by Zohair Abdul-Rahman MSc and M. Nazir Khan MD.

A person has a misconception about Islam and misconstrues a particular teaching as misogynistic or violent. Approaching a scholar or community leader, he or she receives a response that seems satisfactory and is able to quell the doubt. But a year later someone asks about the same issue and when the topic is re-opened, suddenly what was previously ‘satisfactory’ has become somewhat bothersome. After some more rumination and mental fidgeting and – hopefully – perusal of scholarly resources, the person once again breathes a sigh of relief and puts the issue away, finally content with the answer. But then two years later, they get into an argument on the same topic and lo and behold, the issue oddly nags at their certainty once again!  

Why does doubt periodically recur to this person? One’s intelligence has not changed so as to find the previous answer less satisfactory. In fact, why is it that others manage to live a serene spiritual life, despite possessing the same facts and being aware of the same issues? This incessant and recurrent nature of doubt is not the hallmark of a rational conclusion but rather it is a manifestation of underlying phenomena in the human psyche.

Doubt is not a passive state one finds themselves in, but rather a mental action that they are intentionally or unintentionally engaged in. And strangely, it may be totally unrelated to one’s level of knowledge or available information. Instead, it has everything to do with one’s internal thought process. To understand it, we must delve into the psychology of doubt. How a person focuses and develops his or her thought process will determine their path. A person may direct their cognoscitive powers towards their own intellectual, spiritual and moral growth and the actualization of dhikr in its fathomless facets; or they may misdirect their cognoscitive powers towards problematizing what they already know and regressing in their intellectual journey. 


In the postmodern world, doubt is often boasted of as an enlightened intellectual state that is contrasted against religious conviction. Skeptics, agnostics and atheists are proud of their doubt in the existence of God or any traditional systems of belief. Recent publications in the past decade speak to this fact. Titles such as “In Praise of Doubt”, “Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Conviction”, “Know Doubt: The Importance of Uncertainty in your Faith” have been well-received by even religious communities.

Knowledge and truth have always been the intended destination of any intellectual pursuit. So why is doubt now being seen as the hidden intellectual treasure? What is, in essence, a failure of intellectual achievement has become the objective of intellectual pursuit.

To elucidate the absurdity of this paradox, consider an example. If a person is using a vehicle to reach a particular destination, they must ensure (1) that the vehicle is functional, (2) that they are using it appropriately and (3) that they are headed in the right direction.

The vehicle represents the conceptual architecture through which a person has chosen to see the world. It is the epistemological framework that is designed to create meaning and discover truth in the world. The person’s use of the vehicle represents their character (Ar. Akhlaq), comprised of virtues or vices that can facilitate or hinder learning just as poor driving habits can result in the damage of the vehicle, while good driving habits will ensure it functions optimally. The destination towards which one is driving represents the purpose of one’s epistemic activities and knowledge acquisition, namely arriving at self-empowerment through understanding of the truth.

Just as the car needs to be functional, the driver skilled, and the destination correct, these three factors are analogous to three components of epistemology: (1) Intellectual, (2) Moral and (3) Spiritual. All are necessary in a person’s pursuit of knowledge. The intellectual component refers to an individual’s conceptual architecture or epistemological framework. The previous article exposed the futility and inadequacy of skepticism as a vehicle toward knowledge, and the need to adopt a paradigm that allows one to successfully construe reality as meaningful. The moral component refers to what is known as epistemic virtue and vice, defined as dispositions of character that aid or hinder the achievement of epistemic aims.1Chinn CA, Buckland LA, Samarapungavan A. Expanding the dimensions of epistemic cognition: Arguments from philosophy and psychology. Educational Psychologist. 2011;46(3):141-167. The Spiritual component refers to the epistemic aim or objective. It is the spiritual dimension of knowledge as it stems from where we see ourselves in the universe and what we wish to accomplish on this earth. This informs us of what we need to learn in order to fulfill our purpose in this life.

A deficiency in any of the three components can result in a seemingly inescapable state of doubt. If the car breaks down (intellectual), if you are driving dangerously in icy weather conditions (moral) or if you have put in the wrong address on your GPS (spiritual), you will likely be unsuccessful in reaching your intended destination. Similarly, if you have an inappropriate conceptual architecture (intellectual), if you are arrogant and dogmatic (moral) or if you are not searching for truth (spiritual), then you will likely be unsuccessful in pursuit of knowledge.

Car analogy Successful epistemology Islamic teaching
Vehicle condition – car malfunction will prevent reaching one’s goal Intellectual component – having the right conceptual framework to make sense of the world (choosing the Qur’an’s holistic paradigm over skepticism). “And they have thereof no knowledge. They follow not except assumption, and indeed, assumption avails not against the truth at all” (Qur’an 53:28).
Driver competence – a bad driver will likely cause a crash or result in damage to the vehicle. Moral component – having the epistemic virtues to pursue the truth with humility, to listen with an open mind even to people you disagree with, to respect the knowledge of those who have spent time acquiring it. “Ask the people of knowledge if you do not know” (Qur’an 21:7).


The Prophet Muhammad taught, “Whoever humbles himself for the sake of God, God will raise him in status” (Sunan Ibn Majah).

