Quality 3: Self-Control
“What it lies in our power to do, it lies in our power not to do.” – Aristotle
Patience and resilience are words that carry a great depth of meaning. They denote self-control, perseverance, commitment, consistency, discipline, determination, grit, willpower, and fortitude. In the Islamic tradition, there is an overarching term that connects all these meanings. This term is the word ṣabr. Ṣabr is usually translated as patience, but this is a very limited rendering of the word, as it does not capture its vast implications. For instance, the word patience may have negative connotations that we would not associate with the word ṣabr. When we hear the word patience, it might conjure an image of a passive or stand still reaction to a negative, difficult, and unplanned situation. We may picture a person hoping that something better will or would have happened. In the same manner, patience is sometimes equated with waiting. However, all these shades of meaning are far from the Islamic reality of ṣabr.
The Cambridge dictionary defines patience as “the ability to wait, or to continue doing something despite difficulties, or to suffer without complaining or becoming annoyed”.
Resilience, a word similar to patience, is defined as “the ability to be happy, successful, etc. after something difficult or bad has happened”. Again, as I will expound on in this chapter, these definitions do not come close to approximating the meaning of the word ṣabr.
How does Ṣabr Relate to Self-control?
Contrary to our superficial understanding of patience, the origin of the Arabic word ṣabr actually relates to self-control. Thus, the Islamic term ṣabr comprises of virtuous moral characteristics through which one withholds from doing what is ignoble and unbefitting, and through which one perseveres in doing what is right. Ṣabr is a spiritual strength that rectifies the affairs of the self and causes it to stand upright.
Taking all the above mentioned points into consideration, we can confidently conclude that the closest term to Islamic ṣabr is self-control. Some might point out that there are differences and similarities between the various translations or terms (derivatives) connected to ṣabr. However, it is beyond the remit of this study to delve into this further at this point.
Self-control, an aspect of inhibitory control, is the ability to regulate one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviour in the face of temptations and impulses. As an executive function, self-control is a cognitive process that is necessary for regulating one’s behaviour to achieve specific goals.
Self-control is one of the most fundamental qualities and is required to achieve any type of success. For those who want to lose weight, managing what types of food are eaten and exercising regularly will require self-control. For those who want to be awarded top degrees, working hard and intelligently in a world full of frivolity and distraction will also demand self-control. Those who want to improve their behaviour and character will need to exercise self-control by choosing behaviours that will often represent the tougher choice. Whatever the endeavour, If a human being is seeking success, self-control is absolutely essential.
The Prophet ﷺ referred to patience – the traditional translation for self-control – as “illumination”. Allah referred to the Sun as “a shining light and the Moon a derived light”. The main difference between the Sun and the Moon – as science states and this verse of the Quran appears to indicate – is that the Sun is the source of light while the Moon is a simple reflection of light. Similarly, ṣabr is like the Sun, with all the other subsequent good qualities and attitudes connected to it being merely a reflection of its light.
ʿUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb رضي الله عنه said: “The best parts of our lives which we experienced were when we had ṣabr. Had ṣabr been a man, it would be magnanimous.” 
ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib رضي الله عنه said: “Patience is to faith what the head is to the body: if it is cut off, the body perishes.” He then raised his voice and said: “There is no faith for one who has no patience!”
Ṣabr as self-control is at the heart of many praised qualities in Islam. In fact, one may convincingly argue that thinking – the first quality we considered – and self-control are like the parents of all good qualities. Think about it for a moment: which good quality can you think of that could exist without one of these two qualities?
One of the key quotations equating ṣabr to self-control is a decisive statement from the Prophet ﷺ:
“The strong man is not the good wrestler, but the strong man is he who controls himself when he is angry.” 
In this hadith, the Prophet ﷺ mentioned three types of strength: physical, emotional, and intellectual. Yet, as clearly indicated in the statement of Allah’s Messenger ﷺ, the real power of human beings lies in the type of intellect that confers a person with self-control.
