Friday, November 30, 2007

Coping with exam pressure & stress - an Islamic perspective

The following is a transcript of a circle given on this subject recently.

وَمَا خَلَقْتُ الْجِنَّ وَالْإِنسَ إِلَّا لِيَعْبُدُونِ'I have only created jinn and mankind that they may worship Me.' [TMQ Al-Dhariyat: 56]

Preparations will be in full swing as they lock themselves away from the outside world, lost in the pages of their textbooks, busy reducing their notes for the umpteenth time in a desperate bid to memorise all that had passed over their heads since their courses began. To most of them, achieving the top grades is of paramount importance, in the hope that it will open doors to further education at the most prestigious establishments, or ease them towards the ultimate goal of a high flying job and incumbent top salary, and all that these will lead to in terms of securing the utmost comfort and pleasure in life.

For many students, the importance of exam success has been drilled into their impressionable young minds from the outset of school life, by parents, teachers and peers. It is thus perhaps inevitable that sitting exams has become one of the most stressful times in a young persons life. Sadly, for a few individuals the enormous pressures amount to more than they can bear, pushing them into a state of anxiety, depression or in the most extreme of cases to suicide.

So within the midst of an atmosphere of such immense stresses, the question that arises is how should people cope with the pressures of exams?

In the Capitalist society the pursuit of pleasure through the enjoyment of material pursuits gives meaning and purpose to life. For many who live in such a society, education plays a crucial role in making available such means to the individual and the wider community. It leads to the production of a skilled workforce that can accelerate the material progress, and facilitate the generation of wealth within society; things which are perceived to be vital in ensuring the happiness and well being of all. As a result, a heavy emphasis is placed upon individuals to strive to be successful in exams with the aim of securing the 'fruits' of their hard work; a prosperous career that will be beneficial for the individual and at the same time help to achieve the wider goals of the Capitalist society.

This seemingly endless series of tests firmly establishes exam culture in the minds of students, making these the most appropriate means by which to measure success. The constant need to succeed is perpetuated not only by the relentless testing at every stage of educational life, but also the comparison of results in the form of league tables and prize-giving ceremonies

Why do people get stressed?

When faced with the pressure to succeed the fear of failure can cause considerable anxiety. In some cases the worries about how parents and peers will react to their failure may surpass even their own concerns. With the thought that their entire future life may hinge on the outcome of exams, it is inevitable that some degree of stress will ensue.

For most individuals exams are characterised by a combination of a desire to do well, parental pressure, fear of failure and a wish to get exams over and done with, each of which can contribute to generating the effects of stress. When subject to the force of such intense pressure as seen in the time of exams, the human body begins to express its anxiety through what is commonly referred to as a 'stress reaction.' Some people are reasonably able to handle the pressures, and the most they will ever experience are the physical signs of nervousness such as 'butterflies' in their stomach, dryness of the mouth or palpitations. However the physical symptoms of stress for others can be more taxing- such as fatigue, dizziness, loss of appetite, migraines and nausea. Psychological symptoms can include anxiety, depression, obsessional behaviours and being unnaturally irritable or subdued.

E.g. From Indian Express (25/1/99):

``I want to commit suicide,'' pleaded the voice at the other end of the phone. ``I am going to die now...I don't want to listen to anyone or anything.'' The caller turned out to be a BSc first year student, she had called up a Sarthak helpline volunteer. And it took four hours of convincing before she began to confide in the volunteer.

``I have not prepared for my mathematics paper. My cousin got more marks during the tests. My parents will never accept me if I don't do well. They won't be able to talk to relatives and friends,'' she said. Meenakshi did not want to take her exams.

Parental pressure

Ahana Chakraborty, head of the department of education at Shyamaprasad College, Calcutta, feels that fear of failure brings on stress in students. Brendan McCarthaigh, founder of Students Empowerment, Rights and Vision through Education (SERVE), a Calcutta-based NGO, believes that since social security is non-existent in India, flunking exams is not taken lightly. “It is taken even more seriously in West Bengal, where doing well in examinations is often a prestige issue with parents,” he says. Students are not the only ones — parents who are ambitious for their children feel the stress equally.

