Topic: On the Role of Self-Discipline in Controlling Instincts

Delivered by: Professor Muhammad Faruq An-Nabhan

In accordance with a Hadith-saying, narrated by Imam Al-Bukhary, who has it from Aby Hureyra, May Allah be Pleased with him. The Prophet, peace be upon him, once said:“Strong of character indeed is the man who controls himself in wrath, and not he who shows clemency after wrath”.

In the Name of Allah, the Beneficient, the Merciful. Praise be to Allah, the Lord of all Beings and Peace be upon His Messenger, his Family and his Companions.

Your Majesty, Ameer Al-Mumineen (Commander of the Faithful), King Hassan II, descendant of the trustworthy prophet, May Allah glorify Islam and Muslim through you.

In your Majesty’s council, speech blooms and blossoms, and what more graceful speech is there than the Hadith sayings of the Apostle of Allah (Blessings and peace be upon him) in these holy evenings of Ramadan, which illuminate your glorious palace. Your people drink from the nectar of the Hadith, and find refreshment therein. The tradition of the Ramadan lectures is evidence of your Majesty’s faith in the holiness of works and of your Majesty’s pride in Islamic culture which nourishes the souls and sensibilities of your Muslim people.

I am greatly honored, Sire, to lecture on the topic: “The Role of Self-Discipline in Controlling Instincts,” in light of a saying drawn from the Hadith which reads: “Strong of character indeed is the man who controls himself in wrath, and not he who shows clemency after wrath”.

Paragraph1: The Isnad (Or chain of ascription) of the Hadith-saying

With your Majesty’s permission, I shall begin by establishing Isnad, or the chain of references of the Hadith saying. Then I shall move on to a consideration of the following points: strength of character, strength of the mind, and strength of the heart.

Imam Al-Bukhary writes in Kitab Al-Adab, and, more specifically, under a rubric known as “Caution Against Wrath”, that Abdullah bin Yusuf reports on Malik, who has it from Shihab, who reports on Aby Hureyra (May Allah be Pleased with him) that the Prophet once stated: ” Strong in character indeed is the man who controls himself in wrath, and not he who shows mercy after wrath”.

Along the same lines, Imam Muslim, in his Sahih, states: “Yahya bin Yahya and Abdullah ‘la bin Hammad report to have read on Malik bin Shihab, who has it from Shihab, from Saeed, from Aby Hureyra that the Prophet (Blessings and Peace be upon him) once said: “Strong indeed of character is the man who controls himself in wrath, and not he that shows mercy after wrath”.

The same saying has also been reported by Imam Al-Nissa ‘y in his book ‘Amal Al-Yawm wa Laylah (The Deeds of the Day and of the Night), on the basis of Al-Harith bin Sakeem, from Muhammad Ibn Al-Qassim, and has been pursued up to its penultimate source, Aby Hureyra (May Allah be Plaesed with him).

On the basis of another chain of references, Imam Muslim narrates a story about Aby Hureyra, who had heard the Prophet say: “Strength of character is not mercy after wrath,” in response to which a congregation enquired: “O Messenger of Allah, who is the man with strength of character? To which he replied thus: “He who reins in his wrath”.

The Hadith saying has been equally reported by Imam Al-Bukhary on Abdullah bin Yusuf Al-Tarmessey Ad-Dimmashqy, who was a reliable scholar and a prominent compiler of the Hadith sayings.

Likewise, the same saying comes through other narrations which go up to Ibn Shihab, one of the most renowned and dependable compilers of authentic sayings, who drew on the authority of Saeed bin Al-Musseyb, one of the founders of a reputed school of Quranic exegesis in Al-Madinah. Given that all of the chains of references lead up to the penultimate source, Aby Hureyra, the venerable companion of the Prophet and one of the most trustworthy narrators of the Hadith sayings, the saying upon which the present lecture is founded is authentic and genuine.

