Relationships, submission and the school of hard knocks
by: Sabnum Dharamsi
Sabnum Dharamsi is a therapist and co-founder of Islamic Counselling Training. (

Think with me about all the stuff of relationships...

Meeting, texting, getting involved, being liked, sharing, caring, companionship, short / long-term, love, families, achievement, power plays, compromise, hatred, betrayal, pride, disappointment, and confusion.

We each have a unique network and perception of relationships, but whatever our circumstances, relationships are powerful. Our very existence is proof of the drive to connect and procreate. But what actually happens to us in relationships? Why is it that relationships bewitch and befuddle us?

Islam is very clear that relationships are essential for spiritual development. Monastic life - shutting oneself away - is frowned upon in Islam except for short periods in khalwa - spiritual retreat. The oft-quoted saying of the Prophet(s) "When a man marries, he has fulfilled half of his religion, so let him fear God regarding the remaining half," and the emphasis placed in Islam on family and community highlight how important relationships are for us.

And yet I have never come across someone who at some point hasn't wanted to run from the pain of relationships. So how should we understand relationships and get the best out of them? In the myriad relationships we have, there are three essential ones: our relationships with others, our relationships with ourselves, and our relationships with God.

Self with others
Relationships with people are generally more complex than relationships with inanimate objects, so unsurprisingly, we learn massively through interaction with people. Relationships are crucial to the development of our self-image but more crucially, identity formation. It's through others that we develop and learn who we are, whether it's through parents, marriage, being a parent or relating to others through school or work. It's in relationships that we develop social and emotional skills, and learn to develop as well as test out our opinions. Importantly, relationships tell us if we are 'ok'. If others accept us, this is important feedback that tells us if specific behaviours are socially acceptable. On a more fundamental level, there is a relationship between acceptance from others and the healthy development of our own selves. When children get this acceptance early on from their parents, they are usually stronger in themselves, which gives them the security to confidently forge relationships with others. This is one reason why love and respect is so important to us - it tells us on a deep emotional level, it's ok, you have a right to feel, to think, to be.

However, there are difficulties. Not every child has that security. And not every parent has the ability to provide that acceptance. And even if they do, society - and this is particularly the case for people who are 'different' - may not accept them. Whoever you are, there is a fundamental paradox at the root of relationships. We all naturally seek good relationships but society / family does not provide a perfect social environment for acceptance. Not only that, we are all different. And sometimes those differences really matter. Sometimes we cannot change ourselves / others or find it difficult to compromise because to do so would threaten our sense of self.

So why has God created these differences? It is in this Quranic verse that we find the answer:
"O you mankind! We have created you of a male and a female, and then We made you into races and tribes so that you may know each other. Surely the most honourable of you in God's sight is the one who is the most pious among you; surely God is All-Knowing and Aware." (49:13)

These powerful differences hold the key to our evolution as human beings. When we allow greater intimacy with people - when we don't run away from the challenges of a relationship, and learn to somehow go beyond those differences, there is potential for growth, for seeing the limitations of your own perceptions, and for love. When you've had an argument with someone, but then found a way to healthily heal that relationship, you are wiser, stronger and more loving than before. I don't mean that one must always stay in a relationship. Some relationships can be so toxic that they cannot and should not be maintained, and that too is wisdom.

Self with Self'
But there is an even more profound meaning to the verse above. It points to a deeper relationship, the relationship of ourselves with ourselves, or the intrapersonal. Outer relationships are the key to patterns within our own selves. For example, if I feel empty inside, I will take that emptiness into every situation. If I believe that men can't be trusted, or that all women are manipulative, then the universe will reflect back that reality. It is commonly said that you can try to run away from a relationship, but you can't run away from yourself.

Relationships are important to us; and most of the time we project our inner world onto the outside. It is easier to see this projection in other people - all of us know people who see life through rose-tinted spectacles, or have destructive relationship patterns, or who are constantly living in traumatic situations that they have brought upon themselves.
"O my son! Even if it should be the weight of a mustard seed, and [even though] it should be in a rock, or in the heavens, or in the earth God will produce it. Indeed God is all-attentive, all-aware." (Qur'an 31:16)

The universe mirrors you, and you are a mirror of it. Indeed, in a subtle way, every situation, whether it is a relationship with people or things or the world, is a reflection of you. Is the world a scary place? Is it filled with child killers and rapists? Is everyone out to get something so you just have to do the same before they do it back? Are your relationships selfish or generous and God-fearing? We all get caught in our projections, and we react to them in pre-conditioned ways. Part of the importance of relationships is the opportunity to see our own patterns, and to realise our conditioning.

Getting to know oneself and the relationship you have with yourself is essential. God tells us:
"We will show Our signs to them in the horizons, and within themselves, until it becomes clear to them that it is the truth. Is it not sufficient that your Lord witnesses all things?" (41:53)

Are there any patterns, any major threads in the multiplicity of roles and identities you have? Simply recognising these patterns is healing, because it is the beginning of either changing or accepting yourself. So for example, you might say, 'I need to learn how to be less sensitive" or "I'm just a big softie - and I accept that makes me vulnerable sometimes."
"And that is because God never changes the grace he has bestowed upon any people until they first change that which is in themselves, and that is because God is Hearer, Knower." (Qur'an 8:53)
Self with God
Though this relationship with your own self is important, what underlies it? We now come to our relationship with God, the last and most important of the three types of relationship. Relationship with the self, the intrapersonal, is governed by the relationship of self to soul. Within us is the soul or ruh, that aspect of us which is God's divine breath, which reflects utter perfection, and the self cannot but help be in worship of it. What this means is that we cannot help but want Him. Whether this love manifests consciously or unconsciously, whether we are Muslims or not, all human beings love Unity (Al Ahad), Beauty (Al Jamal), Pure total absolute unconditional love (Al Wadud), and so on. In every aspect of our lives we knowingly or unknowingly worship the Divine.

We cannot help but want to connect with others because we've been created this way. We have been created with the paradox of being limited and dependent on others but also longing for absolute independence. Teenagers are often driven to establish a unique identity, different and independent from their parents, whilst simultaneously wanting to be like their friends. Maybe adults are less dependent on others for approval, but even so, we are 'programmed' wanting both interdependence and absolute independence.

When one knows this, then some of our perennial life questions make sense. It explains why we might believe in true love, but also inevitably be disappointed because either it will not be found or last. Unless you accept along the way that life and people have limitations - including yourself - and that no relationship can give you what you ultimately desire, then life will constantly hurt and disappoint. But paradoxically, it is only by engaging with this world, by learning the hard way and maybe over and over again, that you and I can discover that contentment can only come from realising that He is the Source and Resolution of all true desires.

Our environment conditions us and we condition it. We are told in Islamic teachings that if we spend 40 days with a person we will become like them. The universe reflects us and we reflect it. There is a flow of energy between people, a passionate dance in which our intentions and actions are mirrored in each other, in which the longing of self for God is eternally played out whether knowingly or otherwise.

Originally published in islam today magazine UK, Vol. 2 No. 20 | June 2014. It has been republished here with permission.