Destination guidance – in order to successfully reach one’s destination, one must have the correct guidance and navigation. Spiritual component – the ultimate aim in one’s quest for knowledge should not be mere pursuit of trivia or amassing information for status or privilege, but rather it should be an earnest desire for truth and self-transformation. The Prophet Muhammad said, ‘Whoever seeks knowledge so as to vie with the scholars, or to argue with the foolish, or to attract peoples’ attention, then God shall enter him into Hell. (Jami’ al-Tirmidhi)


Consider the preposterousness of a person who stubbornly persists in pressing the gas pedal of a broken car, despite the obvious fact that the car refuses to budge. Then he proceeds to claim that there is no fault with the car at all. Rather, the side of the highway with smoke diffusing from the engine in the blistering heat must have been his destination all along. He refuses to leave his car, and refuses to accept that perhaps he was meant to go somewhere else. We may presume that such an individual is in a state of psychosis. Yet, this type of rhetoric has taken centre stage in the intellectual arena of the 21st Century. Doubt is perceived as the gloomy intellectual dead end that all rational seekers of Truth must inevitably reach. It is the side of the road with the broken down car we are doomed to end up with if we choose to drive our cars.

Such an outlook is unnecessarily fatalistic and deeply erroneous. There is a path that can drive a person out from the agitation and darkness of doubt and skepticism to the comfort and light of conviction.

“…a Book which We have revealed to you, [O Muhammad], that you might bring mankind out of darknesses into the light by permission of their Lord – to the path of the Exalted in Might, the Praiseworthy” (Qur’an 14:1)

The Quran presents mankind with invaluable guidance on the journey to discovering Truth and experiencing conviction. It provides the intellectual, moral and spiritual framework, known as Tawheed, that is necessary to extract meaning from the world. This article will take the reader on a voyage from darkness to light, describing the phenomenological experience of doubt, incorporating neurocognitive and theological perspectives.


A typology of Shakk

There are many different kinds of doubt, and the Qur’an and the hadith also use the term shakk in different contexts. In the hadith wherein the Prophet Muhammad stated, “We have more right to doubt (shakk) than Prophet Ibrahim” he was referring to a story in the Qur’an where Prophet Ibrahim asked to be shown the miracle of resurrection:

And remember when Abraham said, “My Lord! Show me how you give life to the dead.” Allah responded, “Do you not believe?” Abraham replied, “Yes I do, but just so my heart can be reassured.” Allah said, “Then bring four birds, train them to come to you, then cut them into pieces, and scatter them on different hilltops. Then call them back, they will fly to you in haste. And thus you will know that Allah is Almighty, All-Wise.” (Qur’an 2:260)

Prophet Ibrahim never doubted God’s power nor was he in any uncertainty about the occurrence of the resurrection. God clarifies this for the reader by asking him directly about his belief which he affirms. What this passage illustrates however is that there are levels of certitude, and Prophet Ibrahim yearned for the highest. Thus, when the Prophet Muhammad commented that we are more deserving of doubt than Prophet Ibrahim, he used the word doubt metaphorically to entail “seeking greater certitude (ziyadat al-yaqeen)”. Recognizing that life is a journey, each and every individual is continuously striving for higher levels of spiritual conviction and knowledge, and we may not have all the answers to questions that occur to us. But when we have questions we turn to God and make it a moment of yearning greater insight into the truth, rather than making it a cause to turn one’s back of God and distrust in His religion.

The more common usage of shakk (doubt) refers to a feeling of uncertainty about the truth. This can be subdivided into two categories: soft doubt and hard doubt.

Soft doubt may occur to anyone, and may represent fleeting thoughts in one’s mind that one has no control over. In a hadith, we are informed that some of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad approached him to ask about this phenomenon. They said, “O Messenger of God, verily we perceive in our minds that which any one of us would consider too grave to even express.”  The Prophet replied, “Do you really have such thoughts/feelings?” They said, “Yes.” Upon this he remarked, “That is the manifestation of faith.” 2Sahih Muslim, Kitab al-Eman, number 247.

In other words, these ideas, doubts, and thoughts that may be so negative one cannot even articulate them, are not blameworthy at all so long as a person ignores them, suppresses them, and does not give them any credence. If a person recognizes that these are mere unsubstantiated misgivings which do not carry any weight, they are able to move forward with their spiritual convictions. If these questions surround a particular issue, they seek clarification from qualified people of knowledge. If they are not based on any factual matter, then a person can confidently dismiss them and focus on more constructive things.

On the other hand, there is hard doubt, which describes the scenario where a person actually focuses on these thoughts and indulges in them. This is a negative phenomenon wherein a person becomes skeptical that something is actually true, their conviction and commitment to it is compromised, and one begins to harbours psychological uncertainty and spiritual hesitation. This form of doubt may be discrete and related to a particular issue that doesn’t make sense, or it may just be a generic feeling of unease and distrust in their faith. To successfully handle this form of doubt a person must engage in introspection (muhasabah) and determine what is causing them doubt. If it is a particular issue that can be studied, they should earnestly seek knowledge and entertain the possibility that their understanding may be incorrect. If on the other hand, it is just a generic feeling of unease that they must explore the psychological depths of their mind to scrutinize their thoughts in order to yield a more constructive thought pattern.

