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The Fault in our S.T.A.R: Tapping into Higher-Order Cognitive Processes  


By Ismail Shaikh

“What do you think of the genital mutilation of those young girls in Africa?” asks Joe during our meeting. The abduction of young girls by the terrorist group, ‘Boko Haram’, had been in the headlines that week. For Joe, a 50-year old client, a devout Catholic who uses each one of our meetings as an opportunity to proselytize, this particular visit is another attempt to play the ‘mine is better than yours’ game. This time, however, his query is unsettling, partially because it’s factual. I cannot help the tsunami of emotions flooding me; embarrassment, anxiety, sadness, and disappointment, in a swift moment, overwhelm me. I feel anger towards him and Boko Haram. Yet I am able to manage it, breathe and contemplate a response – “Joe, I am only here to support you in a professional role and won’t be sharing any personal opinions,” I retort with a slight edge in my voice. It’s sufficient enough of a response to set professional boundaries but not too much as to damage our rapport.

This isn’t my first experience of being tempted to comment about my faith and its followers in the context of current world affairs. Nor is it the first in-vivo glimpse of a non-Muslim’s perception of Islam and Muslims. (   Boundaries between professional and personal are often blurred when clients attempt to relate to me outside my professional role, particularly on issues of religion. It can be challenging to not feel triggered and react defensively when the comments are negative.

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Roger, a younger client, in his early 20s, is excited to share some his poetry with me during our visit. What follow are tense, painful moments of listening to him recite incredulously evil poetry about Islam. After he finishes, he seeks to genuinely want my opinion on it. I can’t help feel assaulted but I manage my impulse to react angrily. I know Roger to be a vulnerable youth, with low self-esteem but good intentions. An overly defensive reaction on my part may damage his self-esteem further. Once again, I contemplate how to respond and decide to show that I am hurt via my facial expression, while remarking, “It was creative.” Roger picks up on the cues, allowing for a productive conversation.

Conflict Management

Whether in our personal or professional lives, conflict management is tricky, especially when people know which ‘buttons’ to push. I remember a few years back at school, I had approached a former dean of social work during a staff-student social, seeking a resolution to some conflict I was facing at the time. His advise was honest, succinct, and cut to the heart of the matter, “Well, there are three options available to you. Either you ignore it, run away from it, or deal with it head-on. I recommend the latter”.

Some questions then arise such as how does one deal effectively with actions that trigger us? How can one manage one’s emotions and impulses appropriately? Are there higher-order cognitive processes we can tap into for this? Perhaps, one way is to give into our impulses, to respond reactively. Reacting on impulse is easy since it doesn’t require much thought. It involves using the primitive part of the brain; no critical reflection or analysis is needed. Hence, children are great at it as their higher-order cognitive processes are still developing. However, creating space for thought between stimulus (i.e. the trigger) and response is the distinguishing feature between humans and animals as well as healthy adults and children. It’s in this space where we can pause to reflect on our options, the pros and cons of each, and their effectiveness in the context of worldly life and the hereafter.

Stop, Think, Assess, Respond

One simple and profound way in which we can cultivate reflection is found in the acronym S.T.A.R which stands for Stop, Think, Assess, and Respond. I first learnt of S.T.A.R as an intern co-facilitating a therapy group for men who had assaulted their partners. In this group, men spent weeks sharing their stories, discussing their triggers, and learning to manage their thoughts, feelings, and behaviour. They learnt how to manage themselves in emotionally charged moments; practicing pausing at that unproductive impulse to be reactive, reflecting on options and their consequences, assessing the information gathered together with the most appropriate action needed, and responding accordingly. As if a small crevice of reflection was created in their minds between stimulus and response such that impulses had no choice but to fall through. With practice, the crevice became a crevasse, creating within their minds a widening gap for reflection and for impulses to filter through.



Retaining our humanness in our responses is crucial for both the Muslim and their community. The Muslim who practices S.T.A.R. in his life is not impulsive or abusive. He has a strong-hold on his emotions; they don’t hijack him nor does he give them free rein. Nor is he completely mechanistic, making decisions without empathy and consulting his feelings. His heart and mind take time to meet, greet, and discuss issues that affect him and others. If his thoughts don’t provide enough data for assessment, he exhausts himself in seeking information from appropriate sources in order to make a decision. Like the Prophet Ibrahim 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him), who paused to reflect on which one amongst the star, moon, and sun was his Lord, he uses reflection to firstly focus on himself and his relationship with God.