In New Delhi, an inquiry into 150 educational facilities in 2005 by mental health group VIMHANS showed that 40 percent of pupils feel overwhelmed by exams.

Sandeep Vohra, psychiatrist at Delhi's Apollo Hospital said: ``From the age of 2, children are [subjected to] competition. The child is estimated by his school marks: if he is good at school, he is a good child, if not he is the failure of the family.''

``A mother committed suicide before the results. She jumped from the third floor because she thought her daughter had not done well,'' [INDIA EXAM STRESS, AFP, 2/8/05]

Even in West - The findings of a survey published in 2001 carried out by the UK Mental Health Foundation showed that 50% of University students showed signs of clinical anxiety and more than one in 10 suffered from clinical depression.

Suicide – Is an increasing reality in India

A separate study by an Indian non-governmental organisation Sahyog showed that 57 percent of the 850 teenagers they questioned suffered from depression and nine percent attempted suicide in 2004. There are even cases of parents committing suicide for fear of their children’s exam results.

Perhaps more alarming is the fact that pupils and students are increasingly turning to hard drugs, resorting to binge drinking and even self mutilation in order to deal with the enormous pressure.

A spokesperson from the University of Sussex Counselling Service observed that he was seeing more students with mental health problems than ever before. "Twenty years ago, when, I started, it was rare to see people who were suicidal, who had issues of self mutilation or who were taking, for instance hard drugs. Now I think that it constitutes 40% to 50% of my workload. I think there has been a major shift and it has the implication that we are working more as a psychiatric outpost than a counselling post."

The consequences of failure

In countries like India education seems like a way out for those who are in economically deprived situation

In an article in AFP in 2005, Andrea Raj, a 36-year-old masseuse, who is trying to ensure she can pay for a tutor for her 15-year-old son, recognises that she may be pushing too hard. She explains that because she stopped her studies at the end of primary school, she has never felt good enough in a society that lays particular stress on academic achievement. ``People treat me like nothing, they treat me like a servant,'' she said. ``I want to push him, I want him to be an engineer. I don't want him to be ashamed the way I was ashamed.'' – This is common feeling

Nonetheless, the less severe responses of the majority of students have considerable negative effects for the individual and society in general. But do drink, illicit drugs or anti-depressants have to be an inevitable outcome? And more fundamentally, will these measures actually help to solve the underlying problems, which lead to exam stress?

The reality of exams with respect to life

How individuals cope with the pressure of exams is dependent upon their outlook in life. If it is perceived by a student that the life of this world is all there is to live for, then exams can easily become central to their existence. If they consider that their destiny truly lies in their own hands and success or failure is a direct result of their own preparation for exams, then it would be natural for those exams to be the major focal point in their lives. 'Have I revised enough? What will come up in the paper?' 'Will I pass?' These become essential questions, as they deem the course and direction that their life takes depends entirely on their performance.

In the case of many budding non-Muslim academics, who believe in the secular values of Western civilisation, it is easy to see how this can become the case. However, many Muslims have also adopted the same viewpoint, where the prospect of akhirah (afterlife) is perceived as being so far into the future that success in this dunya (the life of the world) takes more importance and thereby becomes a source of much greater anxiety.
Thus exams also become central to their existence with the understanding that success in them is the key to the pleasures of this dunya; thereby obligations of worship of their Creator Allah I, are pushed aside to accommodate them. In this way such emphasis is placed upon exams that duties such as prayer, fasting and dawah are completely suspended for the duration in deference to what is seen as a more pressing need.

In reality exams have to be placed into context with respect to the ultimate purpose of life. For Muslims the purpose of life is to seek the pleasure of Allah (subhanahu wa ta'aala) by following what He (subhanahu wa ta'aala) has prescribed; to worship Him (subhanahu wa ta'aala) alone. Allah (subhanahu wa ta'aala) says,

وَمَا خَلَقْتُ الْجِنَّ وَالْإِنسَ إِلَّا لِيَعْبُدُونِ'I have only created jinn and mankind that they may worship Me.' [TMQ Al-Dhariyat: 56]

The Islamic concept of worship is a broad and all-encompassing one. Any action can be made into an act of worship by being aware of the relationship of that action with the Islamic Shari'ah. While studying of a basic level of divine knowledge is considered as an individual obligation on every Muslim, the study of 'worldly' knowledge is considered mubah (permitted). Therefore, studying for exams, gaining qualifications and pursuing a career in fields that do not contradict with Islam are all permitted. However for such pursuits to become the driving forces in people's lives, such that it leads to a compromise in performance of their Islamic obligations is not only haram (prohibited) but also completely irrational.

