Practicing Self-Control

Last year I wrote an op-ed piece “An Opportunity to “Deal with Self” for GK. In that article, I proposed quarantine as an opportunity to take a break with the “habitualization” of everyday life. Also, I referred to some psycho-spiritual processes such as self-knowledge (ma’rifat an-nafs), self-discipline (tarbiyat an-nafs), self-nourishment (taghziyat an-nafs), self-introspection (muḥāsabat an-nafs) and self-purification (tazkiyat an-nafs) to deal with the stimulations, requirements, and aspirations of the “self”. In this article, a kind of continuation, I will try to approach the fasting of Ramaḍān (ṣawm al-Ramaḍān) within the applied context of these processes. The contextualization will help us to comprehend fasting as a comprehensive psycho-spiritual method capable of transforming, from negative to positive, the trajectories of human thoughts, attitudes, and behaviours. Specifically, I will talk about the dynamics of “self-control” (ḍabṭ an-nafs) – a transformative movement from “self-dominance” (ḥaymanat an-nafs) to “self-discipline” (tarbiyat an-nafs). Since the modern and post-modern “mechanical modelling” of life; a standard that measures/values everything as per its mechanical utility, has over-conditioned human mind. Therefore, physical exhibition; control on technology and accumulation of resources, of “self-dominance” is seen as the only prompt approach to achieve success. But, unfortunately, often times we either miserably fail or become less successful. The movement we realize it, we feel compelled to “deconstruct” the psychology of “self-dominance”. And, consciously, we try to move into the realm of “self-control”- a psycho-spiritual panacea.

Before discussing the correlation between “self-control” and fasting, it is relevant to provide a brief explanation of “self-control”; its definition, meaning and scope. In psychological theory, “self-control” is considered as a significant adaptive quality of human personality. It is a distinctive capacity of human cognition to deal with all sorts of situations positively. From the standpoint of religion, self-control is a contemplative practice that is exercised to bring whole human behaviour in coherence and conformity with certain religious ideals, values, morals, and social expectations. While deliberating on his theory of “ego depletion” Roy Baumeister, prolific American social psychologist, demonstrates that, “self-control is much more powerful and well-supported as a cause of personal success.” He goes on to admit that, “self-regulation failure is the major social pathology of our time.” The social functioning of self-control plays a crucial role in navigating the interactive mobility of self at individual and interpersonal level. Additionally, it contributes towards polishing the mechanism of counter-attitudinal behaviour. The psychological analysis of self-control tells us about the other psychological constructs such as “control over thoughts”, “impulse control”, “emotional control”, “habit breaking”, “delayed gratification” and “performance regulation” that have developed around the meaning and functionality of “self-control”. In Baumeisterian framing, self-control operates like a muscle, the more we use it the stronger it becomes provided there is constant flow of reinforcing energy. According to Tamim Mobayed, a professional cognitive behavioural therapist, “self-control” leads to better understanding of self, coexistence and social cohesion. Contradictorily, break down in “self-control” leads to anxiety, depression and chaos.

Self-control is a common concept amongst all spiritual traditions. Nevertheless, what makes Islam’s approach to “self-control” fundamentally distinctive is its methodological scheme. The major religions of the world such as Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism relate “self-control” with the practice of seclusion; abandoning the responsibilities of worldly life. These religious traditions believe that the real state of “self-control” can be only attained through the abandonment and extermination of self; its anticipations, its interactions, and its development. Here, the Islamic position is more rational. Islam invalidates the concept of “abandoning the worldly life” in categorical terms. For example, Islam authoritatively pronounces lā rahbāniyah fil Islam which means “there is no monasticism in Islam”. Instead, Islam recurrently recognizes the “material” inducements of self. Also, it provides detailed guidelines regarding fulfilling the “genuine” needs of self. From here emerges the question, how Islam deals with “self-control” in that case. Islam relates breaking with “self-control” to emergence of impertinence and mischief. In Qur’anic description, Pharaoh’s claim that “I am the greatest lord” and, similarly, his tyrannical rule could be seen in the context of losing self-control. It would be right to put that Pharaoh’s claim was the highest actualization of “self-dominance”. The Islamic method to attain “self-control” is twofold: individualistic and state-control. Individualistic approach deals with the reconciliation and reformation of individual through a range of socio-psycho-spiritual practices such as prayers (ṣalah), alms-giving (zakah) and fasting (ṣawm). While as, state-control is the interruption of a state on man’s action through a legal procedure. In the context of “self-control” at individual level, the fasting of Ramaḍān is regarded as the best psycho-spiritual exercise.