There is no reason why encountering any allegation against Islam should automatically plunge a person into a crisis of faith. Rather, objections/allegations can be analyzed from an emotionally detached perspective that allows one to seek  the knowledge necessary to address the issue. Ibn al-Qayyim (d.751H) addresses this issue in his work brilliant work entitled Miftah Dar al-Sa’adah. He recounts the advice of Ali ibn Abi Talib to his companion Kumayl ibn Ziyad about the importance of having the right mindset to carry knowledge. Ali Ibn Abi Talib said:

What abundant knowledge is here, if only I could find one worthy to bear it! Indeed, I found one who was quick to understand, but he could not be trusted with the knowledge, exploiting the tools of religion for the sake of worldly gain, manipulating the proofs of God to service scripture to himself, and empowering himself with the grace of Allah against his slaves. Then there was another person who followed the people of religion but lacked spiritual perception (baseerah). At the very first appearance of a confusion, he would entertain doubt and misgivings in his heart. So alas, neither this one nor that! Nor can knowledge be entrusted to one who is greedy for pleasure, submissive to lustful desires, nor one tempted with gathering wealth and hoarding treasures. Neither of them is a guardian of religion in any respect. In this behaviour, they resemble nothing so much as grazing cattle. Thus does knowledge die with death of its bearers.3The narration regarding Ali’s advice to Kumayl ibn Ziyad is related in the Hilyah of Abu Nu’aym (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr 1996, vol 1, p79-80) amongst many other sources. The hadith scholar Ibn Abdul-Barr al-Maliki writes in Jami’ Bayan al-Ilm (2/984), “And it is a well-known (mashoor) hadith amongst the people of knowledge that requires no chain (isnad) due to it being so commonly known amongst them.” Ibn al-Qayyim agrees with this judgement (I’lam al-Muwaqi’een 2/195).

Ibn al-Qayyim comments:

“Regarding the statement ‘At the very first appearance of a confusion (shubhah), he would entertain doubt/misgivings in his heart‘, this is due to the weakness of his knowledge and the scarcity of his spiritual perception (baseerah). When his heart would encounter even the smallest objection, his heart would be plunged into doubts (shakk) and misgivings (rayb). This is in contrast to the one firmly grounded in knowledge – even if he were to encounter allegations as abundant as the waves of the ocean, it would not diminish his certitude (yaqeen) in the least, nor would it kindle doubt in his heart. This is because he was firmly grounded in knowledge, so he was not fooled by any confusing arguments (shubuhat).”4Ibn al-Qayyim, Miftah Dar al-Sa’adah, (Mecca: Dar Alam al-Fawa’id 2010), vol 1, p. 394.

Ibn al-Qayyim then goes on to mention the most valuable advice he received from his teacher Ibn Taymiyyah (d.728H) on the subject of doubts:

“After I began to present to him one allegation after another, Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah, may Allah be pleased with him, advised me as follows: ‘Do not allow your heart to be a sponge for every doubt and allegation so that it drinks them up and is moistened with nothing else. Instead, make your heart like solid glass; doubts pass over its surface but do not settle on the inside. Thus, the doubts are seen through the clearness of the glass, but are repelled by its firmness. Otherwise, if you allow your your heart to drink every doubt you encounter, it will end up affirming them,’ Or he said something to that effect. I do not know of any advice that has brought me greater benefit in fending off doubts than this one.” 5Ibn al-Qayyim, Miftah Dar al-Sa’adah, (Mecca: Dar Alam al-Fawa’id 2010), vol. 1, p. 395. Arabic: (وقال لي شيخ الإسلام رضى الله عنه وقد جعلت أورد عليه إيرادا بعد إيراد : لا تجعل قلبك للإيرادات والشبهات مثل السفنجة , فيتشربها فلا ينضح إلا بها , ولكن اجعله كالزجاجة المصمتة تمر الشبهات بظاهرها ولا تستقر فيها , فيراها بصفائه , ويدفعها بصلابته , وإلا فإذا أشربت قلبك كل شبهة تمر عليها صار مقرا للشبهات ة أوكما قال : فما أعلم أني انتفعت بوصية في دفع الشبهات كانتفاعي بذلك.”
المنتقى من مفتاح دار السعادة ص 154)


A tale of two minds

Imagine two individuals with the same level of intelligence receiving identical information. Perhaps it is two Muslims that are exposed to a characterization of Islam as misogynistic and patriarchal. One of them perceives the incongruity of the critique with her faith and simply seeks out a better understanding of Islam from appropriate sources. For this seeker of knowledge, there is no crisis of faith nor bothersome feeling of doubt. Instead, a question was formulated and an answer was sought. The other individual is deeply bothered by the critique as it presents a challenge to his faith. The moral fabric of Islam has been compromised in his view and this leads him to feel a nagging, incessant and uncomfortable feeling in his chest. Suddenly, his mind is flooded with obsessive thoughts and questions regarding his spiritual choice in life. Plunged into skepticism he becomes a doubter, and questions, “Is it possible Islam isn’t true? Maybe I have been living a lie? Why have I been restricting myself? What would happen if I leave Islam? What will my parents do? Is the only reason I am Muslim because of fear of leaving?”

This case study highlights two very different responses to the same information – the seeker of knowledge versus the doubter. The seeker’s response is evidently constructive and allows the individual to explore deeper levels of learning and self-development. Meanwhile, the doubter’s response is an attitude that only causes the individual to experience agitation without any increase in knowledge or understanding; it causes the individual to enter into a faith crisis and become skeptical about the entire faith because of an inability to make sense of one issue. The doubter’s approach is one that will always induce skepticism regardless of what information is presented to the individual.

We may coin the doubter’s attitude a ‘skeptogenic’ mentality, or one that automatically induces doubt and skepticism, irrespective of the issue being discussed. No amount of information, clarification or explanation will ever satisfy someone suffering from a skeptogenic mentality because skepticism is a boundless process as elucidated in the previous article. Unbridled skepticism results in only futile internal agitation without ever attaining confidence or conviction. The underlying problem here is the way one has chosen to look at the issue. If a person chooses to see the world with skepticism, it is no surprise they will feel doubt just as if a person chooses to see the world in a pessimist way, it is no surprise they will feel sad.