Anas reported that the Prophet ﷺ passed by some people who were wrestling. He asked, “What is this?” They said: “So-and-so is the strongest, he can beat anybody.” The Prophet ﷺ said, “Shall I not tell you who is even stronger than him? The man who, when he is mistreated by another, controls his anger, has defeated his own shayṭān and the shayṭān of the one who made him angry.”
Similarly, Allah says in the Qur’an:
“And not equal are the good deed and the bad. Repel [evil] by that [deed] which is better; and thereupon the one whom between you and him is enmity [will become] as though he was a devoted friend. But none is granted it except those who are patient, and none is granted it except one having a great portion [of good].”
It thus becomes evident that ṣabr in those two quotations is not just simply patience or even resilience; it goes beyond these dimensions to exercise self-control.
Many Muslim scholars have mentioned that ṣabr consists of three main categories.
- Ṣabr or controlling oneself when tempted.
- Ṣabr or controlling oneself to fulfil the commandments of Allah.
- Ṣabr or controlling oneself when faced with unprecedented calamities to remain balanced and to not act in a regrettable way.
All of these types of ṣabr can be seen as observing self-control to do what is correct, even if it is difficult. What is correct may entail abstaining from doing the wrong thing or persisting in doing a difficult yet correct course of action. In terms of the third example, this requires self-control in not harbouring negative feelings and thoughts towards one’s Creator when faced with hardships or calamities. The wise Muslim who has submitted to Allah recognises his Lord well; they understand that Allah loves them and cares for them more than they could possibly fathom. While they undergo hardship, and possibly even witness others going through calamitous misfortune, this person understands that this is all from Allah’s wisdom and His infinite knowledge. This will lead to contentment and acceptance of Allah’s decree, since the believer rests assured that there will be a good outcome, even if he cannot foresee the after-effect.
Self-control is the Essence of Success
In this life, success and achievement are not handed to us on a golden plate. You must put in effort to achieve what you want. From an Islamic perspective, this is the principle of jihād or ‘struggle’, which, in essence, means putting in effort and struggling to overcome obstacles. Allah summarized this through a very profound and short statement,
“And those who strive hard for Us – We will surely guide them to Our ways. And indeed, Allah is with the doers of good.”
Many people think that achievement or victory is dependent mainly on strength and power. However, the truth is without any doubt the opposite. Victory is mainly dependent on persistence and determination, which are the equivalent English terms for ṣabr.
The Prophet ﷺ beautifully explained this reality by addressing Ibn ʿAbbās – who was a young talented boy at the time – with the following golden words: “Know that there is much good in being patient with what you detest, victory will come with patience, affliction will come with relief, and with hardship comes ease.” 
This meaning is confirmed in numerous places in the Qur’an and Sunnah. For example, Allah says in the Qur’an, “O you who have believed, persevere, and endure, and remain stationed and fear Allah that you may be successful”. We also find an amazing quotation about the reasons for victory in the Qur’an, when Saul’s army faced with Goliath and his forces. The former’s army said:
“‘There is no power for us today against Goliath and his soldiers.’ But those who were certain that they would meet Allah said, ‘How many a small company has overcome a large company by permission of Allah. And Allah is with the patient’”.
The Marshmallow Test
The psychologist Walter Mischel, who was a professor at Stanford University, conducted a series of famous experiments during the 1970s that investigated the importance of delayed gratification. In these experiments, children were offered a choice: they could either choose to eat one treat right away (usually a cookie or a marshmallow), or they could wait a brief period in order to get two snacks.
At this point, the researcher would leave the child alone in a room with a single treat. Unsurprisingly, many of the children chose to eat the single treat the moment the experimenters left the room. However, some of the children were able to wait for the second treat.
Researchers found that children who were able to delay gratification to receive a greater reward were also more likely to perform better academically than the children who gave in to temptation immediately. This small experiment serves to shed light on the important Islamic principle of delayed gratification. In a way, this experiment summarises the reality of the life of this world. The one who can exercise self-control and align his actions and intentions with what his Creator had intended will enjoy a life of eternal bliss in the Hereafter in Paradise. Those are the people that Allah describes in the Qur’an: “Peace on you for the patience you observed. So, how excellent is the ultimate abode”.
