What causes addiction?

There are many models and theories when it comes to understanding addiction. There are modern theories that believe Addiction is a disease and that addicts somehow have a gentic disposition that causes that to become addicts. There has yet to be found any scientific evidence of this despite millions of dollars being spent in the search, and as Muslims there is no evidence from within the Qur’an or of the sayings of Prophet Muhammad that points to this theory either.

Islam understands that every child is born upon ‘the fitra’, natural state of being, meaning every child is born with the natural ability to worship Allah. It is then up to the parents or carers to raise the child in the right way. This does not mean that every parent of every addict is to blame for their child becoming addicted, however parenting and social environment do play a part. 

Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “No one is born except upon natural instinct, then his parents turn him into a Jew or Christian or Magian. As an animal produces their young with perfect limbs, do you see anything defective?” Abu Huraira said, “Recite the verse if you wish: Direct your face toward the religion, inclining to truth, the nature of Allah upon which He has created the people. No change should there be in the creation of Allah. That is the correct religion, but most of the people do not know.” (30:30)

Source: Sahih Bukhari 1292, Sahih Muslim 2658

When we study the Islamic understanding of addiction we begin to understand that Allah would not allow a child to enter this world with this predisposition to be a ‘born addict’. This view contradicts our Islamic understanding of human psychology and nurturing. So where does addiction come from and how does a Muslim become an addict?

Studies do show that the environmental factors do influence the likelihood of someone becoming dependent on substances or become addicted to other behaviours. Addiction does often run in families due to the child learning those behaviours from their parents, carers or siblings. We as humans also learn to cope with our feelings and emotions from our caregivers, just as we learn NOT to cope with them by avoidance or trying to distract ourselves from them. It may be that a parent unwittingly models avoidance by working excessively in their business or becoming compulsive in cleaning the house in order to avoid thinking about their problems. This kind of behaviour teaches children that feelings are something bad, not to be talked about and that we must use any means possible to avoid them. This is is dangerous and unmet emotional needs can often be the catalyst that causes someone to embark in addictive behaviours or substances. 

Islam teaches us to be in tune with our emotions and seek counsel from Allah and from appropriate peers. Many of the early Muslims would turn towards the Prophet peace be upon him or Abu Bakr and Umar ibn al Khitab for guidence around issues such as marital problems, conflict, financial worries and so on. Very often, when our worries are not addressed they become magnified in our minds and this has physiological impacts. Stress takes place, anxiety and the person may seek other means to try and remove these difficult feelings. 

Conditioning theories and Automaticity theories complement the Islamic understanding of how addiction develops. 

Repel the thought, for if you don’t, it becomes an idea. So repel the idea, for if you don’t, it will become a desire. So fight against the desire, for if you don’t, it will become a determination and a passion. And if you don’t repel that, it will become an action. And if you don’t replace it with it’s opposite, it will become a constant habit. So at that point, it will be difficult for you to change it.” ~Ibn al Qayyum al Jawziyah

As discussed earlier, Islam understands addiction as sinfulness or a sickness of the soul or heart. Those actions have taken hold of the heart and caused a person to become compulsive in them, taking the individual away from Allah, His Straight Path, and also from family and loved-ones. The desires and urges of the individual take hold and when addiction develops they are no longer in charge of their own self. Allah says;

“Then do you see such a person as takes as his god his own vain desire? Allah has left him astray, and sealed his hearing and his heart and understanding and put a veil over his eyes.Who, then, will guide him after Allah has withdrawn His guidance? Will you not then receive admonition?” (Al-Jathiya,23)

Sadly, the person can become so absorbed in those habits and behaviours that the other aspects of their life begin to fall down their priority list, sometimes disappearing all together. When a person becomes addicted to something – whether its a substance or a behaviour like excessive exercising, they begin to neglect other areas of life. Perhaps, they stop seeing their family members, wealth is spent almost entirely on the addiction, perhaps they do not look after their body – not sleeping or eating well. As the addiction takes hold, those other things are no longer important or can even be seen as a burden or obstacle in the way of them carrying out their addiction. This is often how marriages, families and relationships break down. Addiction takes us to a very selfish, self-gratifying state of being where we begin to lose sight of meeting the needs of the people we love. 

As the habits continue they often becoming more and more ingrained. Physically, our brains change shape, damage can occur in particular areas and deeper neural pathways ensure habits become so ingrained that very often, the addict has no recollection of how they have behaved, responding to triggers and cravings without much thought or intention. Very often the addict becomes dependent on the addiction in order to function, not just in the case of substances but in other behavioural addictions too. For example, the shopping addict relies on purchasing in order to feel motivated and lift moods. 

And this is the cycle of addiction – patterns of repeated behaviours, unlikely to stop until the addict is able to fully intend to stop and make a decision to break these habits by creating new ones. 

So is it merely a case of learnt behaviour and repetitive habits that causes addiciton? Or are there other elements to consider? In order to answer this question, we need to look into the heart. What is the soul? And how can learning about it help us to overcome our habits and addictions?

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