In fact, in psychology there are certain characteristic patterns that describe the ways in which depressed patients interpret events in a manner that causes them to feel sad – known as depressogenic schemata.6Shinrigaku Kenkyu. 2004 Oct;75(4):353-8. [Examining the causal model of depression: the relation between depressogenic schemata and depression]. For instance, a person may engage in personalization (“all of this is my fault”), catastrophization (“because things didn’t work out, my entire life is ruined”), overgeneralization (“I always make mistakes, nobody likes me”), and so on. In the same way, we may propose that there are skeptogenic schemata such as proof solicitation (“I can’t believe this is true without clear irrefutable proof”), truth customization (“It can’t be true if it doesn’t make sense to me right now”), uncertainty magnification (“If I can’t be sure about this, then I can’t be sure about anything in the religion), and compulsory argumentation (“If I stop arguing then I’m following blind faith” and “If I can still argue with it, it can’t be true”) even when it entails arguing about something one has not even taken the time to properly study and understand. These cognitive distortions prevent a person from being able to successfully progress in their understanding, knowledge acquisition, personal growth, and engagement with the truth.

It is often assumed that doubt is a state that emerges from simply applying critical thinking toward a contested piece of information or argument. However, in the opening example of the seeker and the doubter, while both individuals applied critical thinking and identified an issue that didn’t make sense, only one individual found that it precipitated a crisis of faith, while the other individual was successfully able to turn it into an opportunity for intellectual and spiritual development with recourse to the right resources. Why was it that one individual did not subsequently experience a disturbing state of obsessive doubt while the other did? To understand the individual factors that contribute to an individual’s doubt experience we must explore the psychosocial components of doubt.


The Millennial Problem: Developmental Psychology and Doubt

It is interesting to note that age has been found to be inversely related to religious doubt. Studies have shown that the older a person becomes, the better equipped they are to handle ambiguities and incongruencies that may arise concerning their faith. Galek et al suggest that this may be due to the accumulation of experience and wisdom as an individual ages.7Galek K, Krause N, Ellison CG, Kudler T, Flannelly KJ. Religious Doubt and Mental Health Across the Lifespan. J Adult Dev. 2007;14:16-25.

This epidemiological factor is quite significant in possibly understanding the phenomenon of doubt as a manifestation of a lack of maturity and deficiency in problem solving skills. This idea was advanced by James Fowler in his 6-stage developmental model of faith.8Fowler JW. Stages of faith: The psychology of human development and the quest for meaning. New York: HarperCollins Publishers; 1981. At stage 4 he notes that young adults “struggle to find meaning in their experiences; they have not yet acquired the wisdom to work through the uncertainties and ambiguities that life brings.”9Galek K, Krause N, Ellison CG, Kudler T, Flannelly KJ. Religious Doubt and Mental Health Across the Lifespan. J Adult Dev. 2007;14:16-25.

This points to a larger problem of parenting and the emergence of the phenomenon known as prolonged adolescence. This refers to the prolonged immaturity, hedonism and apathy that now seem to persist into a person’s 30s. The generation of millennials are often touted as the most self-absorbed and immature generation of youth in human history.This is often attributed to a failure of parenting, the education system and the rise of social media. The negative repercussions of this developmental cocktail of disaster is seen by employers as they enter the workforce as rebellious, entitled and immature.

When we turn to the domain of religious identity, we can see a number of significant developmental contributors to the emergence of religious doubt. Children are often raised inside an overprotected bubble and are shielded by their parents from the danger that emerges from the complexity of the world. The amount of teens who seek summer jobs has plummeted from 60% in 1960 to a mere 35% in 2016.10 Summer jobs represent a period of time where an individual is able to gradually interact with the real world without parental supervision. Such an exposure is essential for the development of maturity in understanding the world.

Furthermore, within the protected bubble is also a life a luxury and lack of responsibility. Teenagers are spoiled and social media has made them all instant celebrities, being the centre of attention with their own Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram pages. All of this produces an unrealistic picture of reality in their minds. The world is seen as simple, easy and entirely about you! These beliefs about the world become a core part of this unconscious millennial theology until a rude awakening occurs. When they have reached the developmental age where they are able to feel strong psychological pain and angst, they become vulnerable to threats that can penetrate the fortress that mom and dad had built for them. Betrayal, loss, and the feeling of vulnerability shakes their beliefs about the world. But of course, their arrogance and lack of maturity prevents them from recognizing their fault in assuming such childish notions about the world. Instead, they see the complexity of the world as the real fault. “How could there be a God, when someone as special and intelligent as me cannot make sense of life’s experiences?” “These religious practices aren’t getting me more likes on Instagram and all this extra responsibility is unfair and unnecessary.” “Why does God want us to worship Him? What a selfish God,” Reductionist materialism and atheism become alluring for this young mind as it comes with the perk of removing all responsibility and being able to live life however he or she pleases. They crave the life they lived before their bubble bursted.

This immature attitude toward religion as merely a means to get what a person wants, rather than a means to discover meaning and the responsibility that comes with it is highlighted in the Quran,

“And of the people is he who worships Allah on an edge. If he is touched by good, he is reassured by it; but if he is struck by trial, he turns on his face [to the other direction]. He has lost [this] world and the Hereafter. That is what is the manifest loss.” (Qur’an 22:11)

In The Happiness Effect: How Social Media is Driving a Generation to Appear Perfect at any Cost, the author reveals a true story of a young man in college that highlights the preceding discussion.11Frietas D, Smith C. The happiness effect: How social media is driving a generation to appear perfect at any cost. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2017. She explains that this person had once stared out of his window and witnessed a mesmerizing view. The young man recounts that he had felt a strong, uncomfortable and pervasive feeling that shook his very essence. Questions that he never entertained about the purpose of life and what he was meant to accomplish came into his mind. The profundity, complexity and responsibility associated with answering those questions were too immense for the young chap causing him to quickly avert his gaze and find something distracting to cease the internal dialogue.