Paragraph 2:

Having established the authority and reliability of the saying, let us now consider the meaning of the words making it up. In the Arabic language, the word sor’a, which often conveys overstatement, is used to refer to someone with the skills to wrestle with others. The Apostle of Allah was seeking a specific criterion for strength. Regarding the strength of character, he did not intend solely muscular strength, but also self-restraint in times of crisis and wrath. Equally important is the fact that the self was the seat of instincts, and anger is an instinctual reaction. Nor did the Prophet equate strength of character with the absence of anger, for he was aware that anger was an inborn instinctual drive without which one could not shield the integrity of one’s own life. The crux of the matter thus is self-restraint in times of anger, an issue I would like to discuss in relation to education.

Paragraph3: The role of education in controlling and re-channeling instinctual energies

Instincts are blind innate energies devoid of any capacity to “think” rationally. This being the case, man should constantly exercise self-restraint lest his potentially disruptive instincts should get out of control and rent him asunder, hence the necessity of self-discipline and education. In fact, an educator should never lose sight of the human psyche, its nature and its dynamics, for without a measure of knowledge of human psychology, an educator is bound to fail in his mission since one of the primary concerns of education is the imparting of means whereby a person may control his instincts, channel his energies, and protect the integrity of his own self. Muslim scholars have manifested genuine and deep interest in such psychological and educational issues. Indeed, Islamic thought may be said to provide a unique view of the human psyche combined with precision and rigor of analysis and interpretation. Among the books dealing with the human psyche and ethics mention could be made of Tahdeeb Al-Akhlaq (on the Cultivation of Manners and Ethics) by Ibn Maskawayh, who lived in the fourth century of the Hegira. One of the oldest and most notable studies of ethical theory, this book has recently been revised and re-edited by Dr. Constantin Zareeq of the American University in Beyrouth. The book consists of six essays, each one of which deals with a different aspect of ethical and educational theory, namely:

(1) Ethics Betwixt Change and Stasis;
(2) The Concept of Justice;
(3) The Concept of Happiness;
(4) The Concept of Friendship;
(5) The Concept of Lovingkindness; and
(6) Psychic Well-being.

Another book dealing with the human psyche was brought forth by Al-Ragheeb Al-Asfahany. Although the book never achieved the notoriety it actually deserved, the book, titled Addari’a Ila Ma’qasid As-Shari’a (The Means Leading to the Recovery of the Intentions and Meanings of Islamic Law), remains a major contribution to educational and psychological scholarship. The author of the book had distinguished himself in Quranic exegesis and issued a glossary of Quranic terms and phrases. In view of his scholastic leanings and interests, Al-Asfahany drew heavily on the Quran to substantiate his theory of the human personality and psyche. It is noteworthy that Imam Ghazzaly relied on Al-Asfahany’s book whenever he dealt with issues pertaining to the fields of education and psychology. Last but not least, Imam Ghazzaly’s own Ihya’ ‘Ilum Addin (The Revival of Religious Scholarship), together with other books, also focussed on the issues just mentioned.

Paragraph4: The sources in the old Islamic thought constitute a useful reference in psychic and ethical studies

I begin my analysis with a statement made by Ibn Maskawayh to the effect that man, in his day-to-day behavior and social interactions, seeks to attain complementarity and wholeness. In his perception of the self, he strives to attain wholeness, of course, while in his dealings with the others, he seeks complementarity. Thus, when a man finds in another person what he thinks complements his own personality, a friendship soon develops. However, when complementarity is wanting, and even if a bond of friendship has been established for a while, the relationship weakens or collapses altogether. If an analogy may be drawn, complementarity is like the pillars which sustain a building. If one pillar should prove to be different in shape, density, or form, the building becomes uneven and doomed. For a building to stand sound and still, the pillars sustaining it must be even. The same goes for friendship.

Paragraph5: Glimpses into Islamic studies of the human psyche and instincts

Man, in his self-conception, is always striving for the ideals of wholeness and perfection. His life on erath is an endless quest for perfection: man is always trying to improve his body and mind and to refine his manners. When man achieves his wholeness and contributes something to his society, he may be said to have performed what is expected of him and then he can die in peace. Life is by definition characterized by lack, and not by perfection; there must be some lack or imperfection because life is a process of growth. Perfection, being the end-goal striven for, has no room for any growth. This logic, which applies to all beings, is well-illustrated by plants. When seeds are sown, they start a germination process which is facilitated by the source of life, water. The seed develops into a plant which, in due course, blossoms and bears fruit. Its aim achieved, the pland withers and dies, making room for another plant to grow.

