Narcissists: a Muslim Perspective

Bismillahir Rahmānir Raheem.

Narcissism: a ‘personality disorder’ characterised by… arrogance (whether on account of one’s looks, intelligence, lineage, wealth, perceived religious-ness, or otherwise); a need to belittle others; a need to have ‘supreme control’ over others, be they a son/daughter, a friend, a spouse. Manipulation, a need to feel ‘superior’ and powerful, and ‘better’ than others, and to maintain this state.

Are narcissists pitiable? I often wonder about this question. Are they only the victims of some… mental chemical imbalance? Are they suffering deeply; do they know not what they are doing?

I think, in truth, we all have a Nafs, and we are all susceptible to Satanic whispers, impulses. Lust, envy, pride, anger, and the rest. It is not evil, in and of itself, to have an immoral impulse: such things are integral to our beings, as humans. The key question is: what do we do with such impulses?

What do we do as a result of what we know? Do we make an effort to right our wrongs? Or:

Do we consider ourselves to be ‘better than’ people, and entitled to mistreating them? Do we consider ourselves to be better than Allah’s commands, which tell us to be kind, and to not wrong other souls?

I believe that narcissism is not a mere ‘mental health disorder’, in which the victim — nay, perpetrator — has no agency. How do I know this? Well, narcissistic spouses, family members, friends: it requires intelligence to be manipulative. To, for instance, be able to engineer façades before various groups of people. It can leave a victim feeling… mistrustful; self-mistrustful; guilty: like they deserve ongoing negative treatment somehow.

Kibr. Feeling ‘big’ and ‘mighty’. I might have continued to feel pity towards the ‘backstories’ of abusers, but I know that throughout history, there have been individuals who suffered mightily at the hands of people. Muhammad (SAW), for instance: his negative experiences only softened his heart, and made him more empathetic.

“A believer is never a person who scoffs at others, calls them names, or utters vulgar and obscene phrases.” [Hadīth, Tirmidhi]

And what about those Hadīths that tell us how the best of us are the ones who are best to our families? That the best of men are those who are best to their spouses?

From what I currently know about Islamic Law, the ones who are exempted from the general rules of Islam are those who are: 1) pre-pubescent; 2) asleep, and not awake; 3) someone who is out of their mind: deranged, not sane: that is, until s/he ‘regains sanity’ [and the word used for ‘sanity’, there, is ”Aql’, meaning intellect[ual faculties]]. (Source).

Narcissistic individuals can be such cunning manipulators, and I believe that such manipulative feats require… an operative intellect. Skill. This stuff is not indicative of lunacy: it, I think, is indicative of sheer immorality, choices. One face before people with whom there is something to be ‘gained’: ‘respect’, perhaps, or, rather, some attempt at it.

Another face altogether, before people who have nothing to give them; with whom there will not be negative social consequences. I really do believe this is where a person’s true character is revealed: before dependents, before people who are ‘lesser’ in terms of social status and power. When there is nothing worldly to be gained, or lost: who is a person then?

I believe that, more often than not, the use of the term ‘narcissism’ as a ‘medical diagnosis’, akin to how a broken leg or dysfunctional liver might be seen as such, is something of a cop-out. Human beings, when we are 1) past the age of puberty, 2) awake, and 3) have functioning reasoning/deductive/comprehending-and-contemplative faculties… we have agency. I think ‘narcissism’ (Kibr; cruelty, harshness and aggression towards others) might be signs of… a diseased heart.

But what if… s/he feels powerless? What if s/he doesn’t feel loved? What if they are hurting? There are many ways through which to come to a state of sympathy, towards such individuals. The truth is: lots of people feel powerless, and are hurting; lots of people do not feel quite loved. The Test of Life: it’s knowledge, and what we do [and say] in light of it. If you know what it feels like to be belittled; to feel powerless and not-loved… You have the capacity to either ‘punish’ others by inflicting the same sort of treatment onto them. Or, you do the complete opposite (and, maybe, find power in powerlessness: in Sujood, before Allah, and in love, before His creations).

Victims of Narcissism

Being an ongoing victim of narcissism – Kibr, cruelty, coldness and/or continued aggression, for example – can result in feelings of diminished self-worth. You might be left with cognitive schemas – ways of viewing reality – that are not in line with how the majority of (healthy) individuals see things. This stuff is serious, and can also lead to a condition known as ‘C-PTSD’ (complex PTSD). You might feel constantly on-edge, hyper-vigilant, uncertain, self-questioning, in such abrasive ways.

You might find yourself questioning many things; thinking that there is, intrinsically, something awfully wrong with you. Perhaps the truth is: the only thing ‘wrong’ with you was that… you (as a child, or as a spouse, or as a ‘friend’ who did not know any better) did not hold ‘power’ in your hands, and so you fell into their trap. The narcissist simply showed their true colours, over and again, on you, as one of their canvases of choice.

Maybe: you were hard for an abuser to love. Maybe: that isn’t such a bad thing, after all. What do such people love? They ‘love’ people who are easily controllable, silent, unquestionably obedient; who will, without question, absorb their ways of seeing things; feel sympathy for them, and support them. Serve their egos, without needing to feel like a human being, separately from them.

The ‘ideal’ victim of a narcissist does as they are told. And not only that: since ‘the narcissist is never wrong’ and everything, the ‘ideal’ victim relies exclusively on the abuser to come to know the ‘truths of things’, including of themselves, and cannot, outside of these machinations, know any better. If they try: the narc might accuse them of… treachery, for example. Convince them that they have done something extremely wrong, yet again. The ‘ideal’ victim constantly feels sorry for the abuser, and is in a constant state of apology for being; the ‘ideal’ victim accepts that s/he cannot do anything right, while the abuser can do no wrong. This is how you keep a victim trying, constantly, like a rat on a treadmill, chasing after cheese dangling from a stick. You are never going to be ‘good enough’.