“And no sign comes to them from the signs of their Lord except that they willfully turn away from them.” (Qur’an 6:4)

Psychopathology and Doubt

The doubt experience is accompanied with strong emotional and spiritual feelings, and it can fundamentally shake a person into a deep existential crisis.12Galek K, Krause N, Ellison CG, Kudler T, Flannelly KJ. Religious Doubt and Mental Health Across the Lifespan. J Adult Dev. 2007;14:16-25. This is sufficient to recognize that doubt is not merely an outcome of abstract rational activity unaffected by emotion, but rather it is a process intricately tied to psychological, social and emotional dimensions of a person’s life. The phenomenology of the doubt experience in the most extreme cases can reach an obsessive quality similar to those seen in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). The fear and anxiety associated with these obsessions are also similar to anxiety attacks that occur in generalized anxiety disorder. Indeed, there have been associations demonstrated across multiple studies that have shown an association with religious doubt and depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, phobic anxiety, paranoid ideation, somatization and hostility. One of the most significant studies published in the Journal of Adult Development attests to these findings and provides the following commentary:

Why are doubts bad? –Contrary to the argument that religious doubt is necessary and constructive, the types of religious doubts gauged in this study are directly related with a broad array of mental health problems, some of which are potentially quite serious. We find that religious doubt is associated with depression, general anxiety, interpersonal sensitivity, paranoia, hostility, and obsessive-compulsive symptoms. To start, religious doubt undermines a potentially important spiritual resource—a cohesive religious worldview via which individuals can interpret and make sense of their daily affairs, as well as major chronic stressors and personal traumas.13Galek K, Krause N, Ellison CG, Kudler T, Flannelly KJ. Religious Doubt and Mental Health Across the Lifespan. J Adult Dev. 2007;14:16-25.

These correlational studies cannot give us the data necessary to conclude whether people who are more prone to psychopathology become more susceptible to religious doubt or if the experiencing of religious doubt results in psychopathology. In either scenario, there is an undeniable psychological component that accompanies the doubt experience. The study authors go on to highlight the importance of a supportive religious community that is able to reach out and empathetically listen to such a person in crisis and help ground them in their identity and relieve them of their anxieties and insecurities.

With regard to the reasons for the psychopathological correlations with religious doubts, hypotheses have been pontificated by Galek et al. They suggest 3 mechanisms that combine to produce strong negative psychological states. The first is the loss of an essential coping mechanism for stress. Religious beliefs are systems that render the world meaningful, providing us with the psychological defence necessary to cope with life’s stressors. Once the belief system is challenged, it results in an unmanageable amount of existential angst and stress. The second possible mechanism is psychological fatigue from the tremendous cognitive and emotional energy directed toward the crisis of faith. The third is the shame and guilt that is felt for feeling these thoughts due to the conviction and certainty that is often demanded of adherents to a faith.


Neuroscience of Doubt

The strong association between doubt and psychological states can be explained by a recent development in the field of metacognition known as “the feeling of knowing”.14Koriat A. The feeling of knowing: Some metatheoretical implications for consciousness and control. Consciousness and Cognition. 2000;9:149-171. Most people have the mistaken impression that certainty and doubt are passive states related to the amount of evidence one has to support a claim: stronger evidence and rational arguments confer greater certainty, while weak arguments and evidence leaves one in a state of doubt. However, when we turn to neuroscience we find a different picture. From a neurophysiological perspective, doubt and certainty are simply mental sensations that seem to arise from deep structures of the brain associated with emotional processing (within the limbic system) rather than abstract cognitive reasoning.

There may be cases of “pathological uncertainty” as in OCD where individuals are so compulsively driven to accumulate evidence because of an unrelenting feeling of uncertainty. A study conducted on patients with OCD revealed that even in experiments where participants were faced with a decision about which there was no objective uncertainty (all the evidence clearly pointed to one correct answer), the participants with OCD still experienced the feeling of doubt, which emerged from a hyperactivity of the limbic and paralimbic brain regions. The authors commented,

Behaviorally, patients exhibited less certainty than controls when data were unequivocal. Although controls showed essentially no uncertainty when the observed evidence pointed to a single correct answer (on certain sequences), OCD patients remained subjectively uncertain even in the face of clear evidence. …[T]his finding is consistent with the clinical phenomenology of the disorder, where patients appear to remain uncertain regarding whether a behavior has achieved a desired goal (e.g., locking the door or turning off the stove) despite clear evidence that the goal has been attained (i.e., the patient can visually perceive that the door is locked or that the knob on the stove is in the “off” position).”15Stern ER, Welsh RC, Gonzalez R, Fitzgerald KD, abelson JL, Taylor SF. Subjective uncertainty and limbic hyperactivation in obsessive-compulsive disorder. Hum Brain Mapp. 2013;34(8):1956-1970.

