“self-regulation failure is the major social pathology of our time.” (Baumeister, Willpower)
As it often happens during or around the month of Ramadan, I had a conversation with a colleague at work who was interested in understanding why Muslims fast. I explained to him that Muslims fast for a number of reasons, including:
- Their belief that God has ordered them to fast;
- It develops their compassion and empathy towards the less fortunate;
- It improves self-control;
- It is considered a great spiritual exercise of purification;
- It is a reminder of the weakness and dependence of our selves on the continuous graces of God;
- It has intellectual benefits, such as helping with focus and attention;
- There are important health benefits;
I did not know it at the time, but the point about self-discipline and control seems to have really spoken to him. As I was leaving work yesterday, we crossed paths again, near the door. He shared with me how our short conversation got him thinking about self-discipline, and its importance in our lives. He even showed me a book that he had started reading 4 days ago (The New Purpose Driven Life: What On Earth Am I Here For? by Rick Warren), and he was interested in learning more about it, and as a result of our little chat, he ended up asking me whether any local imams gave talks about the topic from an Islamic perspective or even had programs to acquaint non Muslims to Islam…
The truth of the matter is that the topic is incredibly important, and yet our Islamic programs, libraries and institutions lack greatly in this respect. So I thought that I would at least jot down some preliminary thoughts about the topic of self-discipline or self-control in Islam for now – and hopefully this will be the seed for a book or a series of lectures one day…
Self-discipline in Islam: the context
Islam is a way of life that encompasses every dimension of the believer’s world. You are supposed to interpret the universe differently as a Muslim, and therefore, all your interactions and relationships (with yourself, with others, with the world) will be impacted by it.
According to many exegetes of the Holy Qur’an, the greatest distinction of the human being is that he accepted the heaviest responsibility of all, that of having free will. Angels have free will, but they do not have the faculties that produce temptations and desires. Animals have an almost insignificant amount of free will, because they are completely under the influence of their instinctive urges and desires. Human beings, on the other hand, have both the urges and desires that they share with the other animals, as well as the free will to overlook those urges and desires for rational reasons. This great potential offered by free will is the reason why the Qur’an clearly states that while some human beings are lower than animals, others are more elevated than angels.
The definition of our humanity is that we have both the animals urges as well as the rational faculty to control them. All human beings have urges and desires that are psychological (ego and selfishness, wanting praise and recognition, security… ) physical (rest and comfort, food, libido…), spiritual (union with the mystical, being part of the greater universe, being touched by the divine…), and affective (emotional stability, love, feelings of belonging to a community, family…).
Islam is realistic in its recognition of all of these faculties and needs and does not expect anyone to suddenly ignore them because they are now a follower of Islam. Every one of these faculties and needs has been placed in the human being for very good reasons, so Islam rejects any idea of ignoring, dismissing or vilifying any urges or faculties. But this is absolutely not to say that it allows one to simply let those faculties and urges dictate one’s behaviour either. Islam provides teachings that offer a balanced use of them all that ultimately results in the promise of eternal happiness in the afterlife, while building the best version of yourself as an individual and a society in this life.
This means that we have the responsibility to make many choices, all the time, about everything. We are always in a situation of choosing between what our reason (and therefore religion) tell us to do, and what our animal instincts are urging us to do.
As a Muslim, you are expected to be in control of your behaviours, of your attitude, of your thoughts at all times. This constant struggle over self-control is a process of self-purification from a spiritual dimension, and of self-discipline from a psychological one. This ongoing tension means that all of your interactions with the world are opportunities for (spiritual as well as psychological) improvement.
Repeated practice creates habits (or rituals), and habits are easier to follow because they are more comfortable and can sometimes even become a second nature or unconscious (some studies compare self-control to the development of a muscle). And for the commoners and the masses, developing “good habits” is important, and there is nothing wrong with that. But for some of us, we are looking for a deeper spiritual experience, and doing something because only because it has become a habit is not sufficient.
The deeper experience lies in the belief and value system we have created for ourselves. If I have associated pleasure and satisfaction with the idea of paradise, and have associated entry into paradise with obeying God through fasting for instance, then the pleasure and satisfaction I derive from fasting are greater than the pain I must endure as a result of the hunger and thirst of fasting. And true, this motivation to fast is only “transactional” (I do X in exchange for Y), but it is still better than doing it simply because it has become a second nature instilled in me by my habits, or culture, because it touches my mind and soul much more than the blind ritual. (and let’s not kid ourselves: how many human beings on earth can actually reach the pure devotion and love of God that they worship him for no other reason than to perpetuate the feeling of closeness and love, and because He is worthy of being worshipped?)
So simply put, this calculation of the mind, and its ability to overcome the urges and delay the gratification of comfort (in the case of fasting for example) from the immediate to later, is free will in action…
This, in short, is the context to keep in mind when talking about self-discipline in Islam.