The process of growth to pefection is a natural and instinctive phenomenon: when a baby is born, he reaches for his mother’s breasts to be breastfed and nursed, for therein lies the source of his growth and ultimate wholeness. A baby does not think about or rationalize his wants and needs, but rather instinctively feels that his mother’s nourishment is essential to his own growth. For this reason a baby reacts angrily when he feels that something is thwarting or blocking his needs. As a momentary natural phenomenon, anger is a legitimate reaction on the part of man to shield his integrity and to ensure his growth. Common to humans and other animate beings, anger is a spontaneous and momentary reaction necessary for survival and continuity. In all human beings, there exist, besides some secondary instincts, two basic instincts: the first one allows man to respond to his basic needs; the second permits man to survive and to prevail over the forces which threaten his existence and continuity. More specifically, the first instinct seeks to gratify man’s basic wants and desires. For instance, when man looks for water or for food, he is responding to an urge to have his fill thereof. Evidently, a man who manifests no desire for nourishment is doomed to starve to death. It goes without saying that anger plays a protective role, for whoso does not get angry will not be able to protect his integrity and ensure his existence.

Paragraph6: Can manners be amended and improved?

By the same token, assertive nations preserve their integrity and continuity while passive or weak ones collapse and disappear. The history of our Islamic nation shows that its existence and survival has been guaranteed in part by a healthy degree of forcefulness. In fact, what Ibn Khaldun said about nomadism and civilization is astute and pertinent: “nomadism as a mode of existence is characterized by misery which leads to a feeling of dread which, in turn, engenders a will to power which allows nations to emerge. When life of ease comes to predominate as a result of wealth and civilization, the central state starts to grow weaker and unable to withstand threats from without”. Even when extended to humans, Ibn Khaldun’s remark remains relevant and accurate.

It should be pointed out, however, that while anger is a healthy natural reaction self-preservation, it should be restrained and re-channeled positively lest its blind force should become destructive and wreak havoc. Because anger is in essence, blind, it needs the restraining influence of the mind and of the law. Needless to say, education plays a vital and indispensable role in controlling instinctive energies. All beings have to observe some kind of control, namely, (self) discipline for man; domestication or taming for animals; and cultivation or prunning for plants. In a well-manicured park or field a visitor finds trees and shrubs arranged in beautiful and harmonious patterns, for each tree has its own vital space, so to speak, and does not trespass it to the space of other trees. Any unnatural or massive outgrowth is soon detected by the gardner who cuts or pruns that outgrowth not only to provide other plants with the means of growth, but also to preserve the overall harmony and beauty of the park.

Along the same lines, the educator, like the gardener is entrusted with the task of promoting healthy growth and limiting or containing potentially disruptive excesses. Thus, when an educator deals with an unduly turbulent child, he will endeavor to help him rein in or re-channel his anger and to behave moderately. By contrast, in the case of a passive child who, due to some inadequacy in character-formation, manifests little anger, if at all, the educator will teach the child how to become more assertive. Some scholars, notably Imam Al-Ghazzaly, speak of four chief virtues, namely, wisdom, courage, decency, and justice -all related somehow to the proper management of the energies of the mind, emotions, and desires. Generally, man possesses moderate brain-power, but when he gives free rein to it or wilfully misuses it to deceive or harm people, it becomes destructive. On the other hand, if man does not cultivate his brain power and keep it alert, he grows silly and stupid. Hence the importance of self-descipline, which transforms brain power into wisdm. Wisdom, thus, is brain-power used in moderation and to some good effect. The second virtue, courage, is intricately connected with will-power: uncontrolled, this power becomes sheer foolhardiness and recklessness; neglected, it becomes cowardice. Moderation in handling one’s flow of emotion or one’s temper is a sign of courage. The third virtue, decency, is intimately connected with the various human wants and desires. Failure to control this energy results in imprudence or dissolution, while undue repression of one’s needs and desires leads to misery and ignominy. It seems to follow that moderation provides the key to dignity, decency, and contentment.