Excessive uncertainty exists along a spectrum, and while the most extreme cases may manifest in instances of mental illness, even healthy individuals can reason in ways that bring them to unjustified doubt about something that is clearly true or unjustified certainty in something that is clearly false. Dr. Robert Burton, a Neurologist, argues that certainty is not dependent on reason. He notes that using logic and reasoning rarely aids in changing the state of a person’s feeling of knowing.16Burton RA. On being certain: Believing you are right even when you are not. New York: St. Martin’s Press; 2008. In fact, most often people engage in logical reasoning to justify a conclusion that they already feel confident about for other psychosocial reasons. Therefore, when one encounters doubts, it is not necessarily a proof that there is something wrong with the thing being doubted, but rather it is simply a mental sensation from the limbic system which may be justified or unjustified depending on the context.

The limbic system is also integral for spiritual experiences and has been termed “seat of the soul” by Dr. Andrew Newberg, founder of a new field known as Neurotheology.17Newberg A. Why god won’t go away: Brain science and the biology of belief. New York: Random House Publishing; 2000.  Thus, seeking certainty is not a purely intellectual pursuit, but also an emotional and spiritual one. A person can be presented with a meaningful representation of the world that is intellectually, morally and spiritually justified. But the research suggests that the feeling of conviction required to recognize it as true and commit to it does not necessarily arise through logical deduction. It is possible the feeling of knowledge is blocked due to a variety of reasons. Apprehension toward authority, religion or responsibility can activate the same limbic structures and thus a person instead responds with feelings of fear and anxiety. These feelings are then interpreted by our mind as doubt. The process just outlined is highlighted in the Quran as the quintessential skeptic response to revelation,

They said, “O Salih, you were among us a man of promise before this. Do you forbid us to worship what our fathers worshipped? And indeed we are, about that to which you invite us, in disquieting doubt.” (Qur’an 11:62)

The feeling of knowledge can emerge in a person who is open, not dogmatic and willing to considering other viewpoints. The person must be searching for higher understanding when encountering new information in order for them to be able to appropriately experience the feeling of knowledge appropriate. The Qur’an elaborates this understanding with reference to two concepts: Inaabah (sincerely turning towards the truth and towards God) and Hidayah (Divine guidance) – “He guides those who sincerely turn towards Him” (Qur’an 13:27). When a human being engages in the sincere and earnest pursuit of truth, training one’s mind to be open towards all possibilities and seeking to understand rather than seeking to argue, this constitutes true Inaabah. And the result of this process is that a human being renders themselves receptive to true enlightenment in the form of Divine guidance. Thus, rather than certitude (yaqeen) being a random inexplicable occurrence in the limbic system, certitude can be brought about through sincere reflect and Inabah, whereupon God confers the gift yaqeen upon one’s limbic system.

Looking at guidance and certitude as a gift makes sense when we see how often the Prophet Muhammad used to pray:

يَا مُقَلِّبَ الْقُلُوبِ ثَبِّتْ قَلْبِي عَلَى دِينِكَ

Ya muqallibal-qulubi, thabbit qalbi ‘ala dinika (O Turner of the hearts, make my heart firm upon Your Way).”18Jami’ al-Tirmidhi 3522.

Indeed, even the Prophet of God did not see himself self-sufficient in the quest for certainty. He recognized conviction as a gift from God and was continually connected to Him. Another supplication made by Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second Caliph of Islam, also highlights the dependency on the Divine for the feeling of certainty, “O Allah, enable us to recognize the Truth as Truth and the provide us (the guidance) to follow it.”19Tafsir Ibn Kathir, commentary on Qur’an verse 2:13.

Conditioning of Doubt

Another peculiar property of the doubt experience is its periodicity. The presence, intensity and intrusiveness of the doubts emerge intermittently. It pursues and withdraws like tidal waves in the ocean. Some moments, the individual is relieved from these obsessive feelings and are able to proceed with their faith. But suddenly, the floodgates open and the mind is hit with another wave. The Quran aptly describes this spiritual crisis in just the fourth page,

“The lightning almost snatches away their sight. Every time it lights [the way] for them, they walk therein; but when darkness comes over them, they stand [still]. And if Allah had willed, He could have taken away their hearing and their sight. Indeed, Allah is over all things competent. (Qur’an 2:20)

The Quran also explicitly mentions the perpetual nature of doubt, “Their hearts have doubted and so they will perpetually waiver in their doubt (Qur’an 9:45).

Conceptualizing the doubt experience as part of a conditioned habit may help explain its periodical nature. Obsessive impulses, such as those seen in addiction or OCD are often described through the lens of habit formation. Moreover the treatments for intrusive thoughts or compulsions are also based on the principles of habit formation. The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg outlines the deep connection of human behaviour and habit, “Most of the choices we make each day may feel like the products of well-considered decision making, but they’re not. They’re habits.”20Duhigg C. The Power of Habit. London: William Heinemann; 2012.

There are three components that form any given habit: (1) Cue, (2) Behaviour, (3) Reward. The first component refers to an external or internal cue that is often associated with a certain behaviour. In the example of smoking, it may be a particular alley way, a balcony or even a certain group of friends that become associated in the brain with the activity of smoking. The reward is whatever the behaviour achieves that brings some form a pleasure; whether it be stress relief, intoxication or relaxation. Thus, when a person encounters a cue, the body anticipates the incoming reward from the behaviour, creating the urge.

These habits can become quite powerful neural networks in our brain that persist despite clear damage that may result from the habit. This is what is seen in cases of addiction and OCD. The habit pathway does not end in reward, but punishment and yet the habit persists. This is because, the reward is still experienced, it is just followed by pain. The body still anticipates the reward when it sees the cue, despite the person realizing through their reason that such a behaviour is destructive.