Ṣabr, patience, resilience, and self-control in the Islamic Tradition
Ṣabr and its various derivatives are mentioned very frequently in the Qur’an and Sunnah. In fact, Imam Aḥmad stated that ṣabr was mentioned in the Qur’an over 90 times. Many scholars have authored books dedicated to ṣabr or one of its variants. When scholars expound on ṣabr, they discuss it from different angles. Some focus on the wider meaning of ṣabr and others concentrate on its different types. I will explore some of these themes in more detail below.
Self-control is the essence of all good manners
If we examine good manners carefully, we will find that self-control is the pivot of all of them. On one occasion the Companion Anas ibn Mālik praised the Prophet ﷺ by saying that he used to be the best of people. Furthermore, he mentioned that he was the most generous amongst them and the bravest of men.
These two qualities – generosity and bravery – encompass good manners. Generosity, for instance, requires controlling oneself against the excessive desire for wealth and craving for material things. Courage requires self-control as well, since it is human nature to fear particular situations. It is in facing these fears and trying to overcome them that self-control is exercised. The opposite of self-control is constantly reacting to fears. The one who lives a life of fear will lose out on a great deal.
We find numerous statements of the Prophet ﷺ that confirm that the best and most essential quality a human being can ever have is the endurance found in ṣabr. Another prophetic statement that reinforces this meaning is, “And none is blessed with an endowment better and greater than ṣabr.” Again, this means that once a person has ṣabr, they will be able to possess most, if not all, good qualities.
The American author Mark Twain said, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear.” Similarly, one of the great and brave Muslim warriors was asked a question about the definition of bravery. He replied by saying, “Bravery is nothing but resilience for a short period of time.”
Without self-control, bravery and courage are just an illusion.
Forgiveness needs self-control
According to the Greater Good magazine, “Psychologists generally define forgiveness as a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness.”
The main question here is: how can a person take the conscious decision to forgive? Clearly, releasing feelings of resentment and the desire for vengeance towards the people who harmed you is only possible when one can practice self-control.
By reflecting over the Qur’an and Sunnah, we can comfortably conclude that self-control is the essence of emotional intelligence too. Let us reflect upon these verses:
“And not equal are the good deed and the bad. Repel [evil] by that [deed] which is better; and thereupon the one whom between you and him is enmity [will become] as though he was a devoted friend. But none is granted it except those who have ṣabr, and none is granted it except one having a great portion [of good].”
Furthermore, in another verse, Allah described the traits of the successful pious people. Among the first qualities that Allah mentioned is their ability to control themselves and thereby forgive others.
“Hasten towards forgiveness from your Lord and a garden broader than Heaven and Earth which has been prepared for the righteous, who give, both in prosperity and adversity, who restrain their anger and pardon people – and Allah loves the doers of good.”
Consistency and self-control
Consistency is defined in the Cambridge Dictionary with the following: “The quality of always behaving or performing in a similar way, or of always happening in a similar way.” It is amazing, again, to see that the Islamic and the non-Islamic traditions are practically in agreement regarding the significance of consistency. The Prophet ﷺ said, “The most beloved of deeds to Allah are those that are most consistent, even if it is small.” This consistency is a form of istiqāmah, which translates to steadfastness. Allah praised those who demonstrate steadfastness on the right path in their life: “Indeed, those who have said, ‘Our Lord is Allah’ and then remained on a right course – the angels will descend upon them, [saying], ‘Do not fear and do not grieve but receive good tidings of Paradise, which you were promised’”. The second verse where steadfastness was praised is, “Indeed, those who have said, ‘Our Lord is Allah,’ and then remained on a right course – there will be no fear concerning them, nor will they grieve”.
Similarly, the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ gave this valuable piece of advice to the Companion Sufyān ibn ʿAbd Allāh رضي الله عنه when the latter asked him, “O Messenger of Allah, tell me something about Islam which I can ask of no one but you.” The Prophet imparted the following golden words of advice: “Say: ‘I believe in Allah’, and then be steadfast.”
