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Quality 1: Thinking
The ability to think is the most powerful attribute of human beings. Thinking is the main criterion that differentiates human beings from other living creatures. As we embark on the 12 qualities of successful people, we have positioned thinking as the first and most important quality, for it is through our thoughts that we will be able to master the remaining qualities.
Our decisions and actions reflect what occupies our minds. The famous boxer Muhammad Ali once said:
“What you are thinking is what you are becoming.”
Definition of thinking
A simple yet comprehensive definition of thinking is using one’s mind, intellectual capacity, and rationale to make decisions or reach conclusions. These decisions could be major or minor, long term or complex. It is important to note that thinking is of different levels. Strategic thinking, for example, is quite different from day-to-day thoughts. In this quality we are focusing on thinking in general. Strategic thinking is deeper and a more structured way of thinking that we will revisit at another time.
The definition of thinking has been a subject of research and debate amongst scientists, psychologists, and academics for centuries. Yet, ironically, if we try to define the concept of thinking in too much depth, we may end up limiting something that is vast. For instance, if I told you to define laughter, you might struggle without a dictionary. Hence, defining what is understood instinctively may risk rendering it ambiguous.
Enemies of thinking
“If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles.”
– Sun Tzu, The Art of War
A person may struggle to ascertain whether they are actually thinking clearly and can often take for granted that they are thinking in the correct manner. One way to examine this is to look at the common barriers, or ‘enemies’ of thinking, that may hinder or distort the process. These can be classified as internal and external barriers.
Internal barriers to thinking
A habit is a learned behaviour that has become nearly or completely involuntary, requiring little or no thought at all. Habits can have either a positive or negative impact on one’s life, but they are often difficult to give up. In terms of our thoughts, habits can become a barrier when a person remains in a state of ‘autopilot’, following the flow of daily life without pausing to reflect or re-evaluate habitual thought patterns. Moreover, a person who is entrenched in their habits will often use this to justify their lack of change or progress.
A person who is constantly pursuing the fulfilment of their desires will struggle to overcome them. Most of the time, a person may not even be aware that they are immersed in their hankering for wealth, luxury, and entertainment. In this mode of existence, thoughts and actions will be propelled towards seeking pleasure and the transient satisfaction they get by fulfilling such desires. This, in turn, affects their clarity of judgement.
Allāh instructed Prophet David not to follow desires, as following desires will prevent a person from seeing the truth and following it:
“[We said], ‘O David, indeed We have made you a successor upon the earth, so judge between the people in truth and do not follow [your own] desire, as it will lead you astray from the way of Allāh.’ Indeed, those who go astray from the way of Allāh will have a severe punishment for having forgotten the Day of Account.”
3) Emotions (HALF: Hatred, Arrogance, Love, Fear)
A significant number of decisions that people make are driven by four emotions: hatred, arrogance, love, and fear. These emotions are often seen as something negative. However, to reach a sound decision, one needs a combination of both emotional and rational thoughts. Problems occur when emotions cause impulsiveness and become the primary basis for decisions. People often make rash and unreasonable decisions as a consequence of unfiltered emotions. However, a person who is more in tune with their emotions is capable of making rational decisions whilst still taking the emotions they are feeling into account.
Take the example of anger. A person who is in a fit of rage can make hasty decisions and cause great harm to themselves and their loved ones. Many divorces or family breakdowns, for example, occur due to a single anger-fuelled encounter. In the Sharī’ah (Islamic law), a judge is not allowed to give a ruling when he is in a state of anger. This is because of the stark possibility that his emotional state might hinder the outcome of the case in some way.
Paradoxically, however, anger can sometimes assist a person in coming to a rational decision about something important. Imagine, for instance, a mother who sees her child in danger; she will be worried and possibly angry. Acting fast on her emotions (namely, worry and anger) may well be exactly what the situation requires. This example demonstrates that what might on the surface be considered emotional is actually the perfectly rational reaction.
Overall, anger and a lack of tolerance are the enemies of correct understanding. Always try to balance your feelings with your intelligence so that you do not harm yourself or others.
4) Thinking in the wrong way
“Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude.”
– Thomas Jefferson, 3rd President of the USA
Each of us have thousands of thoughts every day. Sadly, these thoughts are often dominated by negativity. There is no doubt that these negative thought processes can be self-destructive and result in restraining a person from achieving their goals. In extreme cases, these can even manifest as thought disorders that may lead to various mental health conditions.
