Education & Science Qur'an Reflections Seeking Knowledge

Psychology, Islam & Self-Control Saadia Khan

One of the things I like to do in my spare time is read psychology books. When I was about to complete my undergraduate degree—a double major in history and political science–I was informed by the registrar’s office that I was only two half-courses short of completing a minor in psychology. Apparently, almost all of my electives had been in psychology. I was intrigued by the idea of sticking around just one semester longer to complete the requirement, but ultimately, the excitement of starting my Masters’ and the prospects of international travel got in the way. Alhamdulillah (all praise due to God), I have no regrets.

Fast forward 7 years and I am still enthralled by the study of human nature and behaviour. Every time I visit the library or a bookstore or every time I find myself aimlessly surfing the internet, I pretty much always end up reading more about this fascinating subject. And lately, I’ve noticed an interesting trend. Psychologists are getting more and more captivated by the idea of self-control. Some literature has always been there, of course, but it seems the concept of willpower is finally getting the broad research and mainstream attention it deserves.

Now you may be wondering, why is this interesting? Of course, willpower is important. But for a long time, psychology was more concerned with ideas such as intelligence, self-esteem, and especially, happiness. Each of these is important, of course, but I could not help but feel something was missing.  For the most part, it was the obsession with happiness that I always found troubling. To be blunt, I have always found people who make their happiness their #1 priority to be quite selfish and short-sighted. The pursuit of self-fulfilment at-all-costs seems contradictory to the Islamic worldview, a frame of reference that has no problem with happiness in and of itself but which emphasizes patience and sacrifice as more noble goals.

Self-control, on the other hand, is perfectly Islamic. Our whole religion is based around it. One of the reasons we pray five times a day is to gain discipline. We fast in the month of Ramadan in order to “learn self-restraint.” (Qur’an 2:183). We partake in Hajj, partly, to practice fortitude.  We “lower our gaze” (24:31) to resist temptation. Even the pursuit of wealth is not by any means necessary: we are stringent about examining the how and why of whatever we earn and spend (17:26). We have to regulate what we consume. We have to regulate our speech. We have to constantly exert control over our thoughts and feelings. We have to control our anger, our jealousy; any feelings of pride or arrogance. We constantly have to check our actions against our intentions.

We even have to exercise restraint in the permissible display of our emotions. When at war, Muslims are commanded to fight honourably and ethically. When we fall in love with our spouses, the expectation from our religion is to be temperate and keep the display of our affections limited to the domestic sphere.  When someone close to us dies, we are allowed to cry and show sadness, but we cannot wail and excessively lament. Even the duration of our mourning is limited to three days at which point we are expected to collect ourselves and move on.

The ethos of modern societies is to pursue with passion whatever you desire. But Islam emphasizes restraint, discipline and sabr (patience).

The Qur’an even goes as far as to say: “Who is more astray than one who follows his own lusts?” (28:50). The implication is that the opposite of that, a person who is in control of his desires, represents the pinnacle of right guidance.

In the past few decades, self-restraint has resumed its once-forgotten place at the centre of psychology. The turning point was triggered in a now-famous study by Walter Mischel of Stanford University, where children aged four and five were asked whether they wanted to eat one marshmallow now or two marshmallows later. The idea was to test the ability of these children to delay gratification. Many children gave in right away and consumed the marshmallow in front of them. But some were able to wait as long as fifteen minutes, successfully repressing their current desire for the promise of a double reward later. Mischel and his team then followed the children into adulthood and found that those who were able to control themselves as children subsequently performed better in school, sports and other extra-curricular activities, attained higher educational and salary levels, engaged in far less drug and alcohol abuse, and reported stronger, more satisfying relationships. In short, those children who were able to practice self-control were more successful in every aspect of their lives decades later.

Moreover, in a review of thousands of studies, founder and president of The Families and Work Institute Dr. Ellen Galinsky concluded that there are seven essential life skills that every child needs in order to reach his or her fullest potential. What is the top entry on her list? You guessed it: self-control. And this is based on decades of frontline observations and volumes upon volumes of research.

More recently, one of the world’s most prolific psychologists, Dr. Roy Baumeister of Florida State University published a book entitled Willpower that basically summarized decades of his and his colleagues’ research in the field.  What he essentially found is that success, no matter how you define it, often boils down to two things: intelligence and self-control. While you cannot increase your God-given intelligence, you can definitely improve your self-control.  How important is willpower? According to Baumeister “self-regulation failure is the major social pathology of our time.” I’ll let you read that again in order for it to sink in. Baumeister goes on to discuss various proven ways to improve self-control including: eating and sleeping right, keeping a diary, establishing routines, getting organized, implementing personalized distraction techniques and practicing guided meditation. He also demonstrates how the effects of successfully disciplining yourself in one area of life spill over into other areas of your life, creating a domino effect of positive transformation. As a Muslim, that sounds very familiar.

