When are actions not recorded?

“-Is madness contagious, Doctor?… Do you know that mad people go to paradise immediately, they are not held accountable?

– It is said that their actions are not recorded by the pen.

– This is what the Imam has said in the mosque, Shoot! I wanted it to be contagious, hence I can transmit it to all whom I love to make them go to heaven!”[1]

I was reading a book during this crazy time of Corona and this conversation between Aymen Daboussi, a writer and a psychologist, with one of his schizophrenic patients made me read between the lines. What really attracted me is not only the funny unless intelligent way in which this patient is thinking but also the questions that his words stuck in my mind and I tried to find out how religions have dealt with mental disorders.

With this issue Islam tries to find answers to most of the questions that it triggers. Although the consequence of the absence of will in a mental disorder case is clearly expressed in a hadith of the Prophet “The pen does not record (evil actions) against the sleeper until he awakes, or against the boy until he reaches puberty, or against the madman until he recovers his wits”[2], Muslim thinkers built their explanation of mental disorders on different trends: in the organic approach, based on biology and pathophysiology, the psychologist who examines the intrapsychic processes and conflicts, and the magical or sacred which apprehends insanity through a supernatural and divine scope[3]. The majority classify mental disorders into different types based on the variety of meanings hidden in the prophet´s words “until he recovers his wits”. Not everyone that suffers from mental disorders is considered as “not free”. A person who is born with an infantile psychosis is not in the same legal situation as an addict or a person who is suffering from kleptomania. This classification is used in solving judicial issues and God “does not charge a soul except its capacity” (Q2:286). Islam´s interpretation of this topic reminds me of Western philosophical debates about free will and mental disorders. Widerker and McKenna state that “not all persons are morally responsible agents (such as small children, the severely mentally retarded, or those who suffer from extreme psychological disorder)”[4]. While in his Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person, Frankfurt H. describes an addict as a person who is not free. More precisely, on Frankfurt’s account, “acting of one’s own free will implies that one wants the actions and also wants to have the will to perform the action. An addict who has the will (or first order desire) to use heroin but who does not want to have this will is not free when using heroin.[5]” It is obvious that the philosophers agree on the idea that mental disorders undermine both the free will and the responsibility of the human being. Yet it is relevant that not all mental disorders are considered as an excuse in a legal situation and God “will not let you be tempted more than you can bear” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

[1] Daboussi Aymen, Akhbar al-Razi, p16. 2017

[2] Sunan at-Tirmidhi, 1423

[3] Georgios. A Tzeferakos and Athanasios.I Douzenis, Islam and Mental Health and Law: A General Overview

[4] Widerker D, McKenna M, editors. Moral responsibility and alternative possibilities: Essays on the importance of alternative possibilities. Aldershot: Ashgate; 2003.

[5] Frankfurt H. Freedom of the will and the concept of a person. Journal of Philosophy. 1971, 68(1) :5–20. 

Nadia Saad ist Wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin am Seminar für Islamische Theologie der Universität Paderborn.