Al-Mustawrid Al-Fihry related from the Prophet (salAllahu alaihi wasallam) that he said,

ثم يرفعها فينظر بما تخرج ما الدنيا في الآخرة إلا كما يغمس أحدكم اصبعه في اليم'The Dunya, as compared to the Akhirah (the Hereafter), is just like when one of you dips his finger in the sea! Let him see how much (water) it (his finger) will carry.' (Sahih Al-Jami')

To pursue or yearn for a blissful dunya that could be ten years for one individual or a hundred years for another is incomparable when faced with the prospects of a blissful eternity in akhira. The correct view as to how we approach the dunya is beautifully encapsulated in the following saying, which enjoins to 'Work for this world as if you were to live forever, and work for the next world as if you were to die tomorrow.' The meaning follows that if one were to die tomorrow, one would be very intent indeed on erasing all of one's past sins and accumulating as much merit as possible to protect oneself from the hellfire. If on the other hand, one expects to live forever, one would obviously be in no hurry to erect palaces, accumulate wealth or concentrate all energy on pursuing and enjoying the worldly pleasures in the shortest possible time; as one would literally have 'all the time in the world.'

When placed in context with exams, it is simply that the world does not end if exams do not go well or entry to the University you sought does not transpire. With respect to the Day of Judgement, the value of a lifetime spent in pursuing education of a worldly discipline such as science, mathematics or literature, whether it was for the sake of securing a career or just for education in itself, is insignificant when compared to the value of a divine duty such as prayer, fasting or Hajj. It is important therefore to put the notion of exam success in its proper context.

Islamic concepts relevant to exams

Bearing this in mind, there is no prohibition over studying and education with respect to non-religious knowledge. Indeed, such knowledge may in some cases be used for the benefit of the Muslims. Thus, if education is undertaken, then it is important to carry the correct perspective when considering exams. Doing so is the key to preventing worry over exams from being an obstacle to health, well-being and religious integrity.

When faced with exams the correct response of the believers is to turn to the aqeedah of Islam wherein lies the remedy for all anxiety and stresses. The destiny (qada) of every man and woman has been pre-determined by Allah (subhanahu wa ta'aala) from the moment we are placed in the wombs of our mothers.

Our provision in this world and how much we earn (rizq), and how long we will live (ajal) are all issues that have been set and given their due measure. Therefore, regardless of which subject or course we choose to study, or what may be our performance in exams, we do not rely on these things to guarantee our future. Rather, the Muslim relies solely upon Allah (subhanahu wa ta'aala) for providing everything, from the money he will earn and live with, to the very air that he breathes. Indeed there are many unemployed graduates surviving on the breadline, and many uneducated entrepreneurs living in the lap of luxury.

Therefore the outcome of exams, the professions embarked upon and the salaries earned are all determined according to the will of Allah (subhanahu wa ta'aala). All that lies in the control of the believer is to exert his utmost best towards preparing for exams as well as to place his reliance upon Allah (subhanahu wa ta'aala) (to make tawwakul). Allah (subhanahu wa ta'aala) said,

وَمَن يَتَوَكَّلْ عَلَى اللَّهِ فَهُوَ حَسْبُهُ'Whosoever puts his trust in God, He will suffice him.' [TMQ At-Talaq: 3]

يَتَقَبَّلُ اللّهُ مِنَ الْمُتَّقِينَ'Put your trust in Allah (subhanahu wa ta'aala) if you are believers.' [TMQ Al-Maidah: 26]

However, it is important to note that relying upon Allah (subhanahu wa ta'aala) for the results does not mean that we do not need to work or pursue employment to earn our provision. Nor does it mean neglecting studies, and taking a lazy approach to exam preparation. It is incorrect to feel that preparation is useless, claiming that what Allah (subhanahu wa ta'aala) has decreed will come to pass, so therefore study is unnecessary.