I could go on but you get the point. Science is only now uncovering the reality that our religion has taught all along. The secret to success is discipline and self-control.  We have always known that the ability to make choices is what separates us from animals. Now we also now that the ability to self-regulate is what separates average people from the truly remarkable. This is the kind of discipline that Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He) is trying to build in us through the various acts of worship and rituals He commands.  Who else Knows better the intricacies of human nature? Allah (swt) wants us to be successful and indicates the way. It is up us to now to act upon this knowledge.

“Oh you who believe, endure and outdo all others in endurance, be ready, and observe your duty to Allah, so that you may succeed.” (3:200)

Done with the right intentions, not only will self-control warrant success in this life, it will also guarantee success in the life to come. May Allah (swt) make us of those who practice discipline and remain firm on the His path. Ameen.

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  • Self-control differentiates between someone who enslaves himself, even while none enslave him, and someone who prepares himself to be capable of freedom/autonomy.

    I did read about the marshmallow study in a science magazine some time back. I also found it interesting. I have seen people withstand difficulties and come out better despite having few advantages to start with – but possessing self-control. I have also seen people (one of whom is very dear to me) who possesses many good qualities including intelligence but utterly fail to climb out of an aimless life, merely from lacking self-discipline.

  • Self Control and discipline are two attributes,which lay the foundation of human essence & personality.Those people with these vital qualities are at par with Islam and achieve success at some point in their lives.
    The five fundamentals of Islam revolve around discipline & Self Control.Hence to have faith in our religion its important to lead a tougher path which makes us physically & mentally adept to face the challenges of life

  • From here in Northern England I can easily see that the writer of this piece has followed a noble course of study to give the present insights. However for a workman like myself much of whose effort involves cleaning up the environment I would like to ask the following question(s).Today for example at the back of the supermarket(superstore?)car park where the rycycling containers are situated,why there was as much stuff on the ground as in the containers(which were by no means full),and when I use the word ‘stuff’ detritus would serve better,’disgusting’might even be said by some, but they are most likely just passing by like the people in the Prophet Isa’s parable set along the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.Even the adjacent railway(railroad)track has been treated to a shower of bottles such as beer and whiskey,cans & plastic such as any that can be named,wet sodden clothes-by no means all western,& in contrast in the vicinity many prestigious parked vehicles to remind one of the world as it is.
    First and foremost we can agree that even the urban environment must at a fundamental level be regarded as
    based on the creation of Allah(swt :exalted is He) How therefore do we see it treated so shabbily) How can I as a workman even finish the rerquired work and make time for the afternoon prayer.Like the believers in the old time who looked for dry sand I have to find green grass esp with drops of moisture on them & say the first lines or two of the Seven oft repeated verses.
    When I worked on the railway track itself or subsequently on the fishing boats we could not behave like some of the present day public do for on the one there was the issue of rail safety and on the other the boat would be rocking in the waves- not a single thing did the skipper allow to be cast aside upon the deck.
    I have to smoke a rolled up cigarette to get through this work,so where is my muslem discipline going then? For we still have the work of putting as much of the rubbish into the appropriate places.I brought a piece of discarded copper pipe home some 3ft in length.If only people realised how many millions of pounds (say dollars, say rand etc) it took of capital investment before that piece of copper would provide them with clean water they would surely be less wasteful.
    It seems to me that I should have cried out ‘Allahu Akbar…’ when this evening at the filling station for fuel to get home, it was said to me “do you work in a coal mine?^I made in reply some conversation about the cleanliness of minds and hearts,though I am aware from our virtual mosque that Allah sets His faithful to task.May I conclude these comments by saying how much the pieces on the website are uplifting to help us in this
    work even though I may lack self discipline in its
    sought for modelled entirity.Praise be to Allah,the beneficent,the merciful who guides us and accepts our honesty as He sees it.Brian Cokayne, Stockport, England.

  • talk about happiness in conventional therapy we knew like EFT tapping, but in Indonesia, they combine it with spiritual value from our religion, like ikhlas and tawakkal

  • You said psychology had been obsessed.with happiness. Yes. But then you go on to talk as if there was some idea that giving in to every whim, that pursuit of every short term pleasurable sensation, was what psychology called “happiness.” And that is just false. In fact it has long been known that in genetal, that may be “fun” for a bit but rarely brings longterm happiness

    • I am not trying to be critical, i am on my phone and typing is hard so i am just being brief giving a counterpoint. I super appreciate your article and would LOVE to see more. I am also a lay person with a love and interest in psych literature, and i super enjoy examing psychology from varying perspectives as it applies to islam. God islam is awesome. Abyway glad to see another person has interest in this stufg, sorry i suck at typing on my phone, and thanks for the article.

