Stop trying to control others, and change yourself instead

Man and his camel before the sunset

By Wael Abdelgawad for IslamicSunrays.com

“Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.” (Quran 13:11)

Brothers and sisters, each of us must accept that we can only change ourselves. That is the key to changing our situations in life. We can’t control anyone else’s feelings or actions. We cannot make anyone love us, treat us better, respect us even when we deserve it, accept us even when we are right, befriend us even when we are sweet, or believe in us even when we’re true.

Dua’ is not a magic spell that allows you to control other human beings.

Neither will Allah coerce anyone to love us or accept us. Of course He can – He has power over all things – but it is not His way. Allah created us with free will, the ability to choose our own paths in life, and He does not take that away by controlling our emotions or compelling us down predetermined roads. Yes, everything is written, but that does not mean it’s forced, only that the outcome is known to Allah in advance.

I am thinking specifically of people who imagine that there is some special dua’ (prayer) they can say to make someone love them, or stop abusing them and treat them kindly instead. There is not, to my knowledge, and Allah knows best. And the same principle extends to all human interactions: dua’  is not a charm or potion that you can use to control others.

This is true even in very important matters such as guiding people to the truth and bringing them to the worship of Allah. We can certainly pray for Allah to guide someone, but we must understand that Allah’s guidance consists of showing clear signs, no more. It’s up to the individual to make the choice to believe or not. Allah does not force the outcome.

“And if there was any Quran by which the mountains would be removed or the earth would be broken apart or the dead would be made to speak, [it would be this Quran], but to Allah belongs the affair entirely. Then have those who believed not accepted that had Allah willed, He would have guided the people, all of them?” (Quran 13:31)

In other words Allah could certainly force everyone into submission if He willed, or He could manifest miraculous and powerful signs – such as the earth splitting or the dead speaking – that would compel all human beings to submit in fear and awe, as He said:

“If We willed We could send down a sign from heaven to them, and then their necks would be lowered to it in subjection.” (Quran 26:4).

For that matter, Allah could have created us all in subjugation from the start. He chose not to.

If Allah chose to leave such critical issues within the realm of our free will – vital issues such as acknowledging the truth of Allah’s power, worshiping Him or serving false gods, following the Prophets or rejecting them (and some even killed their Prophets!) – if He chose to leave these all-important issues within the realm of our agency, and under the dominion of our discretion, do you think He is going to violate the principle of free will in order to force your boyfriend or girlfriend to love you and come back to you?

I’m sorry, but this is what it seems to come down to for some people. They actually speak of committing suicide if the boyfriend/girlfriend does not return (ignoring the fact that this relationship is Islamically unlawful in the first place), then they want a dua’ that will force the object of their desire to fall in love, as if dua’ is some kind of magic powder from a fairy tale.

Nor is dua’ going to force your husband to stop abusing you and become kind and loving. Nor will it change occupiers into happy campers so that they quit their occupation, or turn tyrants into hippies who will wear flowers in their hair and open the political prisons. I’m not belittling these oppressive situations – they have haunted me for most of my life, and I consider myself a human rights activist. And I’m not saying that dua’ is not effective against oppression – actually the Prophet (pbuh) has told us that the dua’ of the oppressed is one of those categories of dua’ that is guaranteed a response.

Narrated Abu Ma’bad, that the Prophet said, “… and be afraid of the curse of an oppressed person because there is no screen between his invocation and Allah.” Sahih Bukhari: Volume 2, Book 24, Number 573.

But the response is not going to be forcing someone else to change heart, or become loving, kind or peaceful. That is an artificial expectation and it doesn’t work that way.

What, then? Is it all hopeless? No, far from it! The hope does not lie in changing someone else, it lies in changing yourself. That’s the whole point. Your free will and power do not extend over others, but they do encompass yourself. When you make a sincere choice to change your own life, when you purge yourself of blind desire, bitterness, self-pity, addiction and sin, when you work at it like your life depends on it, and when you make sincere and pure dua’ to Allah, then Allah’s help comes. New doors open, maybe not the solutions that you thought you wanted, but something better.

“And those who struggle in Our cause, We shall certainly guide them to our paths. For verily Allah is with those who do right.” (Quran 29:69)

A steep road, but not an impossible one

Sometimes there’s serious internal work that must be done before we can change. I’ve said that we cannot control others, we can only control our own choices, but some of us are out of control. We keep making the wrong choices over and over again, and we don’t know why, so we seek to blame our situations on others, and we imagine that they are the ones who need to change, not us.

How did we get to be this way? It usually traces back to the way we were raised. Parents are supposed to be loving and supportive, and most of them are, Alhamdulillah. But there are many rotten parents out there as well, dysfunctional people who turn their homes into environments of confusion and suffering. These parents might be alcohol or drug addicts, violent towards spouses and children, or verbally demeaning.

