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Islamic scrupulosity

5 min read
Aaron Hensley, MSW LCSW

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Generally, Scrupulosity OCD involves fears about offending or speaking blasphemy against religious principles, rules, or values. Islamic Scrupulosity OCD (Islamic OCD) involves fears or intrusive thoughts about not being a perfect Muslim, or offending or speaking blasphemy against one’s Muslim faith.

A quote from the Hadith: “Abu Huraira reported the Prophet said: ‘The religion of Islam is easy, and whoever makes the religion a rigour, it will overpower him. So, follow a middle course; if you can’t do this, do something near to it and give glad tidings and seek help (of Allah) in the morning and at dusk and some part of the night’.” [al Bukhari]

Scrupulosity can be an especially difficult subtype of OCD to deal with, because the fears and intrusive thoughts are attacking something that a person holds as sacred. In the Islamic faith, scrupulosity (and other intrusive thought subtypes) are often referred to as “wasawis.” Wasawis describe unwanted thoughts that are whispered into the mind and hearts of people by Shaitan (Satan). 

Islamic scrupulosity is often referred to as a disguised or hidden disease because it creates intense and excessive guilt. This guilt is caused by the person with scrupulosity fixating on a few specific rules or rituals in the Islamic faith, while simultaneously neglecting other parts of the faith. The parts that are neglected are often the parts that provide hope, liberation, and salvation. This often results in harmless or unpreventable things being considered wrong or sinful, leading a person with scrupulosity to feeling unwarrantedly guilty. Scrupulosity can cause people to experience not only guilt, but hopelessness and desperation as intrusive thoughts and doubts cause them to question their faith practices and even the teachings of their faith. 

Islamic scrupulosity OCD – Common obsessions

  • I may have said a prayer improperly.
  • My cleaning ritual was interrupted and therefore I am dirty. 
  • Feeling guilty for being unable to avoid something considered sinful
  • Making innocent or harmless things sinful
  • I may have said or done something to offend Allah.
  • This thought is sinful, and therefore I have sinned against Allah.
  • Did I accidentally ingest food or water when I was not supposed to?

Common triggers

People with Islamic Scrupulosity may be triggered by situations involving aspects of their faith. OCD is a doubting disorder, and scrupulosity OCD can be triggered by doubts about devotion to Allah or feelings of uncleanliness. Islamic scrupulosity can be triggered by a need to complete prayers or rituals perfectly.

Triggers of Islamic OCD include:

  • Doubts about being clean enough to meet religious obligations
  • Thoughts about lacking devotion to their faith in a certain manner
  • Certain words or phrases that may be considered blasphemous
  • Seeing, hearing, or being around certain animals that are considered unclean
  • Blasphemous thoughts

How can I tell if it’s Islamic scrupulosity OCD, and not devout faith and practice?

We would differentiate between the two using one simple line of questioning:

  • Are the thoughts causing anxiety or distress?
  • Are the thoughts or rituals distracting us from practicing our faith?
  • Are there compulsions present?

These questions help differentiate between scrupulosity and devotion by connecting people to what they already know. Shaitan uses scrupulosity to distract people from their true devotion to Allah. The thoughts buzzing around, distracting us, making us feel guilty, and causing significant distress are not from Allah. They are not improving our devotion to Allah. 

If the thoughts are causing anxiety and disrupting a person’s connection to Allah then we know they are not from Allah. The goal or every Muslim is to strengthen their faith and connection to Allah. Scrupulosity will distract us from this goal. Scrupulosity triggers, obsessions, and compulsions will distract people from their devotion to Allah. These thoughts will also cause people to question their salvation. We know this is scrupulosity because there are obsessions and compulsions that are evident in the way people respond to intrusive thoughts and doubts. 

Common compulsions

Compulsions are the repetitive behaviors one might engage in to relieve the anxiety their obsessions and doubts are causing. When people with Islamic OCD experience intrusive thoughts, images, feelings, or urges that cause distress, they may feel a need to fix or adjust their actions or perform rituals in a perfect way. The guilt caused by scrupulosity often leads people in the Islamic faith to feel an intense need to be excessively devoted to a specific aspect of their faith, or a need to practice their faith perfectly. 

compulsions of Islamic OCD include:

  • Excessive cleaning rituals
  • Needing to complete faith rituals perfectly
  • Seeking reassurance from faith leaders that they are indeed saved
  • Doing prayers or rituals over and over again until it feels perfect
  • Excessive behavior to show devotion to Allah
  • Reciting scripture excessively to keep themselves in good standing with Allah

How to treat Islamic scrupulosity OCD

Getting help for Islamic scrupulosity OCD is possible. The gold standard treatment for all subtypes of OCD is ERP (Exposure and Response Prevention) therapy. 

Connecting with a therapist or psychologist that is familiar with Scrupulosity OCD is crucial for competent and effective treatment. Connecting with an ERP specialist will allow the person with Islamic scrupulosity to get ERP treatment for their fears from someone who is understanding and respectful of the person’s faith. 

It would also be helpful to have the ERP provider connect with the person’s respected faith leader. Connecting with faith leaders will allow the ERP provider and the Imam to work together in supporting a person suffering from scrupulosity. The Imam would be able to provide a person with scrupulosity with opportunities and advice to perform rituals in a less-than-perfect manner. 

If you’re struggling with OCD, you can schedule a free 15-minute call today with the NOCD care team to learn how a licensed therapist can help. At NOCD, all therapists specialize in OCD and receive ERP-specific training. ERP is most effective when the therapist conducting the treatment has experience with OCD and training in ERP.

We look forward to working with you.

Learn more about ERP
Patrick McGrath, PhD

Dr. McGrath is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and the Chief Clinical Officer at NOCD. He is a member of the Scientific and Clinical Advisory Boards of the International OCD Foundation, a Fellow of the Association for Cognitive and Behavioral Therapies, and the author of "The OCD Answer Book" and "Don't Try Harder, Try Different."