In the case of doubt, we can conceptualize it also as a destructive habit formed in association with various cues. The cues can range from receiving a particular type of information, seeing certain famous skeptic personalities online, going to a mosque or going to a university classroom. Wherever there has been a strong and consistent association with the doubt experience becomes a cue. The behaviour is the doubt experience itself, characterized by uncomfortable feelings emerging from the limbic system that accompany thoughts and questions about the faith. The lack of reward that results from the doubt experience makes it tend toward an anxiety or phobic response rather than an addiction. Thus, when a person witnesses the cues, it triggers the conditioned response, which culminates in anxiety and fear regarding the thoughts.

This conceptualization is independent of cognitive reasoning and is purely dependent on behavioural association also known as classical conditioning. This explains its periodicity, as whenever the cues are not present, the doubts cease to emerge. Once the individual encounters the cues, whether it be a specific question, place, person or time, the doubts re-emerge.

In terms of treatment, such situations are often managed through exposure therapy. It is a form a psychotherapy where a person is gradually exposed to his or her triggering cues until the conditioned response is replaced with a healthier alternative. Obsessive religious doubt is currently being treated through exposure therapy by clinical psychologists, and qualified spiritual and psychological counselors should be available in the community to help individuals at any stage of doubts work through their identity struggles.

Spiritual Model of Doubt

So far we have discussed multiple psychological components and contributing factors for the doubt experience. We will now shift to describing a model of doubt that stems from the spiritual realm of the human being. Islamic theology recognizes two tendencies of the human heart: (1) Nafs ammara bis-soo’ (inclination toward evil) and (2) Nafs Mutma’inn (inclination toward good). These two competing forces in the heart are responsible for our pursuits in life, the constructive and destructive. Knowledge is a virtuous pursuit that is pursued by the nafs mutma’inn. But learning knowledge carries the responsibility of acting in accordance with it. It can be said that knowledge and action are two sides of the same coin. This presents a threat to the dark aims of the nafs ammara bis-soo’. Therefore, the nafs ammara bis-soo’ diverts the motivational state from ‘ilm (knowledge) to dhann (conjecture). This is because knowledge of haqq (truth) and the spiritual and moral responsibility responsibility that accompanies it require a person to act contrary to their dark urges. Dhann (conjecture) is not accompanied by any responsibility and allows a person to indulge without feeling remorse. Furthermore, dhann pathologically interacts with existing knowledge in the heart resulting in shakk (doubt). Thus, dhann, which is achieved when the nafs ammara bis-soo’ uses the intellect to practice selective skepticism, deconstructs existing knowledge, rendering it doubtful.

This concept is captured in the following passage of the Quran,

And when it was said, ‘Indeed, the promise of Allah is Truth (Haqq) and the Hour [is coming] – no doubt about it,’ you said, ‘We know (ilm) not what is the Hour. We assume only conjecture (dhann), and we are not convinced (yaqeen). (Qur’an 45:32)

In this example, knowledge of the accountability of mankind is being highlighted as haqq. Recognizing it as such is paramount in achieving felicity in the next stage of our being. However, having knowledge of this truth comes with the immense responsibility of ensuring every choice, micro or macro, is morally, intellectually and spiritually optimal.

And the record [of deeds] will be placed [open], and you will see the criminals fearful of what is within it, and they will say, “Oh, woe to us! What is this book that leaves nothing small or great except that it has enumerated it?” And they will find what they did present [before them]. And your Lord does injustice to no one. (Qur’an 18:49)

This knowledge disrupts the plans constructed by the nafs ammara bis-soo’, delivering it a lethal blow. The response from the nafs ammara bis-soo’ is to counteract this knowledge with dhann that downgrades knowledge of the hereafter to something that is uncertain and doubtful. For instance, a person may conveniently assume that reality is exclusively derived through empirical sense. This results in the conclusion that reality is limited to this world.

And they say, “There is not but our worldly life; we die and live, and nothing destroys us except time.” And they have of that no knowledge (‘ilm); they are only assuming (dhann) (Qur’an 45:24).

This dhann cannot be proven rationally, empirically or intuitively. It is merely an unproven assumption that is held with greater conviction than a system of beliefs that render entire reality as meaningful. Nevertheless, this dhann is used to escape the responsibility associated with Truth, enabling a shamefully hedonistic pursuit of life. Interestingly, when Allah quotes the skeptics in saying “we are not convinced”, the Arabic word used is mustayqineen. This implies the process of searching or seeking certainty. This is a crucial epistemic aim for those who are searching for the Truth of this world. Those who do not make certainty a priority may escape the responsibility that accompanies conviction, but they will sustain the excruciating existential pain of nihilism.

And whoever turns away from My remembrance – indeed, he will have a depressed life, and We will gather him on the Day of Resurrection blind.” (Qur’an 20:124)

Can we choose what preoccupies our minds?

It is evident that the human being has a say in the matter of what goes on in his or her head. The mind is a vast arena, a canvass of consciousness, which can be filled with a diverse array of thoughts, emotions, dreams, hopes, ideas, desires, questions, fantasies, and imaginations.

A person may opt to think of how many things God has blessed them with and how they may use their abilities to help those less fortunate. A person may focus on the feeling of compassion, mercy, and empathy for those in need by imagining the dreadful experience of living with poverty and fear for one’s safety. A person may yearn to meet the Creator Himself, and imagine what ensuing conversation would take place.

Or, a person may be entirely focused on thoughts that do not transcend materialistic ambitions, worries about accumulating more money, suspicions and jealousy towards others, pessimism towards the future, and feelings of doubt and distrust towards others, themselves, or their faith. The question every human being is confronted with is simple: what kind of thoughts do I want to inhabit my mind?

