In his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins shares a question that preyed on his mind for years: what are the universal characteristics that cause a company to go from good to great? Collins and his research team identified a set of elite companies that made the leap to great results and sustained those results for at least fifteen years. Over five years, the research team compared them against a set of companies that remained only good. After sifting through mountains of data and thousands of pages of interviews, Collins and his crew discovered the key determinants of greatness, and at their centre was the fostering of a culture of discipline.
What is discipline?
Discipline, or in Arabic al-Indibāt, often has negative connotations, associated with punishment, but this is not the discipline I refer to. “Discipline is”, as defined by Abraham Lincoln, “choosing between what you want now and what you want most”, or the ability to say “no” when yearning to say “yes.” Having said this, I shift our attention to another Abraham whose footsteps humanity follows every year during the season of Hajj, the exemplar worshipper, the close friend of Allah, and the one-man nation: the Prophet Ibrahim ﷺ. During these blessed days of Dhul Hijjah, his biography is recalled and his endless virtues are sung, some casting light on his Tawhīd, others on his immediate submission to his Lord’s instructions, whilst others, as I shall do today, will cast light on his ethic of discipline, the “choosing between what you want now and what you want most.”
He was instructed by Allah to migrate. Though man by his nature prefers the comfort of home, what Ibrahim wanted most was Allah’s pleasure. So, in a mighty display of discipline, he left his homeland. Similarly, he was instructed to leave his suckling son, Ismā’īl, and his mother, in an uninhabited, barren desert, to construct the Ka’ba, to slaughter his son, and to self-circumcise at the frail age of 80, amidst many other tests. Again, man—by his nature—inclines towards the exact opposites of these matters; closeness to family, freedom from manual labour, warding off the slightest harm from one’s child, and a pain-free life at the senior age of 80. What Ibrahim ﷺ wanted most however was Allah’s acceptance, and so in a disciplined fashion, he delivered each and every time.
وَإِذِ ٱبْتَلَىٰٓ إِبْرَٰهِـۧمَ رَبُّهُۥ بِكَلِمَـٰتٍۢ فَأَتَمَّهُنَّ
“And (recall) when Abraham was tested by his Lord with commandments, which he fulfilled…”
Hajj is a yearly reminder of the family of Ibrahim, with each of its rites being a vivid lesson in discipline, as Allah said:
فَمَن فَرَضَ فِيهِنَّ ٱلْحَجَّ فَلَا رَفَثَ وَلَا فُسُوقَ وَلَا جِدَالَ فِى ٱلْحَجِّ
“Whoever commits to ˹performing˺ pilgrimage, let them stay away from intimate relations, foul language, and arguments during pilgrimage…”
Despite the rough setting, the unfamiliar faces, and, at times, the clash of cultures, the pilgrims display remarkable unity and togetherness, as they follow a set order in one uniform, one voice, one motion, in a national spectacle of discipline that is second to none. The Sharia’s intention, however, is for the Hajj ethic of discipline to overflow from the boundaries of the Haram and into the everyday life of every Muslim. Indeed, there can be no flourishing at both the worldly and religious levels without discipline. Consider the following modern examples.
At first glance, as one arrives into Hiroshima on the bullet trains of contemporary Japan, it is difficult to imagine the tragedy that once befell this city. Two minutes after the American B-29 bomber had dropped its nuclear bomb, the city ceased to exist. This was on the 6th of August 1945. Despite the death of hundreds of thousands, the lack of Japan’s natural resources with exception to fish, its intense volcanic problem of 100 active volcanoes—more than any other country—and suffering around 1500 earthquakes a year, Hiroshima’s resurrection began just hours after it was effectively wiped off the map.
By the next day, lights came back on in some regions. Power was restored to 30% of the surviving homes. Four days later, water pumps were repaired. Thirty employees in the Bank of Japan died instantly when the bomb dropped, yet just day days later, the bank reopened, working under open skies in clear weather, and beneath umbrellas when it rained.
In fact, their discipline is such that the word “Japan” and “holiday” rarely feature in the same sentence. The last trains at midnight are filled with people returning home from work. Their work ethic is so intense that the word karoshi – “death from overwork” – was invented in the 1970s to describe this Japanese phenomenon.
In his book Made in Japan, Morito Akio mentioned that after World War II, the Japanese’s love for their country drove them to work 16-hour shifts in return for a cup of rice without complaining. In fact, many firms in Japan offer their employees bonuses to incentivise them to leave early, yet employees continue till as late as 9pm.
Germany suffered two world war losses within a single generation, having lost around 6 million men in World War II alone, in addition to another five million prisoners of war. The raids on Germany were so intense that some assaults were termed the “thousand-bomber raids” where forces of 1000 bombers raided Germany on each occasion. By the end of the war, the male population severely declined, and up to two million German women had been raped, bringing about half a million children who did not know their biological fathers.
Seeing that Allied bombing had flattened nearly every German city, and seeing that German men were either dead or in captivity, the women came down to the streets to achieve two matters: to clear 400 million cubic metres of rubble using their bare hands to rebuild their nation, and to search for school books to reopen schools. In just ten years, every German industry was operational, including transport, education, security, construction, healthcare. A few decades later, German products have the best reputation in the world, it the largest national economy in Europe, and is the world’s biggest capital exporter. Germany is today one of the world’s seven largest “advanced” economies.
The above are examples of nations who replaced their immediate wants—individual comforts—in pursuit of what they desired more: the prosperity of their nations. In other words, they are examples of discipline; choosing between what you want now and what you want most. As for us, ambassadors of Allah’s chosen way of life for humanity and believers in an eternal one that shall follow, our duty to lead lives of discipline is greater than all. None should be better at controlling their impulses, emotions, reactions and behaviors, delaying gratification and focusing on the most important task in front of them—arriving safely at Jannah—than the Muslims.