The fourth virtue, justice, has two opposite dimensions: ultimate justice at one extreme, and inequity, at the other. Justice, no matter how excessive, remains justice, above which stand two higher virtues, beneficent and civility, which often entail concessions made in favor of or charity manifested towards the weaker party on the part of stronger side. Allah, the Most High, commands his servants to be fair, in the first place, and beneficient, in the second place. It is noteworthy that all virtues stand in between two undesirable and excessive tendencies. It is, therefore, incumbent upon the educator to limit failings and excesses and to promote virtue. The educator cannot devise or propose alternative mechanisms or systems; his role, rather, consists in developing means whereby a person may better control his own instincts, and thereby, achieve human dignity and honor. In this connection Muslim scholars speak about mujahada, strivings or ongoing struggles. The major struggle against the self consists in focussing one of energies that man possesses (namely, the power of desire, and the power of anger) to counter-balance the other one. A person who is prone to anger comes to appreciate beauty, which, in turn, neutralizes his anger. By contrast, a pleasure-seeker tends to rein in his desires when a calamity befalls him. These, then, are the benefits of anger and desire: ease weakens anger while poverty enhances it. This being the case, one should endeavor to achieve balance and harmony, which are consonant with immoderation is necessarily vicious. But any extravagance can and should be removed by removing its causes. By virtue of his knowledge of the temperaments of the human psyche, the educator can help others get rid of their flaws, seek moderation, and aspire to virtuous behavior. It should be stressed, however, that human nature varies greatly: there are souls which warrant and accommodate improvement while others do not. A question worth pondering here is whether or not manners can be amended or improved.

Greek thinkers of antiquity argued that there are three kinds of people, the good or noble ones, the evil ones, and those wavering in between. The Noble ones are hardly in need of discipline, but the latter is of no use with the evil ones. Only those who are wavering in between good and evil are actually in need of discipline which helps them cultivate virtue and eliminate vice. Muslim scholars reject the theory just outlined on the grounds that it fails to distinguish between al-khalaq (physical constitution) and al-khuluq (natural disposition). While character allows for change, physical attributes are basically constant, and where there is change it occurs after the disappearance of original forms. In arithmetics, for example, the laws of trignometry or squaring are constant. In other words, while man’s physical constitution is not open to major changes, his character arguably is, hence the importance of self-discipline. In fact, if manners were in no need of change, there would be no raison d’être for educational theories. The self, regardless of its innate disposition, is open to change through training and discipline -a process aided in part by the educator who endeavors to create balance and moderation in human behavior.

Paragraph 7: The Concept of mind- power

If we move to a consideration of mind power, we will notice that it consists of two parts, one of which is inborn whilst the other is developed through learning and knowledge-acquisition. Speaking about mind power, Raghib Al-Asfahany points out that the human body is like a kingdom ruled over by a king (the mind) who commands an armed force made up of two different forces. One of these is entrusted with intelligence and the other with execution. The intelligence forces are our five senses whose task it is to inform the mind of all that they perceive. The executive services, consisting of the tongue, the hand, and the leg, carry out the orders received from the mind which has absolute authority over these forces. There exists, however, another force which rivals the mind in its authority, the force of our instincts. Blind obedience to these instincts results in a shattered self. To avoid such a fate, full authority over our actions should be given to the mind. Endowed with the capacity of reflection and discernment, the mind is capable of attaining wise decisions which fit particular situations.

Paragraph 8: The Concept of the power of the heart

As we move now to a consideration of the third power, the power of the heart, we find it necessary to point out that the heart is intended here, not in its literal sense (the vital organ situated on the left-hand side of the breast) but rather in its metaphorical sense -the sense in which it is used in the Quran. Used more than one hundred times in the Quran, the heart is described as the seat of understanding. In such Verses as, “It is in the hearts, do they not understand?” or “In their hearts there is a disease”, for instance, there is a clear distinction between a repenting heart and an erring one. Each time the term heart is utilized in the Quran, the meaning associated with it is understanding, as opposed to the mind, which is the seat of discernment and judgment, and the self, the seat of instincts. The human heart has been created for the sake of cognition; any failure on its part to seek knowledge or to let itself be impressed by divine truth makes it a diseased heart. The holy verse “In their hearts there is a disease”, suggests that some people do not perceive their humanness and the truth of their existence. Truth is impressed on the heart the way the aspect of a person standing before a mirror is impressed thereon. In fact, man exists and so does truth, but man does not always let his heart be impressed by truth through knowledge.

