Self-control: Anger as Weakness

My new venture in posting hadith has turned out to be more difficult than I thought it would.  I’m finding that I’ll decide on a hadith that I’d like to post and then as I begin reflecting on it, many more hadith come to mind, along with relevant research, ideas, examples, experiences… and then I realize that I need to do a lot of work getting sources and making sure all my facts are straight – and suddenly I find that a few days have passed now and I still haven’t posted anything!  So, my task for now is to try to keep it simple! 

“The one who angers you, conquers you.” -Prophet Muhammad (saws)

(Bismillah arrahman arraheem.)

This hadith, although seemingly simplistic and basic, has massive relevance to our daily interactions, and is much harder to put into practice than one might think. 

Essentially, the message is that if we become angry or upset in response to someone else, we have effectively allowed them full control over our emotions.  They win, basically.  You could have the best comeback in the world; you could succeed in making them upset too – but they still have won by being able to exert that much power over your emotions.  Yet, it is important to remember that your emotions are yours and no one else’s.  You have the ability to conquer and control them, and allowing others to do so instead reveals the lack of control you have over yourself. 

Some people thrive on getting a rise out of other people, as they understand quite well that once the other person gets upset, they’ve won the game.  One of my brothers has always enjoyed this ‘game’ ever since we were kids.  He would pester my other brother and me until we started getting annoyed and responding back negatively.  The more upset we got, the more he laughed.  The more he laughed, the more frustrated we got!  Eventually he would walk away, satisfied and entertained, and we would be left fuming and powerless by our inability to affect him.  He won by succeeding in making us upset – and we lost because he simply smiled and laughed off our vicious attacks intended to hurt him or make him angry. 

Similarly, when we find ourselves getting upset by another person, we need to take a deep breath and take back control of our emotions.  It doesn’t mean that we should repress our negative feelings altogether, but it does mean that we should take a more logical approach to responding to others.  Even the Bible encourages responding without negative emotions, as Proverbs 15:1 states, “A soft answer turns away wrath.”  Instead of becoming angry and emotionally attacking back, we should first look at the bigger picture to see what is really going on, and then decide what is the best way to proceed in order to achieve the desired results. 

If we approach the people who we interact with on a daily basis in this way, many small fires can be put out easily and huge arguments can be prevented.  Many times, fights with a spouse or a family member often stem from something very minor, but spiral out of control when one or both parties relinquish control of their emotions. 

Reacting to someone with full control of your emotions and assessing the actual intention behind the words or action can cause completely different results.  For example,  let’s say a father starts to lecture his daughter about her habit of being late and the importance of being on time.  She could deal with his words on a surface level and ignore the intention behind it, which could cause her to feel angry, become defensive and start arguing back.  Or, she could understand that his intention is only to help her be more successful in life (but perhaps he just chose to deliver the message ineffectively, by lecturing), and instead thank him for his concern, ignore his gruffness, and agree that being on time is important (while not necessarily acknowledging any accusations).  She has now de-escalated the conflict, he feels that his message has been received and will likely stop lecturing her, and she has retained full control of her emotions and both can walk away feeling positive. 

Of course, not all words or actions have a positive intention behind them, so in those cases it is important to first recognize their intention and then determine the source of their intention – while still retaining control of your emotions.  Then you will be in a position to rationally determine what the appropriate course of action should be. 

For instance, perhaps someone is ridiculing your faith.  In this situation, you may determine that a. their intention is to make you upset, and b. their intention stems from ignorance.  So, instead of responding to their intention, you could instead go to the actual source and address their ignorance. 

Of course, all this can be challenging to actually put into practice, and it is unlikely that you will be able to be fully successful on your first attempt.  It will take a great deal of practice, time, patience, and above all, self control.  You have to constantly remind yourself to look at the bigger picture and not be tempted to give in for short term satisfaction (with long term negative results).