The Prophet ﷺ said:
إنك لن تدعَ شيئًا للهِ عزَّ وجلَّ إلا أبدلك اللهُ به ما هو خيرٌ لك منه
“There is nothing that you leave for the sake of Allah except that He will replace it for you with something better.”
The examples of this rule in action are innumerable.
When the Prophet Yusuf, at the prime of his youth, was attempted to be seduced by the wife of al-‘Azīz, he demonstrated discipline, opting for the confines of prison over that of fornication. In gratitude, Allah compensated him authority on the land, granting him unrestricted access to space that he was once deprived of in jail. Then, in a bizarre turn of events, the same lady who had once tried to seduce him returned to him as a humbled widow requesting marriage. On their wedding night, he said to her: “This is better than what you had wished for.”
Similarly, when the Prophet Sulayman found himself marveling at the splendour of his horses during a parade till he had missed the ‘Asr salāh, his reaction, again, was one of immense discipline, sacrificing each and every horse in repentance. In their place, Allah compensated Sulayman with the control of winds, mounting its back to whatever destination he desired.
Likewise, when the Muhājirūn—the early migrant Muslims of Makkah—abandoned their homes and livelihoods in search for a place where they could worship their Lord, Allah compensated them with the conquest of the world and replaced their homes with the east and west of the globe as homes. This is the way of Allah that never alters; the hands of the disciplined are never left empty.
Had he who missed his prayer acted with discipline by forcing himself to pray, the subsequent satisfaction of worship and reward of obedience would have erased any memory of the initial struggle of praying or heading to the Masjid. Had she who neglected the correct hijab acted with discipline by keeping a defiant hold of it, the wholesome matters of life would have, sooner or later, come her way, be it a happy marriage, or its likes. Had the Muslim businessman behaved with discipline, restraining himself from the doubtful or unlawful sources of wealth, its permissible equivalent would have certainly made its way to him. Had s/he who succumbed to a lust disciplined themselves into taking tangible steps to mend themselves, to compel their gaze to the ground, to end conversations and sever illegitimate relationships, Allah would have helped rid them of their sinful ways till the very last trace.
Steps to developing discipline
Indeed, today’s world, as well as the next, is highly ruthless towards the undisciplined. Like every other trait in life, however, discipline is a choice and can be learned. Below are a few suggestions.
Be motivated by a goal
‘Motivation’ comes from the root word ‘motive’; the ‘why’ behind you are doing something. As for Muslims, no motive is superior to theirs;
إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ ٱشْتَرَىٰ مِنَ ٱلْمُؤْمِنِينَ أَنفُسَهُمْ وَأَمْوَٰلَهُم بِأَنَّ لَهُمُ ٱلْجَنَّةَ
“Allah has indeed purchased from the believers their lives and wealth in exchange for Paradise…”
However, as sight of one’s motive is lost, so too is willpower. So, take steps to keep the image of that goal crystal clear through reflective recitation of Qur’an and regular attendance of classes of knowledge.
Create a to-do list
Every grand goal of life can (and must) be broken down into a summarised daily to-do list, including the goal of paradise. When you find yourself thinking of this list, writing it down, and then crossing (some of) them out in accomplishment, consider yourself on a clear path to discipline.
Identify and remove temptations and distractions
Just as some foods are termed ‘junk’, there are also junk habits, junk content, and even junk people. Whether it is another human being, a mobile phone, tobacco, video games, ill-natured friends, identify them and then remove them. So long as they remain within sight, you will reach out. So, as the maxim goes, ‘Out of sight, out of mind’.
Find trusted mentors
Experts are ideal, but life is not. So, if experts are unavailable, a mentor could be a friend who is capable of giving constructive, even painful, feedback. People spend fortunes hiring coaches to stay on top of their fitness or professional goals. Your religion is worthier of this search. Connect with a Muslim friend, tell them about your goals, and commit to other than yourself.
الْمُؤْمِنُ مِرْآةُ الْمُؤْمِنِ
“The believer is the mirror of the believer.”
Expect failures, and so plough on
Part of you will fight against this advice. Another part may actually try to apply it, but will find itself making the wrong decisions at times, behaving in undisciplined ways, whilst other times simply failing dismally. Change is hard and riddled with setbacks. This is precisely why the instruction of being a committed and steadfast Muslim appears side-by-side with the instruction to repent:
فَاسْتَقِيمُوا إِلَيْهِ وَاسْتَغْفِرُوهُ
“So stand true to Him and seek His forgiveness.”
Part of being disciplined is recognising that occasional failure is part of the process. Track down the root cause, and then get your head back into the game of discipline.
A prophetic bridge
Discipline is not about punishing oneself or restricting one’s right for leisure. It is choosing between what you want now and what you want most, or the ability to say “no” when you really want to say “yes”. It is the bridge that connects where one is now and the destination of paradise. This was a bridge that Prophet Ibrahim ﷺ crossed during his life, and perhaps this partly explains why Ibrahim’s legacy is so heavily connected to this yearly occasion of Hajj and ‘Eid al-Adha;
To encourage every Muslim to cross that same bridge.
 Al-Qur’an, 2:124
 Al-Qur’an, 2:197
 Ahmad, on the authority of Abu Qataada and Abu al-Dahmaa
 Rawda al-Muhibbeen
 Al-Qur’an, 9:111
 Al-Daawood, on the authority of Abu Huraira
 Al-Qur’an, 41:6