Addressing the following questions may be useful in evaluating patterns of negative thinking:
– Are you sad most of the time?
– Are you confident?
– Are you achieving and progressing in your life?
– Do you always expect bad things to happen?
Negative thinking may begin at a mild level. In such cases, a person can take steps to help themselves. On the other end of the spectrum, negative thinking could reach a level that affects a person’s ability to function properly in daily life and may damage their relationships. In such cases, seeking professional help is usually advisable.
External barriers to thinking
Customs and cultural expectations can mould and sometimes even hinder a person’s thinking. This is particularly the case for those who are stuck in their old ways or harbour blind loyalty to tradition. This age-old excuse for rejecting revelation is mentioned in the Qur’ān many times.
“And when it is said to them, ‘Follow what Allāh has revealed,’ they say, ‘Rather, we will follow that which we found our fathers doing.’ Even though their fathers understood nothing, nor were they guided?”
Clearly, being stuck in this mode of thought may prevent a person from appreciating the truth even if it is right in front of them.
Abu Huraira reported: The Prophet (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said,
“A man is upon the religion of his best friend, so let one of you look at whom he befriends.”
Undoubtedly, you will be greatly influenced by the people you choose to surround yourself. In this sense, the company that we keep will have a bearing on our positive thoughts and the way in which we manage our negative thoughts. The habits, pastimes, and discussions of those around us all have the power to impede or even change our thinking. In a hadīth, the Prophet (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) gave us a powerful parable on the effects of company:
Abu Musa reported: The Prophet (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said,
“Verily, the parable of good company and bad company is like that of a seller of musk and a blacksmith. The seller of musk will give you some perfume, you will buy some, or you will notice a good smell. As for the blacksmith, he will burn your clothes or you will notice a bad smell.”
3) Rules and laws
The rules and regulations that a person may be living under can often restrict their ability to think clearly. This could be a result of living in oppressive conditions at a micro-level within difficult households, or even at a macro-level through the regulations of the state or regime.
4) Fear or hope
Extremes of fear or irrational hope can hinder rational thought. In some instances, this can be connected to the previous category of rules and laws. Oppressive regimes and relationships can instil crippling fear into a person. This, in turn, will affect their thinking, as they are constantly in survival mode trying to protect themselves. A good example of this is Bani Isrā’īl. When generations of their people internalised the oppression of the despotic pharaohs, Bani Isrā’īl could not make decisions that were outside the framework of their subjugated existence. Clearly, living in such fearful circumstances compromises one’s ability to think properly. For example, a student who is fearful of exams will certainly not perform in the same way as other classmates who are calm and collected.
5) Consuming intoxicants
Alcohol and drugs heavily influence a person’s capacity to think clearly. This is the primary reason why the commandment in the Qur’ān was revealed to first not approach prayer whilst intoxicated, then later for intoxicants not to be consumed at all. This prohibition is not only restricted to alcohol, but can be extended to all forms of intoxicants in whichever form they may be.
Islam and Thinking
The process of thinking and making the right decision is a core component of Islam. Allāh gives an allowance for those with compromised thinking abilities so that they are not held accountable for their actions in the same way as one of sound mind.
‘Aishah (rady Allāhu ‘anha) narrated: The Prophet (sall Allāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said:
“There are three people whose actions are not recorded: a sleeping person until he awakes, a child until he is a grown up, and an insane person until he is restored to reason or recovers his sense.”
The term ‘aql (reason/intellect) is derived from the verb یعقل – عقل meaning reason, rationality, understanding, intellect, or intelligence.
“Reason is the source and fountainhead of knowledge, as well as its foundation. Knowledge sprouts from it as the fruit does from a tree, as light comes from the sun, and as vision comes from the eye. How then could that which is the means of happiness in this life and the Hereafter not be considered the most honored? Or how could it be doubted?”
Allāh encourages us to think time and time again in the Qur’ān. It is this thinking and contemplating that opens up the path of guidance. The word ‘aql and its derivatives refer to using one’s mind in a beneficial way, and has been mentioned in the Qur’ān more than 50 times.
Thinking and intelligence
‘Aql is often confused with intelligence, but the two are not synonymous. A person may be intelligent and have a high mental aptitude in a certain field, but then uses this intelligence in a way that leads to his destruction. This is not the type of ‘aql that Islam praises and encourages. This is only a limited short-term intelligence rather than deep and lasting wisdom.