On a similar note, Ziyād ibn ʿAmr said: “All of us hate death and the pain of wounds. However, we differ [from one another] due to self-control and ṣabr.”
In the same vein, so many non-Muslims speak highly of steadfastness and its central role in success. Maintaining self-control and remaining steadfast in the face of failure is a critical aspect of ṣabr. This concept can be understood through Winston S. Churchill, who once said: “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” Likewise, Roy T. Bennett, the late American politician and author of The Light in the Heart, said, “Great things happen to those who don’t stop believing, trying, learning, and being grateful.” In the same vein, Edison made 1,000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb. When a reporter asked, “How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?” Edison replied, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”
“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” — Henry Ford
Michael Jordan embodied the themes of success by continuing to try despite facing difficulties. He claimed, “The key to success is failure.” And perhaps his most famous statement is also about remaining steadfast in the face of failure, “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” Clearly, perseverance and self-control in the face of difficulty are essential elements of ṣabr and from the keys to success. We cannot give up on the first, second, or third try. Self-control is essential for pushing through, even after facing failures and setbacks.
How to improve your self-control
A point of agreement between all experts and psychologists is that a person’s degree of self-control can be improved over time. Below are some tips to help improve self-control.
Consider who controls you
This is a fundamental question which every human being should ask themselves from time to time. Who controls you? An external authority? An internal authority that drives you from within? This is one of the key challenges that many people face. Many do not know who controls them. Others think that they control themselves, yet the reality is they are controlled by so many things that they may not even be aware of them. For instance, countless individuals behave in a particular way to impress other people. This can happen to anyone in some given scenarios. But if the person does not exert self-control, they may unknowingly become externally controlled by the admiration of others. A person who overeats is controlled by his desires and appetites. A person who abuses drugs is controlled by the desire for these substances. A person who looks at harmful images is controlled by his desire to look at these images that would only bring destruction. Who and what are you being controlled by? It is worth reflecting on this question deeply, especially when we consider what Allah has said in the Qur’an:
“Have you seen he who has taken as his god his [own] desire, and Allah has sent him astray due to knowledge and has set a seal upon his hearing and his heart and put over his vision a veil? So who will guide him after Allah? Then will you not be reminded?”
As a wise person, I sincerely ask you: what is the cure in this instance, if it is not sincere faith and self-control?
Delay acting when you are tempted and angered
To improve yourself, delay taking action whenever you are faced with a strong desire or anger. The Messenger of Allah ﷺ said: “If any of you becomes angry and he is standing, let him sit down, so his anger will go away; if it does not go away, let him lie down.”
The narrator of this hadith is Abū Dharr رضي الله عنه, and there is a story connected to his reporting of it. He was taking his camels to drink at a trough that he owned, when some other people came along and said (to one another), “Who can compete with Abū Dharr رضي الله عنه (in bringing animals to drink) and make his hair stand on end?” A man said, “I can.” So he brought his animals and competed with Abū Dharr, with the result that the trough was broken. Abū Dharr was expecting help in watering his camels, but instead the man misbehaved and caused the trough to be broken. Abū Dharr was standing, so he sat down, and then he laid down. Someone asked him, “O Abū Dharr, why did you sit down, and then lie down?” He said: “The Messenger of Allah ﷺ said…” and quoted the hadith.
This directive from the Prophet ﷺ is now suggested by experts on anger management. They recommend that a person should delay acting upon anger. Some recommend that a person should count from 1 to 10 before acting upon anger. Others recommend that a person should also change their physical position.
Keep trying: give up on giving up
The biggest hurdle against improving self-control is giving up quickly. If you are a person who gives up quickly, then you need to take a decision to change this attitude and give up on giving up!
Think before you act
As we mentioned in the chapter on thinking, so many of our problems would be resolved if only we could think more clearly. If people thought before acting, they would have avoided making serious mistakes that would grow to become major sources of regret in life. When you delay acting upon your anger or desires and take a few seconds to think about what you are about to do by calculating the possible consequences of your actions, it is most likely that you will not go through with what you originally intended.