The Arabic word for fasting is “ṣawm”, which literally means, “to abstain” or “to be at rest”. Technically, it means to withhold eating, drinking and sexual practice (between spouses) from dawn to dusk. Fasting really puts a marker when it comes to recognizing man’s inherent weakness and dependency on the things that are often taken for granted. In Ramaḍān, the usual schedule of “living life” is adjourned. Consequently, attempts are made to rejuvenate the conscience through conscious exercising of “divinely guided” behavioural pattern. Thus, psychologically speaking, fasting is an institution of self-analysis and self-reflection. A fasting person must understand that fasting has not merely to do with “starvation” or “self-denial”; rather, it is prescribed as a dynamic transformative art of experiencing the pain of deprivation and hunger. It is a compassionate socio-spiritual method to understand and feel the psychology of “being deprived”. On one hand, it is a deep method to take break with the dark alleys of greed, mischief, and corruption. And, on the other hand, it is a powerful experience of love and sincerity. The principle of God-consciousness (taqwa), the central objective of fasting, elevates man’s vision to the level where he/she is able to see “the Reality beyond reality” (Al-ḥaqīqah warā’ al- ḥaqīqah). Man mindfully enters the cosmic orbit of “al-khalqu ‘ayālullah” meaning “the whole creation is God’s one family”. By the virtue of realizing an aesthetic “nearness to The Truth” (al-qurb min Al- Haqq), man imbibes the meaning of love (ḥub), benevolence (iḥsān), justice (‘adl), moderation (i‘etidāl), and thankfulness (shukūr). All these divinely-enthused attributes benefit man to attain the state of “self-control”.

Through experiencing fasting, man is spiritually endowed to grasp the “purpose of life” and learn to “live together” and “live productively”. In the month-long journey, he/she discovers that the participation in this world is enshrined in observing the “rights of self” (huqūq al-nafs), the “rights of God” (huqūq al-Allah) and the “rights of servants of God” (huqūq al-‘ibād). While fulfilling the “rights of others”, man learns to deal with, applying Watler Mischel’s marshmallow experimental theory, the cognitive functioning of “delayed gratification”. Man controls and, at times, sacrifices the mundane desires for the reward of peace and eternal blessing. At the level of managing interpersonal relations, man learns that various negative emotions such as badmouthing, jealousy, lying, fraudulence and speaking maliciously to others corrupt the self and lead to the diverged path of “self-dominance”. Fasting provides the outline that, “Whosoever does not give up forged speech and evil actions, God is not in need of his/her leaving the food and water”. For “short-temptations” and everything provoking man’s “self-dominance”, seeking inspiration from the Prophetic guidance, he(she) responds with a beautiful and gentle phrase, “anā ṣāyim” meaning “I am fasting”. From the personality development standpoint, this approach incredibly reforms man internally as well as externally. There are numerous psychological studies which suggest that cultivation of such attributes in human personality is a prerequisite condition for attaining the state of true happiness.

With such degree of “self-control”, a fasting person is expected to enjoy positive feelings such as optimism, peace and tranquillity. Similarly, by learning to deal with emotions through “self-control, a fasting person is expected to improve his/her mental and physical well-being. Consequently, a fasting person becomes less susceptible to various psychopathologies such as depression, frustration, hypocrisy and anxiety. Moreover, the process of “self-control” strengthens man’s commitment and control while dealing with ordinary matters of everyday life. It reconnects man with the inherent mental ability enabling him/her to reconnoitre the fundamental existential questions. Such level of mental ability is otherwise overshadowed by the “mechanical socialization” of self. To conclude, I will say that fasting of Ramaḍān presents Muslims with an opportunity to internalize the multi-functional positivity of “self-control”. Through the internalization process, man is enlightened to see the “inside world” (‘ālam al-dākhili), the state of fiṭrah in the Qur’anic terminology, which is willing to accept submission, humility, and faith- the true alchemy of “mindfulness”.

(The author is expert at the Alternative Perspectives and Global Concerns (APGC)