Projection is a term applied by Sigmund Freud for the act of projecting one’s feelings, attitudes, etc. onto other people. Projection is one of many defense mechanisms, another term for the strategies people use to cope with situations which arouse anxiety. To make this clearer, let us consider an example. A person who always lies, according to Freud, is more likely to see others as liars too. The same is true for a thief; he might feel vigilant about the safety of his own property because he projects his bad deeds onto other people, thinking that other people may have higher tendencies to steal.
How does Islam view the idea of psychological projection developed by Freud? First of all, it is appropriate to highlight the writings of Said Nursi in which he tells the story of two travelers with different states in their hearts. One was serene and optimistic and viewed the world in positive ways while the other one was anxious and pessimistic, seeing the world as all negative. Both went to similar places, where ordinary lifestyles could be observed. The former one saw the place as beautiful with many good things existing there. However, it was different for the latter; wherever he looked he saw negative things.
According to Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, this difference of perspective between these two travelers is actually rooted in the state of their heart. The first traveler had no unnecessary anxiety in his heart; he was serene and content because he had relinquished all to God. He knew that whatever God had decided upon for him was best for him and he was never frightened of the future, because as long as he did the best he could, God would give him the best. Therefore, as a result, he had nothing to be depressed or worried about, as he knew that everything was taken care of by God.
The second traveler, however, had not put his trust in God enough to believe that everything was already under His management. He believed that he had the power to change things, but also believed that he did not have enough power to control everything, which in turn led to his insecurity and ego. In his heart, anxiety kept haunting him and he was worried about almost everything. As a result, in order to control his anxiety, he turned to drinking and other sins. When the two met, the first one commented that the second had perceived of everything in a negative light because he had no certainty in his heart.
There is one difference in the concept of psychological projection as coined by Freud and that from the Islamic perspective. For Freud, psychological projection happens when someone needs to suppress their negative thoughts or feelings. Considering the examples given above, lying and stealing are bad deeds and the feelings of guilt are that which the doer desires to repress. However, in Islam, projection can happen with both positive and negative feelings, as explained metaphorically by Bediuzzaman Said Nursi in his book.
Projection of this kind from an Islamic point of view can be related to a hadith regarding the heart, “…In the body, there is a piece of flesh. If it is good, the whole body is good, and if it is bad, the whole body is bad; truly, it is the heart.” This hadith underlines the importance of having a good heart to reflect well on the outer world. To apply this to the story of the two men, an insincere, insecure, worried heart reflects the similar world for the second man, while the contrary is true for the first man.
Realizing this aspect of the human psyche makes an impact on Muslims as preachers. Technically, all Muslims are in some way a preacher, regardless of their professions. Be they an engineer, educator, psychologist, policeman or officer, these professionals are entrusted by God to enjoin the good and forbid the bad. Being a good preacher might require us to filter our thoughts from unnecessary projections to those we are preaching. For example, a good Muslim psychologist who works as a counselor, and who also happens to be a single parent, must not perceive his or her client from his or her own point of view. This includes not jumping to conclusions too soon, for example, saying the client is lonely (as he or she feels, as a single parent) and deciding that all the problems of the client are rooted in loneliness. A good preacher must understand the nature and background of the audience and make an analysis that is as objective as possible.
Another impact of projection is the importance of cleansing the heart in order to construct a more optimistic view of the world. Al-Ghazali emphasizes the effectiveness of remembrance of God as a way to cleanse the heart. Performing additional forms of worships, in addition to the obligatory ones, can be a good way to make remembrance of God, for example, uttering istighfar (repentant supplication) before sleeping and engaging in self-supervision, or muraqaba. Cleansing of the heart can help a person have a more positive light in viewing this world, thus allowing more room for improvements and more opportunity to achieve something greater in life.
Psychological projection also gives us an understanding about how others might make criticisms based on their state of heart. This is important to note, because sometimes people easily succumb to the poison of criticism and cease performing correct actions merely because they are blinded by this criticism. For instance, a man is told by his friend that his good appearance when going to mosque will make others say something bad about him, because others might envy him. However, the second man’s statement may just reflect his own envy towards the first man’s good appearance. If the first man succumbs to the statement, he will try to worsen his appearance, despite the fact that we are encouraged to dress nicely when going to the mosque. By being aware of the existence of psychological projection, the first man can be more objective towards the “advice” of the second man and analyze it in the best way.
To benefit from understanding the nature of projection, we can go back to the story told by Bediuzzaman Said Nursi. From this story, we can learn that projection can be both good and bad for the self. The heart, as the core of the self, can project serenity, confidence and many other positive feelings onto real life, if it has been cleansed and is pure and reflective of the line of the religious prescriptions. A positive state of heart can be very important to lead us further and it can make it easier for us to worship God. However, if the heart is negative, this can be bad as it will project whatever negative thoughts and feelings a person has. This insecure state of heart can lead to other sins, such as drinking or other problems that are rife in today’s society.
Once again we need to emphasize that understanding projection is important for us as people, because all believers are preachers. Whether we are to help others or only ourselves, pensive reflection on our backgrounds and assessments of our lives can be made to ascertain the state of our heart, and this in turn will make it more effective in helping others. Therefore, as we can see, understanding the real nature of our feelings and thoughts can be very helpful in developing ourselves.
Taufik Mohammad, PhD, is a senior lecturer in Universiti Sains Malaysia.
- Reported by Bukhari and Muslim with the authority of al-Numan bin Basheer. The Hadith Software, version 1.0, Islamasoft Solutions, 2002.
- Said Nursi, The Words, NJ: The Light, Inc. 2005.