Oscillating Locus of Control

A Discussion on the Ideal Concept of Control in a Muslim’s Life

We all differ in our perception of the control we have in life. Some tend to focus on their abilities, attitudes, and actions, thereby seeing themselves as in control of outcomes or at least able to influence them, while others tend to focus on the external factors and how those factors influence the situations that they go through. The first group has an internal locus of control, while the latter has an external locus of control. The question then arises, which is better for a believer?   

Internals believe that they have control, they can make a difference, and what they do matters. Due to the empowering nature of such beliefs, they can adjust, adapt and cope with difficulty. Externals, on the other hand, believe that their efforts have very little impact on the world around them. Most often this is due to a learned pessimism, stemming all the way back from childhood. Not giving children responsibility when they are young is considered a major factor for them developing an external locus of control and failing to stand up to difficulties and challenges. Where the internals see a chance for change, the externals see locked doors, the keys to which are in the hands of others.

To illustrate the dynamic relationship between non-material beliefs and physical realities, studies show that internals are more successful than externals. Those with an external locus of control often do not try as hard as those with an inner locus of control. Why would they, when their actions don’t make a difference? Drastically different than the internals, the externals develop a resigned and complacent attitude of “whatever happens, happens.”   

Of course, believing that you can do something doesn’t ensure that you will be successful, but it does put internals in a better position for more positive outcomes than externals. When an obstacle presents itself before a person with an inner locus of control, their first thought is “what can I do to get around this”. Externals, however, see the hindrance as a confirmation for their belief that they have little to no control over the world. As a result of this they are not curious to explore the possible solutions to those problems, therefore choosing a resigned attitude. Some scholars have even pointed out that internals are better listeners because they see wisdom and understanding as a means to influence and change the world around them. For them, knowledge and understanding are keys that open more of those closed doors that may appear. How do these two types of people respond to success and failure?

Response to Success

If a person has an inner locus of control, this will impact how they view the successful moments in their lives. Due to their inner belief that they are in control, they are more likely to view themselves as the sole reason for their accomplishments. Of course, this mentality is very destructive for the spiritual and mental well-being of a Muslim.

In the Qur’ān, Allāh mentions these negative, unintended consequences of an internal locus of control through the story of Qārūn (Qur’an 28:78) who claimed arrogantly, “I have been given this wealth due to my own knowledge.” While it may be true that he worked very hard and sacrificed time for the accumulation of his wealth, his arrogance is clearly destructive to his relationship with Allāh.      

In contrast, the externals does not face the same problem when a goal they set out for is achieved. Their nature is to see all of the other factors around them, be they divine or from the creation, as the cause of their good outcome.   

Response to Failure 

In response to failure, the internal may find themselves very sad and disappointed, and that sadness often takes the form of self-blame and depression. Failure for them is directed within; they see themselves as insufficient, they don’t explode but rather; they implode. Throughout the Qurʾān, we are given the impression that the Prophet ﷺ took the rejection of the Makkan people very heavily. 

It is as if you would destroy yourself (Muhammad) because they won’t believe (Quran 18:6)

In this verse and in similar verses, the Prophet ﷺ is being taught that he can not allow his inner locus of control to force him into a state of burnout. He learns how to shift from having an inner locus to an external locus. This verse shows that the intense mental pressure and stress that the Prophet ﷺ experienced resulted from the strong internal locus of control within him. The well-known exegete, Fakhr al-Din al-Rāzī, explains regarding this verse,

Allāh is telling the Prophet ﷺ, ‘do not grieve and be distressed due to the people not believing in you. We have only sent you as a warner. You don’t have control over them believing’.

Rāzī’s explanation shows that the Qurʾān is teaching the Prophet ﷺ to shift his locus of control when things get too hard. The words, “you don’t have control” are coming as a relief and reminder to a person who otherwise has a deep internal locus of control. The ultimate expression of this is seen when he was brutally forced out of the city of Ṭāif, covered in blood, after many days of calling people to Allāh. Collapsing in upon himself, he cried out, “if you are not angry (Oh Allāh) then I do not care!” This expression, which represented the complete shift of his locus of control, was the only way to get through the pain.