The Muslim individual uses S.T.A.R. to collaborate with others. And when conflict arises, he is apt at managing it because he has the advantage. He uses it to cultivate reflection within his family. Children in particular are reared for leadership; to think critically, analyze, and make decisions accordingly. To raise them into men and women who reflect; “… In it are signs for men who reflect” (2:164). He is aware that there is a coolness, a tranquility in sober reflection that trivial impulses can’t provide. In doing so, he works hard to make his du’a, “Our Lord! Grant unto us spouses and offspring who will be the coolness of our eyes, and give us (the grace) to lead the righteous,” a reality.

A Benevolent Religion

Unfortunately, when our communities are seen reacting to triggers like anti-Muslim bigotry in a primitive manner (e.g. France shootings), we lose leverage on which to advocate for Islam as a benevolent religion. For instance, in a survey conducted by Zogby Analytics, the favorability of Muslim-Americans dropped from 36% in 2010 to 27% in 2014. As roots that shoot into feelings of fear, anger, betrayal, and trauma, shared amongst the masses, grow deeper, Muslims have to tap into their higher-order cognitive processes in order to restore Islam’s perception. Now more than ever, the world needs to see Muslims using their higher-order cognitive processes to constructively tackle issues of terrorism, homelessness, hunger, poverty, Islamophobia, mental illnesses, ad infinitum. Quite ironically, failure to do this will facilitate a negative stimulus-response type: the repeated witnessing of the stimulus (e.g. reactive, impulsive behaviour like terrorism) by the masses becomes automatically associated with the response (i.e. Aversion to Islam and Muslims) with little to no gap for reflection on the true nature of Islam. The juxtaposition of groups who act evil against those enjoining good and forbidding evil will hopefully create conflict in the minds of the masses, allowing for them to examine Islam in a much more reflective manner.


Ismail Shaikh is a licensed social worker. He graduated from the University of Toronto with a Masters in Social Work in 2011. He currently works on an interdisciplinary team supporting clients and their families with severe and persistent mental illness. When he is not working, his time is spent between family and studying and reciting the Qur’an with Ustadh Mohamed Al-Marakaby from Egypt via Tanzeel. Somewhere in there, he makes time to write, play soccer, and volunteer a few hours towards Islamic social service projects.

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  1. Azmath

    October 20, 2015 at 9:26 AM

    Thanks, was in a similar situation. I managed to control my emotions. But later I started feeling that maybe I had the right to be angry, and the prophet pbuh said, a man who doesn’t feel anger is worse than a donkey… Or something of that sort. So it was really eating my brains. Good to read something regarding that.

    • Ismail Shaikh

      October 24, 2015 at 1:59 PM

      Good point. Having a strong-hold on your emotions is not the same as not feeling them. The Prophet Peace be upon him said, “Do not be angry”. To “be” angry means to act out; it’s behavioural. However, there are narrations where the Prophet Peace be upon him too felt angry and there are descriptions of his face (peace be upon him) turning red.

      The key is to express those thoughts and feelings in a constructive manner.

  2. M

    October 20, 2015 at 3:21 PM

    This was a very helpful article. JazakAllah Khair for sharing it with us.

  3. Aafia

    October 20, 2015 at 4:51 PM

    Love the S.T.A.R concept.

  4. spirituality

    October 21, 2015 at 2:28 PM

    Excellent article, alhamdhulillah.

    On a side note, can a scholar tackle the issue of FGM? There is a UN position on eliminating FGM that I wanted to apply to, but I decided to research the Islamic position on the issue first, to be safe.

    Much to my surprise, it appears that the classical scholars from the four schools were unanimous in their agreement that female circumcision (type 1 – which is removal of the clitoral hood with or without clitoridectomy) is permissible (halal). The only disagreement seems to have been whether it is a recommended practice or required. Was there ijmaa on this issue?

    There is much more disagreement today among scholars. However, the according to the salafi website,, it is halal and recommended, and has medical benefits (cleanliness, reduced incidence of infections, removal of ‘excess’ libido).

    (Note, I put ‘excess’ in quotes – because I honestly do not see libido itself as a problem in Islam – as long is it is channeled properly. In fact, it seems most men would really prefer it if their wives had more libido).

