In the modern world, we are constantly seeking to improve ourselves. We seek to better our bank accounts, our bodies, and our minds. We turn to gurus, self-care professionals, and psychologists to help us achieve improvements. While the current trend is to talk about the importance of mindfulness, another principle that is often endorsed in today’s self-help literature is the concept of self-control. Psychologists and social scientists have done experiments like the popular Marshmallow test, to highlight the importance of delaying gratification, the ability to tell one’s own self “no.” This principle however is nothing new for those who have grown up in Muslim households where the idea of limiting one’s nafs, in accordance with sharia, is central.
In Islam, control of our desires, whether they be halal or haram, is a key to finding success in the dunya and in the hereafter. In our study of the Qur’an and Sunnah, we can find so many examples of how a mastery of self-control can help us in our journey to the next life. The practice of self-control allows us to use our time and energy and resources to fulfill our purpose and make sure that our time in this life is not wasted but utilized to demonstrate our eman. The Qur’an reminds us: “He did not accept the truth, nor did he pray; but he denied and turned away! Then he went to his family with swagger. Woe to you, and woe! Again, woe to you, and woe! Does man think that he will be left sudaa?” (75:31-36). “Sudaa” is an Arabic word which means “in vain, without purpose, wasted, to no avail, producing no result, pointless.”
Western culture promotes a certain type of lifestyle. We are told by big companies to “just do it” (Nike) or “have it your way” (Burger King). Even in India, self-indulgence is touted by companies like Fastrack, a youth accessories brand. Their new slogan is “You Do You.” Buy what you want. Spend to “treat yourself” under the hedonistic philosophy that you only have one life to live so you should “live it up,” have as much fun as possible. Such an outlook has led to an insane amount of consumerism, irresponsible spending, debt, and extravagance. People shop recklessly on Amazon, making quick purchases with a click of a button, giving in to cheap fashion outlets, and then throwing away items that instead could be donated. In Islam, we are encouraged to practice self-control to limit such behavior. In ayah 26 of Surah Al-Isra, or the Night Journey, Allah tells us, “Give to close relatives their due, as well as the poor and the traveler. And do not spend wastefully” (17:26). If we are able to change our spending habits and learn to tell ourselves “no” when we have the impulse to spend unnecessarily, we will be practicing self-control and also focusing on caring for those that Allah has told us to spend on – our families and those in need.
Restraining Our Sexual Desires
Another major aspect of practicing self-control is to temper our innate desires. These desires whether they are for food, material goods, or sex, are part of our natural human makeup. They are not wrong, but they must be tempered. Islam provides us the understanding of how important it is to control our lower selves – the nafs al-ammarah, the base self that incites to sin and gives in to the temptations of morally low desires and uncontrolled appetites. By controlling this lower self, we are able to seek Allah’s pleasure and realize other aspirations that may have been blocked by the noise and frenzy of the lower nafs. In ayahs 40 and 41 of Surah Al-Naziat, or the Snatchers, Allah says, “But as for him who feared standing before his Lord and restrained himself from vain desires, verily, Paradise will be his abode” (79:40-41).
Here we are reminded that Allah loves those who prevent themselves from indulging egotistic or lustful desires. In a society that prides itself in encouraging the seeking of joy in anything the self wants, without boundaries, Islam reorients us to find fulfillment in the halal. This is why it’s so important to marry, whenever possible, at a young age, so that the worldly temptations that provoke lust and illicit passions can be more easily avoided. In the safety and security of a peaceful and loving marriage, one can fulfill their desires, and avoid the haram.
Being Mindful of Allah
Controlling our desires, whether they be halal or haram, is ultimately achieving the goal of being mindful of Allah. Mindfulness of Allah comes when we maintain within the involvements and transactions of our worldly affairs our consciousness of His presence. Whatever our senses perceive, whatever we ponder about, whatever objectives we pursue, we should aim to do so knowing Allah is there with us, guiding us and witnessing all that we do and say. The practice of staying mindful of Allah SWT in order to gain closeness to Him is experienced in the most profound way during Ramadan. When we voluntarily give up eating and drinking, our senses and our perspective seem to alter so that everything we do during the day and night is focused on remembrance of Allah.
In ayah 183, of Surah Al-Baqarah, The Cow, Allah commands Muslims: “O believers! Fasting is prescribed for you — as it was for those before you — so perhaps you may be righteous.” The last word in the verse is a derivative of taqwa, and it means “leading to taqwa.” Taqwa is fear of Allah’s wrath, but it also is to remember Him at all times, to be mindful of Him, and that includes knowing Him as the most merciful and most forgiving Lord. With this ayah, we understand that in fulfilling the obligation of fasting, we will become more mindful of Allah. However, I see that this idea of mindfulness of Allah can be both the cause and result of having self-control. How? Because when our focus is on Allah, and achieving nearness to Him, we remember to restrain ourselves in all our everyday aspects. And when we find success in that restraint – stopping ourselves from engaging in excess or avoiding bad behavior – we are able to more easily focus on Allah, and He SWT rewards us for our actions. We do not want to be among those who say on the Day of Accountability, “Ah, woe is me, that I was forgetful of Allah…” (39:56).
I think it’s important that we, both in the Western world and in the worldwide ummah, work to practice self-control. This is especially important as we are surrounded by temptations to partake of drugs, alcohol, and pornography. And addiction to these various harms is a growing problem, tragically affecting individuals, families, and society. We must educate the next generation on the slick marketing and seductive cultural fads that try to push us away from our ability to control our desires. We can take advantage of practical methods found in psychological journals and self-help books to practice self-control, but the ultimate form of education in this arena is in learning our deen. A strong focus on obtaining ilm, or knowledge, of Qur’an and sunnah, will help our ummah to better understand the importance of self-control. In doing so, we will transform our minds, bodies, and souls, forever orienting them in the desire to reach the next life.