Remember the reward of self-control
Remembering what Allah has promised to the righteous (muttaqīn) who keep away from the causes of anger and struggle within themselves to control it is one of the most effective ways of extinguishing the flames of anger. One of the hadiths that describes the great reward for doing this is: “Whoever controls his anger at the time when he has the means to act upon it, Allah will fill his heart with contentment on the Day of Resurrection.”
Another great reward is described in the Prophet’s words: “Whoever controls his anger at the time when he has the means to act upon it, Allah will call him before all of mankind on the Day of Resurrection, and will let him choose of any of the ḥūr al-ʿīn he wants.”
Tool kit for developing self-control
Apart from what we have mentioned already, here are a few more quick tips.
First: Identifying bad habits and weaknesses
List all your weaknesses. Classify them according to how challenging you think it will be to change them – easy, medium, or hard.
List all the bad habits you want to change (this includes things that you do not like to do)
Classify them as easy, medium, and hard. Examples might include: “I will control my tongue and I will refrain from swearing for a period.” Or, you may say instead: “I will not raise my voice nor show frustration for three days.”
List all the habits for which there would be no harm to change
Classify them as easy, medium, and hard. You can use this list as a tool for teaching yourself self-control. You might, for instance, shower in slightly colder water, or decide to refrain from taking sugar in your tea. Changing these little habits helps to foster self-control. This might lead to you say: “If I can make this change for the benefit of my health, I would like to walk to work rather than driving or taking the bus now.” Other examples might include not having coffee in the morning, or training yourself to reduce the amount you sleep. By exerting your self-control in these small ways, you will be building up positive habits in a way that will be gradual and sustainable over a lifetime.
Second: Do the opposite
Start with 3 easy habits and plan to change them.
As they are simple, just plan to do the opposite.
Third: reward yourself
When you feel that you have achieved something, then reward yourself. For instance, you may have stopped putting sugar in your tea and you now want to treat yourself. Keep in mind, however, that you should not reward yourself with what you have just gone to the effort to avoid in the first place. Perhaps you could reward yourself by buying something new like a book, sports equipment, or a subscription to a beneficial programme of knowledge. The list is endless, but a can of fizzy drink is unlikely to be a good reward in this scenario.
Fourth: Repeat this cycle for other habits
Finally, seek help from Allah and keep going.
Abū Hurayrah رضي الله عنه narrated that the Messenger of Allah ﷺ said:
“A believer who is strong (and healthy) is better and dearer to Allah than the weak believer, but there is goodness in both of them. Be keen on what benefits you and seek help from Allah, and do not give up. If anything afflicts you do not say, ‘If I had done such and such things, such and such would have happened.’ But say, ‘Allah decrees and what He wills He does,’ for (the utterance) ‘If I had’ provides an opening for the deeds of the devil.” 
Ṣabr is like a perpetual fountain of goodness. The hearts and minds that are nourished by this fountain bear the abundant fruits of a life lived with self-control. The vastness of ṣabr, and the self-control that it leads to are amongst the most fundamental keys to success. By walking the path of self-control, I promise you that you will see tremendous changes in your life. Given its central importance, do not delay taking stock of your life and searching your soul for where you are with this quality. For the changes that need to be made, take note and implement them. For acting on your knowledge is part-and-parcel of your self-control too.
 Al-Qur’an, 10:05
 Ibn Abi al-Dunya
 Al-Bukhāri and Muslim
 Al-Qur’an, 41:34-35
 Al-Qur’an, 29:69
 Al-Qur’an, 3:200
 Al-Qur’an, 2:249
 Al-Qur’an, 13:24
 Iddat al-Sabirīn, Ibn al-Qayyim
 Imam al-Dhahabi
 Al-Qur’an, 41:34
 Al-Qur’an, 3:133-134
 Al-Qur’an, 40:31
 Al-Qur’an, 46:13
 Al-Qur’an, 45:23
 Abū Dawūd
 Abū Dawūd