On the authority of Anas b. Malik, it is told that a man came riding his camel and he asked, 'Oh Messenger of God, shall I leave my camel untied and trust in God?' He (salAllahu alaihi wasallam) replied,

بل قيدها و توكل

'Both tie your camel and trust in God.'

The correct understanding of this narration is that it is a divine injunction for the individual to have absolute trust and dependence in Allah (subhanahu wa ta'aala) alone irrespective of anything else. Before, during and after any action. At the same time all necessary and appropriate preparations for any intended action or endeavour must be taken. So preparation and revision are paramount and the student is accountable for the effort and energy that he or she put into sitting their exams.

In this way, the Muslim who is undertaking exams must acquaint himself with a clear understanding of the basic Islamic concepts - knowledge of the value of this dunya in relation to the akhira, awareness of the ahkam shari'ah - the divine rules pertaining to study and exams, the confidence that Allah (subhanahu wa ta'aala) controls the destiny and the outcome of actions, and the observance of the injunction to make adequate preparations for every endeavour. Above all, he should turn to Allah (subhanahu wa ta'aala), asking Him (subhanahu wa ta'aala) for success in exams and all of his pursuits.

When armed with this mentality, it is inevitable that the profound faith of the observant Muslims will lead to his experiencing the abating of anxiety, and its replacement with acceptance and contentment with the awareness that Allah (subhanahu wa ta'aala) knows best, and is in control of all affairs.

Sabr & Shukr

These same concepts will also allow the believer to face the results of exams with the correct approach. If Allah (subhanahu wa ta'aala) in His wisdom has chosen failure as the result, the believer's trust in Allah (subhanahu wa ta'aala) will give him the strength to greet his result with sabr (patience) as Allah (subhanahu wa ta'aala) says,

بوَاصْبِرْ لِحُكْمِ رَبِّكَ فَإِنَّكَ بِأَعْيُنِنَا"And be patient with your Lord's decree, for surely you are in Our sight." [ TMQ At-Tur: 48]

«إنَّ الله عز وجل إذا أَحب قوماً ابتلاهم فمن صبر فله الصبر ومن جزع فله الجزع»The Prophet (saw) said: ‘When Allah ‘azza wajalla loves a people he tests them. The one who is patient will be granted the patience. The one who shows anguish will be given anguish.’ Reported by Ahmad via Mahmud b. Labeed.

It has been narrated by Abu Malik al-Ash’ari (ra) who said the Messenger of Allah (saw) said:

«... والصبر ضياء ...»‘…patience (sabr) is light.’ (Muslim)

When we face difficulties, we must accept this is from Allah (swt) and know that he will reward us for that and remove our sins

Abu Hurayrah and Abu Sa’eed that the Prophet (saw) said:
«ما يصيب المؤمن من نصب ولا وصب ولا هم ولا حزن ولا غم، حتى الشوكة يشاكها، إلا كفَّر الله بها من خطاياه».
"No fatigue, nor disease, nor sorrow, nor sadness, nor hurt, nor distress befalls a Muslim, even if it were the prick he receives from a thorn, but that Allah expiates some of his sins for that." (Agreed upon)

Conversely when granted success the response should be to receive it with abundant praises and thanks to Allah (subhanahu wa ta'aala).

Suhaib reported that Allah's Messenger (salAllahu alaihi wasallam) said:

إِلاَّ لِلْمُؤْمِنِ إِنْ أَصَابَتْهُ سَرَّاءُ شَكَرَ فَكَانَ خَيْرًا لَهُ وَإِنْ أَصَابَتْه عَجَبًا لأَمْرِ الْمُؤْمِنِ إِنَّ أَمْرَهُ كُلَّهُ خَيْرٌ وَلَيْسَ ذَاكَ لأَحَدٍ
ضَرَّاءُ صَبَرَ فَكَانَ خَيْرًا لَهُ
'Strange are the ways of a believer for there is good in every affair of his and this is not the case with anyone else except in the case of a believer for if he has an occasion to feel delight, he thanks (God), thus there is a good for him in it, and if he gets into trouble and shows resignation (and endures it patiently), there is a good for him in it.' (Sahih Muslim).