There are two ways to knowledge and truth: the first path is Allah’s gracious providence; the second path is self-descipline. On the issue of divine providence, Ibn ‘Ata Allah Al-Iskandary observes: “when Allah opens a path of knowledge before thee, worry not about the outcome even if your endeavors should prove inadequate. Such a path is His way of manifesting Himself to thee (that thou mayst seek His Grace). Great indeed is the difference between thy own attempts to know Him and the grace bestowed by Him upon thee”. Along the same lines, the same scholar goes on to observe: ” spare thyself the trouble of performing that which, by the grace of Allah, has been done on your behalf” .

There are, of course, obstacles to one’s strivings to have truth impressed upon one’s heart. The first hindrance is one’s attachment to things wordly. Islamic thougth, and contrary to what many may assume, does not censure the world of the present; rather, it objects to our undue and inordinate attachment to children, wealth, and position of influence. Only when one liberates himself from these can he seek and perceive truth, which will, in due course, find its way to his heart. Put another way, as long as the veils of worldly concerns shround our vision, our attempts to find divine truth will be thwarted. The second obstacle to knowledge of divine truth is a heart sullied by disobedience and rebelliousness. But these can be overcome through divine revelation as suggested by these lines:

To one strong in faith I complained about my
failures in knowledge-acquisition
He recommended that I forsake my insubordination
And said to me that knowledge is Light and that
Allah’s light does not guide rebels.

The purification of the heart is, therefore, a necessary step towards truth and knowledge of things divine. The third obstacle to truth is the absence of resolution in our search of divine truth. Ibn ‘Ata Allah noted that “high-minded resolution almost broke through the walls of fate”. But for resolution to be effective it must be accompanied by a thorough purification of the heart and of the soul. As Ata-Allah admonishes, “if Allah’s bestowal of guidance should be late in coming to thee, persist in thy prayers and succumb not to despair. Allah shall respond to thee in what he has chosen for thee, and not in what you have elected for yourself. Allah’s will shall come to pass at a time He has chosen, and not at a time thou have chosen”.

Paragraph 9: Conclusion

Majesty, the above thoughts are only glimpses into our rich Islamic heritage; they are thoughts on instincts and human nature. Sire, during the holy month of Ramadan, the lights of the Sunnah, of culture, and of virtue illuminate with their shining rays your glorious palace. The Pillars of the edifice of the Hassanian lectures get loftier and loftier. Thanks to your Majesty’s sponsorship of these lectures, this Hassanian tradition has become a leading Islamic landmark, and a distinctive Moroccan feat which enlightens, instructs, and edifies people. The tradition also testifies to the fact that the Morocco of king Hassan is a nation civilized and authentic not only in its customs and traditions but also in its ethics and values. It is a nation which believes in dialogue as a civilized means of communication and in the respect of freedom of expression and the dignity of humans as symbols of a genuine culture.

For generation to come this nation of authenticity shall remain a lofty guiding-house for Muslims the world over, and a depository of a unique cultural heritage, characterized by its spirit of renewal and openness. Morocco, upon which the sun has not set ever since the first Islamic communities established themselves on its soil, shall (Allah willing) remain the throbbing heart of the great Arab-Maghreb and the land of plenitude, generosity, and distinction.

I pray Allah, the Most High, to preserve your Majesty as the wise and inspired leader of this great nation. May also preserve Morocco that it may, under your leadership, continue its unique upward march and its upholding of genuine Islamic values. Strengthened by these values, this nation shall proceed forward unhampered and never led astray.

I pray Allah to delight your Majesty in the venerable Crown Prince, Sidi Mohammed, his brother, His Highness Prince Moulay Rachid, and all the other members of your noble royal family.

Praise be to Allah, the Lord of all beings.

I humbly turn the floor to His Majesty to close this lecture.

“Allah and His Angels send blessings on the Prophet: O ye that believe! Send ye blessings on him, and salute him with all respect”.

“Glory to thy Lord, the Lord of Honor and Power! He is free from what they ascribe to Him! And peace on the apostles! And Praise to Allah, the Lord and Cherisher of the Worlds”.




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