Home Deliberation Ramadan: An Opportunity To Deal With Self-Control

Ramadan: An Opportunity To Deal With Self-Control

In the month-long journey, he(she) discovers that his(her) participation in this world is enshrined in observing the meaning and practicing of “rights  of God” (huqūq al-Allah) and “rights of servants of God” .


In a recent op-ed piece An Opportunity to “Deal with Self” I suggested quarantine as an opportunity to take a break with the “mechanical modelling” of our routine practice. I proposed, although itself a grave concern, quarantine temporarily allows us to disremember the hundreds of “mechanical worries” we are relentlessly bombarded with. In the same article, I mentioned 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 self. In this article, I will try to approach the fasting of Ramaḍān (ṣawm al-Ramaḍān) within the context of these processes. Applying this particular context is intended to describe fasting as a psycho-spiritual method capable of modifying 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 “mechanical modelling” has conditioned our mind to the extent that we firmly believe in dogmatic exhibition of “self-dominance” 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 this psychology of “self-dominance” and consciously move into the realm of “self-control”- a socio-spiritual panacea.

Before discussing the correlation between “self-control” and fasting, I will give a brief explanation of “self-control”; its definition, meaning and scope. In psychoanalytic 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. Religiously speaking, self-control is a contemplative practice that is exercised to bring human behaviour in coherence 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.

Although, “self-control” is common idea amongst all spiritual traditions, however, the fundamental distinctiveness of Islamic approach to “self-control” lays in its methodological scheme. The major religions of the world such as Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism relate “self-control” with the practice of abandoning the responsibilities of worldly life. These religious traditions believe that the state of “self-control” can be only attained through the abandonment and extermination of self; its needs, its interactions, and its development. Nevertheless, Islam, taking a rational position, denounces this concept in categorical terms by saying lā rahbāniyah fil Islam which means “there is no monasticism in Islam”. Instead, Islam recurrently talks about the “material” inducements of self. It also provides detailed guidelines regarding fulfilling the “genuine” needs of self. Form here emerges the question, how Islam deals with “self-control” in that case. Islam relates breaking with “self-control” to emergence of insolence and and mischief. In Qur’anic description, Pharaoh’s claim that “I am the greatest lord” and, similarly, his tyrannical rule could be seen in this frame. I would say, Pharaoh’s claim was the highest actualization of “self-dominance”. I assume, 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-spiritual practices such as prayers (ṣalah), alms-giving (zakah) and fasting (ṣawm). While as, state-control deals with the interference of state on man’s action through legal procedures. Fasting of Ramaḍān is regarded as the best socio-spiritual exercise when it comes to managing and dealing with “self-control” at individual level.

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 (with legal partner) 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, usual schedules of “living life” are suspended. Consequently, attempts are made to rejuvenate the conscience through embracing and exercising “divinely guided” behavioural patterns. Thus, psychologically speaking, fasting is an institution of self-analysis and self-reflection. In Islamic tradition, fasting has not merely to do with “starvation” or “self-denial”; rather, it is prescribed as a dynamic and deeply humanistic 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”. It is a month-long training to break with the dark alleys of greed, mischief, and corruption. And, a powerful experience to develop love, sincerity and respect for: God, humanity and nature. Through the functional “God consciousness” (taqwa), central objective of fasting, man is able to illuminate his(her) vision to explore the reality of things- “ḥaqāyiq al-ashiyā” in Prophetic method. He(she) is able to experience “The Reality beyond reality” (Al-ḥaqīqah warā’ al- ḥaqīqah). He(she) enters the cosmic orbit of “al-khalqu ‘ayālullah” meaning “whole creation is God’s family”. By 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 enthused attributes benefit him(her) to deal with “self-control” positively.

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 his(her) participation in this world is enshrined in observing the meaning and practicing of “rights  of God” (huqūq al-Allah) and “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”. He(she) controls and, at times, sacrifices the mundane desires for the reward of peace and eternal blessing in the next-life. 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 his(her) self and, simultaneously, leads him(her) to the diverged path of “self-dominance”. Fasting provides him(her) the outline that, “Whosoever does not give up forged speech and evil actions, God is not in need of his(her) leaving his(her) 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 and rises him(her) above the lowest animalistic inducements. 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 this remarkable advancement in “self-control”, a fasting person is expected to enjoy higher-level of 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) psychological wellbeing. He(she) becomes less susceptible to “cognitive biases” and is expected to improve resistance against 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 trait of mental ability is otherwise overshadowed by the “mechanical socialization” of self. To conclude, I will say 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), state of fiṭrah in the Qur’anic terminology, which is willing to accept submission, humility, faith and morality. The “self-control” accomplished through fasting allows us to synchronize our internal and external realities- the true alchemy of “mindfulness”.


  1. Asalamu Alaikum brother…i am also student of islamic studies..I like your article. It develop my knowledge and spiritual power…Plzzxx send me in pdf form