The ‘cheese’ in question is so very elusive. Because if a victim were, ever, to truly ‘catch’ it: the emotional need to keep doggishly, self-abasingly serving the narcissist[‘s ego] would suddenly… cease to be. What would it take, to ‘satisfy’ a narcissist?

Be quiet, do whatever they say, irrespective of how disrespectfully they say it. They’re in a bad mood? You’re not really a human being in their eyes; you just ‘have to take their abuse’. Feel sorry for them; feel guilt and shame, because, in some way or another, ‘you are partly responsible for their ‘distress”. You only ‘matter’ when there is something egoic, of ‘social power’, for instance, to be gained: some more pride to add, to their ‘mountains’ of it.

What if you do the opposite, though? What if you come to notice your worth, as a human being, before Allah, and in relation to others? You, being ‘good’, independently, or ‘perfect’ is actually a terrible prospect to them, a slight, a threat, treachery: perhaps they will sarcastically mock you, and then find some fault to bring you down again, or bring up something (objectively small) that happened five years ago, to make your heart beat fast again, and to see you be uncomfortable, in a way that makes them feel powerful again.

[Memory is linked to feeling. How do you feel around certain people, in comparison with when you are around others? Do you, for example, recognise feeling a certain sort of peace around certain people, while feeling a memory-based sort of unease, fear, around others?]

You being woefully ‘imperfect’ is ‘good’ for their ego: you, in their eyes, the pathetic, burdensome human being, while they, by contrast, are faultless, ‘angelic’ somehow, and yet tragically ‘wronged’, ‘punished’ by having something so remarkably terrible, ‘beneath’ them, as a you in their lives. If it is a family member, you being ‘woefully imperfect’ is also the worst thing in the world for them: they have a ‘reputation’ to uphold and maintain, and you have got to be a character-less, ego-boosting part of it. Absorbed in their self-absorbed worldview, and, in your lack of agency, (and how they attempt to shame you to take away your personhood) a key feature of it.

You ‘moving on’ and being a person, with your own life, ways of seeing things, hobbies and pursuits: now, you might just become a scapegoat. They still need to feel they are ‘superior’, and that you, by contrast, are the lowest of the low. You, getting your own house, for example: not “I’m so proud of him/her, Masha Allah,” but more a case of: “s/he thinks s/he’s better than us now. Doesn’t want anything to do with his/her family,” etc., and you remain ‘the lowest of the low’, while they, irrespective of any collection of moral evils they have pulled in the past: ‘high’, ‘mighty’, ‘big’, and ‘inherently’, ‘undeniably’, ‘respectable’.

Dear reader, if you find that you are a victim of Kibr, cruelty, at the hands of another: remember that morality is laid out in Islam. It does not come merely from the mouths of mere human beings. Even if, say, they… have memorised the entire Qur’an, or come across, appearance-wise, as being the most ‘religious’ of them; ‘lineage-wise’: maybe they come from the ‘best of clans’. [Yet how important is good character, when it comes to Islam?! It is what a person truly is defined by. Piety, and in a connected way, character.]

Being difficult to love by chest-puffing, foot-stomping, tutting, harsh and destructive narcissists… maybe, not such a bad place to be, after all. [Even if you were a cardboard box, or a robot who did everything ‘perfectly’: you likely would still be ‘punished’; would likely still not be loved. Gasp: after all this time of behaving, towards you, like you are woefully inadequate, what if the narcissist runs out of ways to exert ‘power’ over you; what if they become jealous of you, now?] The goal, for them, was never for them to love you. Love, actually, is an easy thing to do. The goal was: for you to serve their ego, and to make them feel ‘big’. To them, you don’t matter. [But in God’s Eyes, you are precious.]

If Muhammad (SAW) were alive, today, would he have loved you, and everything that you are, even in your (necessary) imperfections? This is a more important question.

For more Islamic guidance on how to deal with a potential narcissist whom you are acquainted with: I would really recommend the following Islamic-counselling YouTube channel: Nafisa’s pearlz.

And if you think you might have been the victim of ongoing narcissistic abuse: you’re so okay as you are, and you probably always were. Everybody makes mistakes, but for a person with a diseased and arrogant heart, these necessary flaws and slip-ups: they are on the keen look-out for, to serve as fodder for them [make you feel worse → they have more power over you]. They might act like they want you to be faultless, but, in truth, your ‘millions of found ‘faults” make them happy: each, a boulder to step on, new height added to the ‘mountains’ that they (who act like they, by contrast, are faultless) [think they] stand on. If your ‘numerous’, ‘ceaseless’, ‘helpless’ faults were ‘gone’: you and they, in their eyes, would be on ‘level ground’ with one another, or they might come to see you as being ‘above’ them. And this is not how they like it.

Arrogant boasters/criticisers, rumour-spreaders, tyrannical abusers: on the continued hunt for boulders (‘faults’ from you; ‘achievements’ and ‘good qualities’ and such, from themselves) to add to their ‘mountains’.

Yet, the Muhammadan way is to care for others; have mercy; be humble and easygoing. Overlook faults; give good advice; be gentle.

The narcissist probably won’t end up being ‘happy’ with you, but that is okay, because they are not God, and this was probably never really their intention anyway. It is likely that whichever way you turn, they’ll find a way to ‘fault’ it. In the mind of a diseased heart, you are always [and are likely always going to be] a ‘problem’. To be ‘loved’ by a person who seems to exhibit Fir’aun-like traits: not, in actuality, a very desirable way to be.

In Allah’s Eyes, however, you are precious. And there is no barrier between the du’a of the oppressed/wronged and Allah. (Hadith).

With Salaam, Sadia, 2021.

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