For example, a thief may be intelligent in different types of theft, but he is not using his ‘aql, which would have considered the wider impact of his actions on himself and society at large.
‘Aql, in this sense, is using the mind and intellect for what benefits you. It encompasses taking the correct steps in reaching a decision.
Sufyān b. Uyayna (rady Allāhu ‘anhu) said:
“The ‘āqil (intellectual and reasonable person) is not one who merely recognises good and evil. Rather, the ‘āqil is one who follows good when he sees it, and who avoids evil when he sees it.”
‘Aql, the brain, and the heart
There is an ongoing debate between scientists, psychologists, and Islamic scholars regarding the ‘aql. Is it the function of the brain, or it is a combination between the functions of the brain and the heart? Studies have discovered that the heart is more than just an organ that pumps blood. The heart also contains neurons, the brain cells involved in intelligence. Dr. J. Andrew Armour of the University of Montreal first introduced the concept of a functional “heart brain” in 1991, stating that the heart can process information and make decisions. It is not the purpose of the present discourse to discuss this issue, but it is interesting to note, as we find numerous verses in the Qur’ān that refer to the ‘aql as a function of the heart.
The Qur’ān and ‘aql
‘Aql, as referred to in the Qur’ān and Sunnah, is generated from the combined functions of the brain and the heart, with the heart being the centre of control.
“We have certainly created for Hell many of the jinn and mankind. They have hearts with which they do not understand, they have eyes with which they do not see, and they have ears with which they do not hear. They are like livestock, but are more astray. It is they who are the heedless.”
“So have they not travelled through the Earth and have hearts by which to reason and ears by which to hear? For indeed, it is not eyes that are blinded, but blinded are the hearts that are within the breasts.”
We also find the Qur’ān linking guidance and misguidance to the heart, and not explicitly to the brain.
“Do not disgrace me on the Day they are [all] resurrected – the Day when there will not benefit [anyone] wealth or children, but only one who comes to Allāh with a sound heart.”
“Allāh has set a seal upon their hearts and upon their hearing, and over their vision is a veil, and for them is a great punishment.”
“He gives wisdom to whom He wills, and whoever has been given wisdom has certainly been given much good, and none will remember except those of understanding.”
“Thus does Allāh make clear to you His verses that you might use reason.”
The Qur’ān condemns and blames those who misuse their God-given blessings of ‘aql to commit major sins and violate the commandments of Allāh.
“When you call to prayer, they take it in ridicule and amusement. That is because they are people who will not reason.”
Lack of reasoning is linked to misguidance and ignorance in the Qur’ān. The study of these Qur’anic references demonstrate that irrationality is a characteristic of disbelief, idolatry, and hypocrisy. It is the betrayal of reason that hinders people’s ability to recognise the value of religion and causes them to criticise it.
“Do you order righteousness of the people and forget yourselves while you recite the Scripture? Then will you not reason?”
“The example of those who disbelieve is like that of one who shouts at what hears nothing but calls and cries – deaf, dumb, and blind, so they do not understand.”
“And when you call to prayer, they take it in ridicule and amusement. That is because they are a people who do not use reason.”
“The worldly life is not but amusement and diversion; but the home of the Hereafter is best for those who fear Allāh, so will you not reason?”
The people of Hellfire will cry and regret that they did not use their ‘aql in this life. Allāh says about them:
“They will say, ‘If only we had been listening or reasoning, we would not be among the companions of the Blaze.’”
On the other hand, the Qur’ān praises those who use their ‘aql and reasoning. We see that Allāh links a happy life and guidance to using one’s ‘aql and contemplation:
“Indeed, in the creation of the Heavens and the Earth and the alternation of the night and the day are signs for those of understanding. [Those] who remember Allāh while standing or sitting or [lying] on their sides and give thought to the creation of the Heavens and the Earth, [saying], ‘Our Lord, You did not create this aimlessly; exalted are You [above such a thing]; then protect us from the punishment of the Fire.’”
Is ‘aql enough for guidance?
This is an interesting topic that has been debated extensively throughout Islamic history. Again, the scope of this work will not allow such a discussion to flourish here. However, there are key concepts that the majority of Islamic scholars have agreed on, despite their disagreements over some of the details. One of the first conclusions reached was that ‘aql is enough to recognise basic guidance. However, ‘aql needs to be supported by an external authority, which is Divine guidance. This guidance helps with two things:
- Comprehending the details needed for complete and comprehensive guidance
- Willingness to follow this guidance.