Self-discipline and the modern world
The “modern” or “developped” world revolted against monarchy and church a couple of centuries ago, and rejected the idea that anything outside of the individual human being should dictate how we’re supposed to live. Two major world wars (and many smaller ones) also created reactionary social movements that encourage personal freedom and revolted against all aspects of social life, from clothing to food and drugs, to racism and sexism, often leading to excesses. Many social reforms were attempted to create welfare states, but as is usually the case with such initiatives and policies, this was more to appease social unrest when it reaches a boiling point.
Since then, the ideologies that have appeared were mainly concerned with satisfying the desires and animal needs of the individual human being and removing any barriers standing in the way of feeding those individualistic desires. For instance, capitalism was developed to enable and ensure the appropriation of private goods by the individual in the most unrestrained manner possible, given the reality of competition for finite resources. Democracy was developed to maximize individual human freedoms, while respecting the right of others to the same freedoms. Such ideologies, which also happen to be exclusively materialistic for the most part, have become the value systems against which everything is measured, including happiness.
But because of the fact that we live in a world where there are only finite resources to satisfy our urges, and where people do not have equal means of getting those resources, we see the rise of all sorts of social issues resulting from indulgence in satisfying desires, that in turn lead to psychological and physical issues, such as the disintegration of the family, violence and mental illness. The reason why modern states oscillate between left leaning and right leaning political parties is that there is no magic formula or combination for maximizing individual freedoms while respecting those of others. So it becomes an exercise in minimizing social injustice, or at least dissimulating it, before it reaches that boiling point.
Individuals growing up in societies where the measure of happiness is associated with the degree of freedoms in which one is indulging will form societies that are broken, and will themselves lack many skills required to be successful in life and after death.
We are teaching people nowadays that of the utmost importance is the constant strive to simply be happy. And to be happy, you have to do what you love. And anyone can do what they love — even if they do not have the discipline and rigour that it takes to get there. For instance, and to mention one cultural indication of this, shows like Who Wants to be a Millionnaire? [Insert country name here] Got Talent, or [Insert state affiliation here] Idol… are premised on the idea that every Tom, Dick and Harry can perform at the highest level if simply given the chance. In itself, it is a positive message of hope, but this is another story when we know that SAT scores are at an all time low for example, and that education systems are broken in general in many developed countries. A more productive and effective message may be that hard work, consistency and discipline have a better chance of getting you where you need to be in life than hopes of instant fame and fortune because someone discovered you by coincidence – but we all know that this sells better as a Cinderella story… Parents can tell their children that they love them and believe in them all they want, the child will not have better chances of becoming an astronaut or gymnast (my Olympics plug!) without putting in the work. This is the idea that if we pretend that something is what we want it to be, and we choose to concentrate on that pretension instead of external reality, then this imaginary vision will become the reality that we want… positive thinking… remember The Secret? Welcome to the generation of “power of visualization.”
The modern emphasis on self-esteem and self-confidence at the expense of self-control and discipline is known to be problematic. There are many well documented studies showing that children with discipline and control will have much better skills to go through life than ones who feel loved and are pumped full of confidence and esteem by their parents. (see some of the references below)
Islamic teachings and self-discipline
As explained earlier, Islam holds self-discipline in the highest regard. Again and again, we are reminded as Muslims to exercise self-control, to be in perfect control of our faculties, to be moderate in everything and avoid excess wherever we can. Consider the following:
- Both men and women are instructed to lower their gaze so as to avoid temptations stemming from noticing people of the opposite gender;
- Muslims are instructed to avoid anger, which is considered as the root of evil;
- Muslims are instructed to pray five times a day, at specific times;
- fast for thirty days with very specific rules;
- perform the pilgrimage, which requires time, physical effort, money, and a willing to momentarily leave the comforts of everyday life;
- pay a part of their wealth on a yearly basis to the poor;
- be polite and respectful in all interactions;
- think before speaking and avoid insults and disrespect;
- be clean and organized in all affairs;
- be in constant rememberance of God;
- remain in a state of ritual purity as much as possible;
- eat and drink according to a code
I’m sure you get the point. (and I’m sure you also realize the unfortunate gap between Islam and Muslims…)
No one denies that these teachings are challenging, some more than others depending on every individual. But the benefits of adhering to these teachings far outweigh the effort. First, there is the satisfaction you get from knowing that you are obeying your creator and submitting to his command, and knowing that rewards of eternal bliss await you in the afterlife for your patience and struggles in perfecting yourself and purifying your heart. But even in this world, your patience and self-control will pay off in terms of psychological fortitude, mental clarity, and material success, should you wish to utilize your self-discipline for those worldly purposes. That is because Islam is not against material comfort and success, only against being enslaved to it by making it the priority of your life.