As preparation draws to a close and exam papers are about to be opened, anxiety and stress will be a natural response for many. However with the knowledge that the outcome lies with the will of Allah (subhanahu wa ta'aala) and that the purpose of life is not subject to these exams, Islam has given the believer a way of relief from the excesses which are so often seen to accompany those who undertake exams in the pressured environment of a secular, Capitalistic society.

In the concluding ayahs of Surat ul Fajr(89) Allah addresses the tranquil soul as He will on the Day of Judgement:

يَا أَيَّتُهَا النَّفْسُ الْمُطْمَئِنَّةُ (27) ارْجِعِي إِلَى رَبِّكِ رَاضِيَةً مَرْضِيَّةً (28) فَادْخُلِي فِي عِبَادِي (29) وَادْخُلِي جَنَّتِي

“O tranquil soul, return to your Lord, pleased and pleasing to Him. So enter among my slaves, and enter my Paradise.” [TMQ 89:27-29]

The tranquillity on that day will only be a result of the tranquillity of appreciating the true meaning of life on earth and linking that to our conduct in life’s affairs.

Abu Ismael al-Beirawi


Anonymous said...

jazak allah khair.

i have exams coming up and this article has given me the correct perspective on things.

Anonymous said...

i have exams soon too,
thanks for this
may Allah reward you

Anonymous said...

This Article is very informative and beneficial. Thanks

Anonymous said...

Tomorrow is my last exam and subhanAllah I found this website just when I needed it! I haven't been feeling too good about them but I feel as though I did all that I could and inshAllah Allah makes everything work out, after all He is the best of planners alhamdullilah!

Anonymous said...

Subhanallah. This article has fallen on the very right timing, thanks to bro who referred me and who wrote it.
Jazakallah khair

Anonymous said...

I have two weeks of exams and this article gave me a lot help on how I should perceive things. Exams are probably the most stressing thing for me because of all the pressure I get from my parents and also from the pressure from myself. Exams are so unbearable for me that I often have suicidal thoughts and cry all the time. But, this article has helped me put exams and exam success in it's proper context. I realize now that the exam of this life is more important to pass.
Thank you so much for this article and reminder :)

Anonymous said...

Jzk, very helpful article that has made dealing with exam stress bearable. Jzk may Allah reward you.

Anonymous said...


Thank you so very much!!!

May allah bless you and grant all your wishes. Amen.

Thanks for talking both about failure and success.

Kind regards, Hamad

Anonymous said...

Jazakallah khair. Just what I needed and my exams is on
Tomorrow and the day after. I did all I could and may Allah give me a good grade. Ameen,

Anonymous said...

JZKK for this. It really helps a lot!

Nur Amiera said...

Subhanallah! This is so beneficial and helps a lot. Definitely a spiritual need. Thank you so much for posting this, and may He reward you the best in this world and hereafter.

Anonymous said...

May Allah bless you and reward you so much!! I came across your blog and read your article. It was very inspirational and it really helped to understand and put life into perspective. We are only a number of days and to Him we return. Thank you. Your article expressed so many feelings many of us are going through. A beautiful post that changed my perspective into a better one that Allah has always got your back and His Plan for you is a beautiful one. Thank you for beautifully expressing what the deen has to offer us in our life. It truly is the truth and will give us solace. Amazing, amazing amazing post. In His name if we do everything we are truly truly blessed and winning in life :) May Allah bless our efforts. Ameen.

Anonymous said...

It's for the first time I'm finding someone writing about something that relates exactly to what our generation is suffering through gave me a lot of ..I hav my result tomorrow ..IA Allah will Grant me and my peers the Best :)
Thanks a lot for writing such a comforting article

Akmal Khalidah said...

SubhnaAllah, I feel so relaxed when reading this post.

This is exactly what I need. Thank you for this beautiful article! May Allah bless us