I remember one family I knew well when I was young. The parents were Muslim converts, and they had five children. The mother was German, and the father Arab. They used to scream at each other daily, in front of the children. The mother would shout, “Arab savage!” And the father would shout back, “German barbarian!” The father would sometimes strike the mother or throw things. I remember one time when he picked up a vacuum cleaner and held it over his head like a war club, shouting. It sounds comical, but the effect on the children was not so funny. Both parents often yelled at the children and insulted them. The children were under nourished, partly because the family was always short of money (the father never held a steady job), and partly because the environment was so chaotic that mealtimes were neglected. In their teens, the two eldest children had not learned to read and write.

This family was active in the masjid, their friends were all Muslim, they attended Muslim youth camps in summer… an outsider would never guess at the insanity that existed inside the home.

Those children are all adults now. One married a non-Muslim abuser who beat her while she was pregnant. She became an alcoholic and drug user before she finally returned to Islam many years later. One left Islam and became a Christian. One is chronically ill and has never married. He’s bitter and expresses many racist ideas toward Arabs in particular. One married an Algerian man who beats her badly enough to put her in the hospital, yet she refuses to leave him. Only the eldest has what you would consider a healthy and normal Muslim family, though he expresses an unexplainable sense of deep sadness that has persisted inside him for years. The parents themselves have been divorced for many years, and each lives alone in their home countries.

Parents like these can do a number on you for life. They can knuckle your self-esteem into the ground, crush your sense of self-worth, and give you a skewed picture of what a family is supposed to be. If you grew up in such a home then you may have been thoroughly indoctrinated into believing that all the abuse heaped on you is your own darn fault.

As a result some of us have uncontrollable tempers, or a lack of will to resist abuse, or a lack of faith in our own talents and dreams. And so the cycle of broken spirits and bad parenting is perpetuated into another generation.

If any of that sounds like you, then you have a steep road to climb, but not an impossible one. You must find a way to break out of the ruinous mold that you’ve been forced into and emerge a new human being, light and free, or at least on your way to becoming free. It’s not an easy process, in fact it can be enormously difficult because it requires self-candor. It’s hard to look at ourselves honestly, with none of the self-deception that we employ like crutches, and say, “I’m messed up inside. Regardless of how I got to be this way, I’m an adult now and I’m responsible for my own actions. I can’t keep blaming my problems on others, or on external circumstances. If I want a better life, I have to start by changing myself.”

That’s very hard. It requires prayer, dua’, study and introspection, and maybe therapy as well. It’s rigorous work, and it’s important, and it takes time. But it can be done.

The same is true for failed relationships, by the way. People say, “My husband/wife betrayed me and broke my heart. Now I can never trust anyone again.”

No. I’m very sorry that someone hurt you, but you must recognize that the choice not to trust anyone in the future is exactly that, a choice. Of course there’s going to be a period of mourning after a failed relationship, but if you let it affect you forever then that is something you are doing to yourself, not something the other person did to you. There comes a point when you must take responsibility for your own choices and acknowledge your own power. You can choose to love again, to trust again, to be happy again. It’s not necessarily easy, in fact it can be quite frightening, but it is certainly possible. And if you choose loneliness over the risk of being hurt again, then admit that it is your own choice, not some tragic doom that has been forced upon you.

You can make better choices, by Allah’s will.

You can make better choices, or at least different ones. You can wake up in the morning and be a better human being than you were yesterday. You can strengthen your relationship with Allah, pray at night, purify your spirit, exercise your body, eat your veggies and healthy proteins, study and work hard, love your family like a steady summer breeze, treat people with compassion, help someone who is suffering, speak the truth even when it’s not easy, and be a living example of taqwa.

And yes, have fun too, and pursue your dreams. Look within yourself to find your own God-given gifts, your own special treasure chest, and develop them. Bring something meaningful into the world. Be crazy if you have to – good crazy, not bad crazy. A shot of good craziness is sometimes exactly what the world needs.

If you make these changes sincerely, expecting nothing, doing it all to please Allah and to be the best you that you can possibly be, you’ll find the world changing around you in response. And yes, dua’ is an important part of this process, for dua’ is the essence of worship. But you won’t need to plead with Allah to make someone else do something, or be something, or feel something. Your dua’s will focus on other things, healthy things that have to do with your relationship with Allah, your struggle in His path, your destination in the aakhirah, relieving hardship in your life, helping your family and supporting the Ummah and all who are oppressed and in need.

You will have moved to a place of positively charged energy, a place of health and vitality, and you’ll find that what you need in life will come to you like a cat to catnip.

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