Although this what I am about to say would be considered a very basic and primitive understanding of religious teachings, getting started as a follower of Islam is not that different from the famous Marshmallow experiment of Walter Mischel, during which a group of children were given a marshmallow that they could eat immediately, or refrain from eating now and get a second one in addition to the first later. The same children were called back in their teenage years, and again in their 40s. Those who had displayed self-control and were therefore able to delay gratification performed consistently better in all aspects of life that were looked at in the experiment…
Anger in Islam certainly deserves its own entry (and its own book) because of the importance given to it and the significant literature on the topic. But for our purposes of the topic of self-control, I think anger is a very good case-in-point to illustrate the practicality of the teachings of Islam and their applicability to the various dimensions of our lives.
In Qur’anic verses and the narrations of the Holy Prophet and the Imams, we are repeatedly told that:
- The righteous are those who control their anger;
- Real strength is measured in one’s control over their anger;
- Whenever a situation angers you, do what it takes to regain your composure, for instance:
- if you’re standing, sit down or lie down;
- have a blood relative gently pat you on the arm, or shoulder;
- perform the wudu, or ritual ablution…
Another important principle in Islam is that, in addition to the remedies put in place to deal with issues after they occur, a lot of emphasis is placed on the preventative measures taken to avoid pitfalls before they occur. In the case of self-discipline, it is important for each of us to be aware of our strengths and weaknesses and recognize them realistically. This also means having a self-critical attitude, which is of the utmost important in Islamic ethics, where we are taught to do muraqaba (self-observation), muhasaba (self-assessment) and mu3ataba (self-reprimand) and even mu3aqaba (self-punishment).
Studies have shown that everyone feels drained after a long day, and that we have much less self-control under stress. Certain people, certain places, certain situations, certain foods… will weaken our self-control. Islam teaches us to know ourselves, and avoid putting ourselves in situations where we are testing these limits. And ensure that you have constant and daily reminders, such as your prayer, Qur’an, or perhaps someone whose reminding words are effective to re-energize your will for self-discipline.
Modern science and psychology teach us that the benefits of self-discipline in one area often spill over in the other areas of our lives, which ends up being like a domino effect. (see Baumeister, Willpower) Ellen Galinsky reviewed thousands of studies to identify the seven most essential life skills required to reach one’s full potential, and concluded that the top skill is self-control.
The consistent restraint that comes from self-discipline based on the Islamic system of values will elevate the spiritual worth of the soul and purify it. But this is only the beginning of the journey. With patience and piety, God promises to teach the heart directly, to make you feel and see in a way that enables you to move higher on the spiritual ladder, and that that new station will require a new level of patience and self-control, and so on and so forth. This transformative cycle of piety and divine knowledge entirely rests on the foundation of self-discipline.
Our faculties play against us when we are young and untrained. With enough practice, we can develop good habits, and then those faculties start helping us by pushing us towards what is good, and ensuring that we apply restraint where we should. As the soul is transformed through habit and then purification, it starts yearning for different things. The animalistic temptations and urges are always there, but they are much weaker and easier to control because the heart and mind are interested in other, more rewarding and fulfilling objects. This is the result of training the soul on a consistent basis.
Modern society teaches to pursue one’s desires and do whatever makes one happy with passion and confidence. Islam teaches self-discipline, and doing everything based on reason and calculation.
The significance of Islam’s slogan “Allahu Akbar” (God is greater) is the constant reminder that as a human being, you are not to accept servitude to anyone nor anything – except to your creator, because He alone is greater. Islam wants each and everyone to recognize that they are better than becoming enslaved to their desires, urges and temptations. Proximity to God requires a purity from everything, including everything that enslaves us. And this is precisely the point of religion, to teach and to purify, which are the two elements of the transformative cycle. Our servitude and enslavement to anything but God is the greatest disrespect towards his divinity. Our bowing down, our prostration before anything means that we have lost our dignity before that thing — unless it is before our Lord and creator. Islamic teachings emphasize a recognition of everyone’s potentially fulfilled humanity, not just the material or animalistic aspect of that humanity. And perhaps this disciplined, all-encompassing way of life, is a more acceptable definition of humanism than its classic interpretation.
- Roy F. Baumeister, Self-control – the moral muscle. February 2012 in the British Psychological Society Journal Volume 25 – Part 2. Pages: 112-115
- Muraven, Mark; Baumeister, Roy F. (2000). “Self-regulation and depletion of limited resources: Does self-control resemble a muscle?”. Psychological Bulletin 126 (2): 247–59.
- Hagger, Martin S.; Wood, Chantelle; Stiff, Chris; Chatzisarantis, Nikos L. D. (2010). “Ego depletion and the strength model of self-control: A meta-analysis”. Psychological Bulletin 136 (4): 495–525.
- Mead, N.L., Baumeister, R.F., Gino, F. et al. (2009). Too tired to tell the truth: Self-control resource depletion and dishonesty. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 594–597.