Hadith for Saturday, March 20th

Bismillah arrahman arraheem,

I have decided that in addition to writing lengthier posts (such as the series on intercultural marriage and other topics), I will also post hadiths with a brief explanation periodically, as doing so takes much less time and is something I can do throughout the week.  It usually takes a lot of time and mental effort to write the longer posts, so in lieu of going for a few weeks at a time when I’m too busy to post, doing smaller, more manageable posts in the meantime might be a good solution to keeping my blog still active.  So, I’ll post hadith that I particularly like, as well as expand my knowledge by finding new ones as well. 

“Uncover your secret only to one who is nobler in faith than you, and thus you will find nobility.  If you do this, you will find well-being.”  -Imam Jafar as-Sadiq, Lantern of the Path.

The message of this hadith is essentially that if you have a problem or issue in your life, it is unwise to discuss it with others at random.  Instead, you should think carefully before opening up to anyone, and consider that person’s position in relation to yours.  Is this someone who could really understand your situation?  Is this someone who has a great deal of knowledge about the religion?  Someone who is wise and experienced? 

For example, if your car is making strange noises, you wouldn’t tell the cashier in a grocery store about your situation – the clerk may be sympathetic, but they are unable to actually help you.  In fact, if they do attempt to advise you, they may even give you misleading or incorrect advice.  Instead, if you are having an issue with your car, you would go to a mechanic and ask an expert. 

Likewise, if you are dealing with a specific issue in your life, be cautious in revealing it to others; only reveal your issue to someone who is in a higher position to advise you.  Disclosing your problems to others thoughtlessly can cause a host of other problems.  Others may give you poor or false advice.  They may turn around and gossip about you behind your back.  They may misunderstand your situation, or they may use it against you.  Others’ perceptions of you may change as well – perhaps they previously saw you in a certain way, but may subsequently attribute all sorts of other assumptions to you when they find out that you are dealing with a certain situation. 

A common issue that comes up frequently is when a female having an issue in her relationship confides in her close female friends.  The friends provide sympathy, perhaps may comment on what they would do in that particular situation, and will typically always side with the female.  Yet, when the issue is resolved later, the female will move on in her relationship while her friends still retain a bad image of her partner, and may begin to give suggestions based on that negative image – even to the point of suggesting that the female end her relationship.  Thus, the friends, while trying to be helpful and sympathetic, will subsequently have a negative impression of the partner that is unlikely to change since they aren’t directly involved in the situation and likely don’t hear about the partner’s positive attributes as much as they hear about his negative aspects.

Instead, the woman in this situation may be better off talking to a professional or someone who she deems to be experienced in this particular area about her relationship issues.  She could also talk to a religious leader, who also has training and religious knowledge of how best to deal with the situation.  Both of these individuals are unlikely to hold a grudge, gossip about the other person, or allow this particular situation to inappropriately color their perception of the other person. 

One thing to note is that Imam as-Sadiq mentioned specifically talking to someone who is higher in faith than you.  In Islam, this is by far the best option, as someone more advanced in Islamic faith and knowledge will have a well-rounded knowledge of life and the human experience in general, due to the wisdom and incredible knowledge available from the Quran, the Prophet, and his family.  This person will not only be able to speak to your situation, but they will also give you advice grounded in the religion.  Someone who is merely experienced in a certain area but not in religion may be able to understand your situation, but may not give you Islamically sound advice, and may lead you in the wrong direction. 

This particular hadith has made a huge impact on my own life.  I used to have the attitude that my life is an open book and I have no secrets and nothing to be ashamed of – so I would talk to anyone about practically anything in my life.  After converting to Islam, I realized the folly in such an attitude, because I noticed that sometimes some people would start to treat me differently or not respect me as much, and at one point several vicious rumors had started about me that were based on what I had said but had been exaggerated to the extent of being untrue and very hurtful.  So while it relieved some stress initially to get my problems off my chest, in the long run the effects were quite deleterious and damaging.  I would have been better off holding my tongue and seeking out someone who is in a better position to understand my particular situation and who can offer sound advice.