Many people know what is right and wrong, yet they are unable to follow it due to either a lack of comprehension or lack of willingness.
Ibn Taymiyyah writes:
“‘Aql is a requirement for acquiring knowledge and performing righteous deeds, through which knowledge and deeds are perfected, but it is not enough on its own. Rather, it is a faculty of the soul and an ability like the ability of the eye to see. If it is connected with the light of faith and the Qur’ān, it is like the eye receiving the light of the sun and torch. If it is left to itself, it cannot gain insight into matters that it cannot know alone… Thus, the circumstances resulting from the denial of reason are defective, and ideas that contradict reason are false.”
Other Islamic quotes about thinking and ‘aql
Umar b. al-Khattāb (rady Allāhu ‘anhu) said,
“The foundation of a man is his intellect, his honour is in his religion, and his manhood is in his character.”
Al-Hassan al-Basri said,
“God does not entrust a person with a mind but to save him with it one day.”
Some wise men said,
“’Aql is the best thing to aspire towards, and ignorance is the worst of enemies.”
Abi Ala said,
“The best attribute given to a slave after Islam is a righteous ‘aql that sustains him. The body may be shackled and thrown into the hardest of prisons, but the free mind is not subject to shackling or arrest. The mind is the essence of freedom.”
Tips on improving your thinking
1) Remove barriers
Once you are aware of your personal barriers to thinking, you can start to tackle them one by one. This will clear the way for your thinking skills to take root and grow.
2) Mental checklist
You can train yourself to become more effective at thinking by going through a mental checklist when faced with a situation. Formulate your own mental checklist according to your personality type. The following are just some examples of what this checklist might include:
- Have I taken this decision in a measured and rational state of mind?
- What emotions or subliminal prejudice might be influencing my decision in this situation? Are they a positive or negative driving force in this situation?
- Evaluate the consequences of your decision. What is the worst possible outcome? What would be a better way of dealing with this to achieve a better result?
3) Choose your company wisely
There is great benefit in consulting and seeking advice from people who are wise and sincerely wish you the best. These people will give you an external perspective and help you see things through a different lens. Mixing with positive people will nourish your thinking, so try mixing with people who positively inspire and motivate you in all spheres of your life, spiritual or otherwise.
4) Think of the bigger picture
Try not to focus on minor things and train yourself to think about the bigger picture. Think beyond the here and now. Widen your lens to look at the bigger and more long-term impact of your choices.
5) Consider your state of mind before making a decision
Avoid taking decisions when you are emotionally upset or mentally disturbed. Give yourself time to settle first.
6) Make du’ā
Allāh is the Bestower of all rizq, and a sound ‘aql is part of that rizq. This can be bestowed on you after the du’ā of istikhāra when making a decision. See, for example, the du’ā of Prophet Mūsa:
“My Lord, expand for me my breast [with assurance], ease for me my task, and untie the knot from my tongue that they may understand my speech.”
7) Take time out of your day to pause and reflect
Modern life is full of distractions and noise. There is hardly a moment in the day to pause and reflect unless we ring-fence time and space for this in our lives.
“If you believe you can change – if you make it a habit – the change becomes real.”
- Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business 
As human beings, we are designed to think, reflect, and analyse. We can train ourselves, no matter what stage we are in life, to build the thinking skills we require to succeed. The key to achieving success in whatever we wish comes down to having the right mindset, and our mindset is nothing more than the sum of our thoughts.
 Al-Qur’ān 38:26
 Al-Qur’ān 2:170
 Sunan Al-Tirmidhī 2378
 Ṣaḥīḥ Al-Bukhārī 1995, Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2628
 Sunan al-Tirmidhī 1423
 Mishkat al-Anwar fi tawheed al Jabbar, Imam abi Hamid al-Ghazali p 48 edited by Dr Sameeh Dughaim.
 Al-Qur’ān 7:179
 Al-Qur’ān 22:46
 Al-Qur’ān 26:87-89
 Al-Qur’ān 2:7
 Al-Qur’ān 2:269
 Al-Qur’ān 2:242
 Al-Qur’ān 5:58
 Al-Qur’ān, 2:22
 Al-Qur’ān 2:171
 Al-Qur’ān 5:58
 Al-Qur’ān 6:32
 Al-Qur’ān 67:10
 Al-Qur’ān 3:191
 Adab Al-Dunyā wa Al-Dīn 1/17
 Al-Qur’ān 20:25-28