah have helped me gain more clarity and introduce lovely interventions. Thank You and may Allah reward you with the best in both worlds.





    Rabbi Shallum, son of the then Resh Gelutha, in Babel, perceiving this dreadful predicament, went to Mahomed, and offering him his submission, friendship, and services, endeavoured to enter with him into a friendly compact. Mahomed accepted his proposition with pleasure, conceived a great affection for him, and took his daughter, a handsome young girl ( A 6 YEAR OLD CHILD), for wife; he made him also a general in his army, and gave him the name of Abu Bachr al Chaliva al Zadik, literally:

    The father of the maiden, the descendant of the righteous; this means, that of all his wives, who were either widows or divorced women, this one was the only one who had never been married before, and then she was the granddaughter of the celebrated chief of the captivity; therefore, the descendant of the righteous. This occurrence induced Mahomed to give up his terrible intention to destroy the Jews in his country, and thus did Rabbi Shallum save his people.


    [Why Muhammad hated alcohol]

    Abu Bachr and Aliman now resolved among themselves to remove the dangerous enemy of the Jews, Bucheran. One evening Mahomed, Bucheran, Aliman, and Abu Bachr, were drinking together; the latter two soon saw that Mahomed and the astrologer were strongly intoxicated, and lay stretched out in a deep and profound sleep. Abu Bachr thereupon drew the sword of Mahomed from its scabbard, cut off therewith Bucharan's head, and put the bloody sword back into its receptacle, and both then lay themselves down quietly near Mahomed to sleep. When Mahomed awoke and saw his friend lying decapitated near him, he cried out in a fury: "This terrible deed has been done by one of us three in our drunkenness!" Abu Bachr thereupon said quite unconcernedly: "Let each one draw his sword, and he whose weapon is stained with blood, must needs be the murderer!" They all drew their swords, and that of Mahomed was completely dyed with fresh blood, which proved thus clearly to his satisfaction that he had murdered his friend. He was greatly grieved at this discovery; cursed and condemned the wine which was the cause of this murder, and swore that he never would drink any more, and that also no one should do so who wishes to enter heaven. This is the cause why wine is prohibited to the Mahomedans.

    At a later period, Mahomed learned the whole transaction, and that his father-in-law was the perpetrator of the bloody deed; wherefore, he lost his favour, and he would not permit him to come before him. Abu Bachr went thereupon and conquered sixty places, which had not yet submitted to Mahomed, and presented them to him, through which means he became again reconciled to him, was received in favour, and remained thereafter at court.

    614-1096 C.E.
    From the Accession of the Mahomedans to that of the Europeans.

    By Rabbi Joseph Schwarz, 1850