The Qur’an uses the term doubt (shakk) and suspicion/misgiving (rayb) in an interesting manner that leads us to view these as active processes and takes us away from the picture of these mental sensations emerging as a passive consequence of the information available to us. The Qur’an describes a vivid scene on the Day of Judgement where those who were insincere in their claim to faith (munafiqeen) will call out for rescue to the sincere believers but will be told that they were held back on account of their choice to be in doubt:

“On that day when the Munafiqeen will say to those who believe, “Wait for us! Let us acquire some of your light!” They will be told, “Return, and get light of your own.” And a wall will be placed between them with a door, mercy descending on those inside, but those on the outside susceptible to punishment.

The Munafiqeen will call out, “Were we not with you?” They will be told, “Indeed, but you allowed yourselves to succumb to temptation, you were hesitant [to accept truth], you chose to be in doubt (wa-’rtabtum), you deluded yourselves with [worldly] fantasies, until there finally came the decree of God. And you let the Deceiver deceive you concerning God.” (Qur’an 57:13-14)

In this fascinating passage we learn that faith is not simply an identity label but a question of what occupies one’s consciousness. If one’s faith is not sincere and one’s consciousness is occupied with worldly hedonistic delusions of amassing wealth and pleasures, and one’s attitude towards God and faith is characterized only by doubts, skepticism and spiritual hesitation, failing to take any steps forward in one’s journey, then one has chosen a path of failure from the outset.

Meanwhile, the Qur’an describes the opposite of doubt, certitude (yaqeen), as also a voluntary behaviour that one may engage in:

“God is He Who raised up the heavens without pillars you (can) see, thereafter He established Himself on the Throne. And He subjected the sun and the moon, each running according to a specified term. He regulates everything in perfect order. He expounds the Divine signs so that you may hold certitude (yaqeen) in the meeting with your Lord.” (Qur’an 13:2)

In this passage, the verbal form is used with the word certitude (tuqinoon – 2nd person plural continuous/imperfect verb meaning “you hold certitude”). The verbal usage indicates that certitude is an activity one must engage in, one must actively structure their thoughts and organize their mind in a manner that continually perceives certitude in one’s meeting with the Divine. Once more, this underscores the importance of approaching the topic of doubt from the perspective of spiritual psychology and identifying the root causes for doubt rather than superficially debating the purported issues of controversy. Once a person has successfully corrected their outlook and adopted an approach of a seeker of truth and knowledge with the intellectual humility to carefully study and contemplate many resources, then a person will find satisfaction in learning the answers to those issues that previously beset them with worry and confusion.


We have clarified the psychological and spiritual conception of doubt that provides a better account of an experience that has afflicted many young believers across religions. In an age where anti-religious rhetoric is espoused at the highest levels of education, young Muslims find themselves confronted with the worst type of fitnah (test) that can occur in a person’s life; the fitnah of faith. It is essential for the community to recognize the issue and work to provide the necessary environment for young Muslims to grow and understand their faith in light of contemporary challenges. As mentioned in the article, a significant contributor to the doubt epidemic is a failure of parenting. This responsibility also extends to the wider community as the institutions provide a significant influence in a child’s development.

On an individual level, young Muslims must take ownership and responsibility over their faith and recognize it as a gift from God. They should be proactive in seeking appropriate Islamic education and answers to questions that arise earlier rather than later. Furthermore, they should ensure their approach to Islam represents a holistic engagement of their intellectual, spiritual and moral selves. It is imperative that they constantly work to improve their character and purify their heart from diseases that corrupts one sincerity. Throughout the process of internalizing the faith, they should be oriented toward Allah, seeking His guidance.

“All praises and gratitude are due to Allah, the Lord of the Worlds. The Most Compassionate and Especially Merciful. Owner of the Day of Recompense. To You alone we worship and to You alone we seek aid. Guide us to the straight and upward path. The path of those whom you have favoured. Not of those who have earned anger or who have gone astray. Amen” (Qur’an 1:2-7).


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2. Sahih Muslim, Kitab al-Eman, number 247.
3. The narration regarding Ali’s advice to Kumayl ibn Ziyad is related in the Hilyah of Abu Nu’aym (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr 1996, vol 1, p79-80) amongst many other sources. The hadith scholar Ibn Abdul-Barr al-Maliki writes in Jami’ Bayan al-Ilm (2/984), “And it is a well-known (mashoor) hadith amongst the people of knowledge that requires no chain (isnad) due to it being so commonly known amongst them.” Ibn al-Qayyim agrees with this judgement (I’lam al-Muwaqi’een 2/195).
4. Ibn al-Qayyim, Miftah Dar al-Sa’adah, (Mecca: Dar Alam al-Fawa’id 2010), vol 1, p. 394.
5. Ibn al-Qayyim, Miftah Dar al-Sa’adah, (Mecca: Dar Alam al-Fawa’id 2010), vol. 1, p. 395. Arabic: (وقال لي شيخ الإسلام رضى الله عنه وقد جعلت أورد عليه إيرادا بعد إيراد : لا تجعل قلبك للإيرادات والشبهات مثل السفنجة , فيتشربها فلا ينضح إلا بها , ولكن اجعله كالزجاجة المصمتة تمر الشبهات بظاهرها ولا تستقر فيها , فيراها بصفائه , ويدفعها بصلابته , وإلا فإذا أشربت قلبك كل شبهة تمر عليها صار مقرا للشبهات ة أوكما قال : فما أعلم أني انتفعت بوصية في دفع الشبهات كانتفاعي بذلك.”
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