Externals on the other hand, due to their resigned nature, can take failure very easily. A closed-door or opportunity is something that is out of their control in the first place. The psychological benefit to this type of reaction is that a resigned outlook on life alleviates much of the stress that a person can feel when things don’t go the way they desire. 

Oscillating Locus of Control 

After reading modern perspectives on the ideal locus of control, one is inclined to believe an internal locus of control is the ideal perspective to have. Studies show that internals live longer, are more successful, and are better in relationships. For a Muslim, the reality may be slightly different. For the believer to reach the ideal state of mental and spiritual well-being they must develop what I call a *Prophetic locus of control*. The Prophetic locus of control is one that oscillates to create the ideal mental state for any situation. When necessary, it shifts to internal, and when necessary it shifts to the external. In Sūrah al-Nisā’, verse number 79, Allāh says, 

Whatever good befalls you it is from Allāh and whatever evil befalls you it is from yourself.

This verse clearly depicts a very healthy shifting of the locus when outcomes are good to the external, namely Allāh, and then back to the internal when the outcomes are evil. This motivates and empowers a person to actively work to avoid evil while at the same time protecting them from the very dangerous arrogance that can arise when the outcomes are positive.   

The virtues of having a external locus of control can be seen in the verse, 

No calamity occurs on earth or in yourselves without being in a record before we bring it into being. This is certainly easy for Allāh. (You are told this) so that you neither grieve over what you have missed nor boast over what He has granted you. For Allāh does not like whoever is arrogant, boastful.

Notice that the Qurʾān is highlighting the benefit of the resigned nature of externals. The most clear evidence for the necessity of developing an oscillating locus of control can be found in a prophetic narration that is narrated by Imām Abu Dāwūd in his hadīth collection. He narrates, 

The Prophet ﷺ had to make a legal judgment regarding a dispute that two individuals had. After the Prophet ﷺ made his decision in favor of one of the parties, the two men turned around and began to leave. As they were leaving, the one who was judged against said, ‘Allāh is enough for me and He is truly the controller of affairs.’ When the Prophet ﷺ heard this he asked someone to bring the man back to him. When the man came back, the Prophet said, ‘Allāh looks down upon inability. Rather, your responsibility is to be intelligent, and think things through thoroughly. Then after that if you are overpowered, you should say, Allāh is enough for me and He is truly the controller of affairs.’ 

Developing an oscillating locus of control allows us to comprehend the drastic divergence that seems to exist between the Qur’ānic emphasis on being proactive and striving for something and the virtue in having a resigned temperament. The Prophet ﷺ acted with an inner locus of control but regulated his emotional responses to success and failure with an external locus of control.

The narration above seems to indicate that the Prophet ﷺ felt that the man who lost the case failed to do his due diligence in presenting his argument and was incorrectly using the remembrance of Allāh to mollify the pain of his failure. Shifting to an external locus of control is praiseworthy from the Prophetic perspective, only after having done one’s due diligence in attempting to reach the sought after outcome. Praise be to Allāh who has blessed us with the Prophetic example which teaches us how to balance dependence upon Allāh and striving for what one desires.  

Photo Credit: Tom Wilson on Unsplash


About the Author: Shaykh Mikaeel Ahmed Smith (Michael V Smith) is an instructor and lecturer at Qalam Institute and a faculty member at the Qalam Seminary. He previously served as a resident scholar at the Islamic Society of Annapolis and the Islamic Society of Baltimore. He completed his memorization of the Qur’an at the Dar ul-Uloom al-Madania in Buffalo, NY and continued his studies in Jami’a Abu Noor in Damascus, Syria. He earned his Bachelor’s Degree in Islamic Studies at the Dar ul-Uloom Canada in Chatham, Ontario. Shaykh Mikaeel is the author of “With the Heart in Mind,” a book exploring the moral and emotional intelligence of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. He currently resides in Dallas, TX with his wife and three children.

Related: A Case for Moral and Emotional IntelliegenceA Book Review of With the Heart in Mind by Mikaeel Ahmed Smith

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