    • I agree with cmm. Happiness and following every whim are very different. I don’t know if psychology today really is ‘obsessed’ with happiness as a first priority, but I personally think that there are many muslims who are ‘obsessed’ with this notion of self restraint. It is dangerous to live with so much restraint that you fall into depression. Both self restraint and happiness should exist together harmoniously so you can live as a responsible person.

      • Well said. My response would be that happiness is just a fleeting feeling, contentedness is a state of being. We should strive for the second and not necessarily the first. Self-control is an important element of that endeavour. I never meant to suggest that self-control should be the ends, but simply the means. I know there are people who carry this concept too far…. may Allah (swt) help us find a healthy middle ground, ameen.

  • MashaAllah, what an article!!! This is by far the best article I have ever read in this blog. As a number cruncher, you are making me want to go major in Psychology.

    It totally makes sense, 1000 percent. What is the best form of Jihad. We all know it, Jihad of the Nafs which literally translate to Self-Control.

    I would call this article, a tafsir of Jihad of the Nafs.

    May Allah reward you immensely and give fullfill your wish in this life and in the hereafter.

  • That was an excellent read. I appreciated the balance between Islamic ideas and Western scientific discoveries. Looking forward to seeing more from this author. I’m specifically interested in reading about ideas of self esteem as viewed by Islam and the West and how to reconcile the two.

  • Thank you for sharing your insights. I feel somehow fog has been lifted and many questions answered, coming from a converts perspective. Sheds some light on the inner-struggle and Insha’Allah how to better manage it.

  • I am a psychologist, therefore I can speak to my knowledge of the most recent research and advances in our field. First of all, I am happy to see that there is an article here that references both Islam and psychology, which is uncommon. Second, I would like to say that the most current psychological treatments (what we call the “third-wave” in psychology) focus on this idea that the pursuit of happiness and desire to control pain is precisely the reason that humans suffer. This third waves also addresses the idea that many individuals are driven by their thoughts/emotions rather than our values, which often contradict our internal experience in the moment. However, it is the ability to BEHAVE according to our values that gives us meaning. Thus, it fits quite nicely with Islam in that if we define our values according to Islamic principles, then we can hold tightly to those values and not act on our every thought and emotion. If you are interested in learning about this, look up Ramadan mubarak.

  • […] Psychology, Islam, and Self-Control by Saadia Khan (Guest Author) Islam emphasizes restraint, discipline and sabr (patience). We pray five times a day is to gain discipline. We lower our gaze to resist temptation. Even the pursuit of wealth is not by any means necessary. […]

  • Assalamu alaikum

    Inspiring article, that you may be rewarded.

    Are you familiar with the work of Carol Dweck about the concept of growth mindset? Also related to the concept of sabr.

    Assalamu alaikum

  • Nafsology
    Nafs is an energy created by Allah (SWT) on fitrah, present within the body, never transformed into any other form of energy, it increased (promoted) by knowledge, responsible for all material and –non-material things of the human being, and all commands (do and do not), dies but mortal.Taef is on nas.
    Nafs has two major components (1) non-material responsible of religion and religion-related issues & (2) material responsible of the body needs.
    Healthy nafs is that nafs which is in harmony in both components.
    Fitrah nafs has a campus-like which is always directed to Islam (look at very young children) how they have fitrah nafs, they are pure and innocent. This pure nafs deviates from the right path by (1) Satan & (2) wrong knowledge.
    The problem of Quran translation is that they translate, e.g. English, nafs and its derivatives into soul or psyche which is completely wrong.
    If you would like this summary of my work, I will write next time in Arabic with proofs from Kitaab & Suonnah to avoid wrong translation. Actually I call it Nafsology but not Islamic psychology, because there is huge difference in the belief (E’teqaad) in nafs and psyche.

  • Al-hamdulillah

    I’m excited to read this insightful topic
    And made me dare studying my psychology degree program.

  • Ma sha Allah a really well written article. What I find interesting and Al Hamdulillah we should be thankful of it that Allah has made it obligatory upon us to pray five times a day (guided meditation). Scientists have discovered that willpower is limited, so if you make conscious decision in a day your will to make them decreases each time you make one decision.

    Keeping this in mind, Sala’h is like charging our willpower five times a day. Subhan’Allah.

  • Masha Allah . It’s a nice article. May Allah bless you with more works to transform all age of people to right path.

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