    • Cass

      February 16, 2016 at 6:48 AM

      I thought in an Islamic context female circumcision refers to the removal of the skin on top of the clitoris and not the removal of the clitoris itself. FGM is totally different, is it not? See this
      I can’t honestly believe that Islam would encourage the barbaric practice that is FGM

  5. Ibn Islam

    October 24, 2015 at 2:30 PM

    We are told to remove ourselves from the people who speak against Islam, until they cease. How can one listen to someone who is speaking ill of his mother? No, he or she can’t, they will react.
    These are the Muslims of today; weak in iman, humiliated, ignorant about their faith, and priorities mixed up. More fitnah is coming and the weak will disappear in its darkness.
    You mentioned that prophet Ibrahim alayhi selam Prophet Ibrahim ‘alayhi’ salam:… “who paused to reflect on which one amongst the star, moon, and sun was his Lord, he uses reflection to firstly focus on himself and his relationship with God.” Your understanding of the story of the noble prophet Ibrahim is incorrect. To say that he was not guided after being thrown into the fire alone should make us wonder about this understanding. None of the prophets of Allah have committed kufr. The story you mentioned relates to a people the prophet Ibrahim met and gave dawah to. He pretended to be looking for God in order to show the people their shirk in Allah. This was not a self-reflection but disapproval of what the people believed through wisdom.

    • M.Mahmud

      October 27, 2015 at 11:10 PM

      I liked some of what was said in terms of controlling emotions but with you I agree. I had issues with this article as well. Complementing someones blasphemous poetry and showing the hurt on your face is like stabbing yourself twice, not the patience commanded by the Sunnah and certainly not a virtue in the slightest. Is there a single hadith in existence where a Sahabi behaved like the author here? It is very easy to create fake virtues and think onself guided.

      Either one responds with the response of one who is in a land whose law is the judgement of Allah, or one responds verbally in a land whose authorities are disbelievers or one walks away in that land.

      Those are the three options.

      No one had any right to “self esteem” it is a ridiculous cincept invented by psychologists who are as much scientists as the earth is flat. Someone who slanders Islam especially deserves humiliation may he be humiliated whoever slanders this deen.

      May Allah curse those who deny and insult Him and His ayat and His Messenger.

      • Ismail Shaikh

        August 23, 2016 at 2:41 PM


        Thank you for your comments.

        1. A foreigner and a Muslim servant of a landlord in the middle east used to take care of his landlords’ house. One day, the landlord’s son came by with a woman with the intention of committing zina there. The servant intervened attempting to stop the son from entering the residence. The landlord’s son, however, was persistent and a physical altercation arose. As a result, the landlord’s son involved the police and accused the servant of committing a crime. Foreigners and individuals of lower socioeconomic status often live disenfranchised lives. It wasn’t surprising then, that the foreigner/servant was jailed for many years, without a fair trial.

        2. During the time of Shaikh-ul-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah, there existed a group of “Muslims” who used to mock and kill other Muslims. This group would be similar to groups in Sham today or the Khawarij. One day, the noble Shaykh was walking down the street with his student and on the way, came across a group of these “Muslims” drinking alcohol and enjoying themselves. The Shaykh’s student, on observing this, wanted to practice ‘forbidding evil and enjoining what’s good’. However, the Shaykh quickly intervened and stopped him. The student, once again, was persistent. The Shaykh explained that if the student was to forbid these “Muslims” from drinking, they would then commit a bigger sin of killing them and other Muslims. Thus, it was better to let them continue.

        There are two conditions to Hikmah – truth and appropriateness.

        It was true that what the young man said in his poetry about the Prophet Peace Be Upon Him was vile and unacceptable. Nonetheless, it was not appropriate to advise him in a harsh, aggressive manner at any time given the context of the situation i.e. the young man’s traumatic history, my role as a professional, and the risk that acting aggressively would place on me.

        Secondly, if the Prophet Peace Be Upon Him can find compassion in his heart for the people of Taif, refusing to make a supplication against them, why am I being advised otherwise and publicly labelled (humiliated?) by being called “weak” and having a low level of Iman? Is that the Sunnah way of advising your brother?

        May Allah prevent us from being overzealous and grant us excellent character. Ameen,

        With regards to the comment about Ibrahim (AS) story, I suggest you send a query to Muslim matters editors about it just like I did. You are right about the context of that story. And nor do I claim that he was not guided already. The intention here is to highlight that we need to reflect on who we are and our relationship to ourselves, just like the great figures of our past did.

        (The source of the aforementioned narratives can be found in Shaikh Moutassem al-Hameedi’s Tafsir on Surah Luqman – a Surah whose main theme is Hikmah).

  6. Ismail

    August 24, 2016 at 1:20 PM

    *edit: “The intention here is to highlight that we need to reflect on who we are and our relationship to Allah just like the great figures of our past did.”

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