How do Muslims deal with uncertainty?

How do we deal with uncertainty? How do we ensure uncertainty doesn’t get blamed for inaction.

In spite of humanity’s scientific and technological prowess and the unfathomable resources at our collective disposal, the coronavirus has halted our normal ways of living, limited our social interactions and crippled our economies. The pandemic has definitely helped us recognise how dependent we are upon Allah(SWT), the only one who is fully in control and our most certain handhold.

Just as we thought we were recovering from COVID-19, we are again confronted with the possibility of another lockdown, and need to take stock in order to prepare for uncertainty and unexpected events in the future. Though we know that our efforts will be imperfect, the catastrophic impact to lives and livelihoods, show us that the cost of inaction is far too high. No doubt, when we face uncertainty, some ideas will fail. But this is what drives progress.

It is said that life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forward. However, we have a guide that is applicable until the Day we stand before Allah(SWT)

As we face uncertainty, our brains often push us to overreact. Successful people, as we see in the example of the Prophet(SAW) are able to override this mechanism and shift their thinking in a rational direction.

So by mercy from Allah, [O Muhammad], you were lenient with them. And if you had been rude [in speech] and harsh in heart, they would have disbanded from about you. So pardon them and ask forgiveness for them and consult them in the matter. And when you have decided, then rely upon Allah . Indeed, Allah loves those who rely [upon Him]. [Surah Aale Imran 3:159]]

The beauty of his blessed personality lies in his transparency and honesty regarding his own feelings and of those around him. If he was happy, his Companions and his family members knew, and vice-versa. If he was upset about something, they could easily tell, and vice-versa. Once, the Prophet told his wife Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her) that he could tell when she was upset with him. When she was happy with him, she would say, by the Lord of Muhammad, and when she was upset, she would say, by the Lord of Ibrahim. To which she responded – yes, I do not leave out anything but the name. [Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 5728]

Even to note such subtle differences in one’s spouse’s mannerisms is a sign of sensitivity.

The only times he hid his feelings were when he was caring for others’ emotions. Anas bin Malik narrated that Messenger of Allah said “If a sheep’s foot (lacking meat) were given to me I would accept it, and if I was invited to (a meal of) it I would accept”.[Bukhari, Muslim] And though his heart would be grieving, his face would be adorned by a beautiful smile, by default. Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others.

Mastering your emotions

It is one of life’s tricks, that each day we awaken with moods that have changed from yesterday. Yesterdays joy will become todays sadness; yet todays sadness will grow into tomorrows joy. Inside us all there is a wheel, constantly turning from sadness to joy, from excitement to depression, from happiness to sadness. Like the trees and flowers which were blooming yesterday, they will fade and wither into the winter. But remember that today’s dead flower carries the seed of tomorrow’s bloom, so too does todays sadness carry the seed of tomorrows joy.

Many people respond to uncertainty with a knee-jerk fear reaction, and fear inhibits good decision-making. People who are good at dealing with uncertainty are wary of this fear and spot it as soon as it begins to surface. In this way, they can contain it before it gets out of control. Once they are aware of the fear, they label all the irrational thoughts that try to intensify it as irrational fears—not reality—and the fear subsides. Then they can focus more accurately and rationally on the information they have to go on. In other words, keeping cool is a key skill which allows you to settle your emotions down and remain quiet until a real problem shows up, so they can use their fight or flight energy at the right time.

Remember, you are in control Even though unexpected events and external triggers play a significant role, at the end of the day, the manner in which we react to inconvenient scenarios does shape who we are and even the impact we may have on those around us.

There was once a boy who became angry so frequently with his friends at school that he was constantly getting sent home. His temper was disruptive to the class and hurtful to other students.

His father came up with a strategy to try to deter the boy from getting angry so easily. He gave his son a hammer and some nails and told him to hammer a nail into the family’s fence every time the boy got angry in the future.

The following day, the boy got angry 37 times, and had to hammer as many nails into the fence.

Over the next few weeks, the boy got tired of hammering nails into the fence and he gradually started to control his temper. Slowly, the number of nails he was hammering into the fence started to decrease. The boy realized that it was easier to remain calm when he started to feel angry than to gather the tools, go outside, and start hammering.

Eventually, the boy stopped losing his temper altogether. His dad noticed, and told the boy to remove a nail from the fence every day that he was able to keep his temper under control.

Eventually, as the weeks went by, all of the nails had been taken out of the fence. The father and son then stood in front of the broken fence, which was completely scattered with holes.

The father turned to his son and said, “You have done well, but look at the holes in the fence. They cannot be repaired. When you get angry at other people, it leaves a scar just like the holes you see in front of you. It doesn’t matter if you say I’m sorry one hundred times, the injury is still there.”

Some of the lessons from this story – you can control your emotions when you have a bigger reason to do so. Also, control your anger towards other people – while you may not see the damage that it does, it can leave irreparable wounds that can eventually break them. Be kind to others and think before you let your emotions get the best of you. There is a Persian proverb that “a bad wound heals, but a bad word doesn’t.”

Carry your weather

Trees and plants depend on the weather to flourish but we carry our own weather. If we carry rain – despair, darkness and pessimism – those around us will react with negativity and sadness. If we bring joy, enthusiasm and brightness, our environment will yield a positive harvest.

In these moments, think about your day, and identify one positive thing that happened, no matter how small. If you can’t think of anything from the current day, reflect on the previous day or days or even the previous week, or perhaps you’re looking forward to an exciting event. The point here is that you must have something positive that you’re ready to shift your attention to when your thoughts turn negative due to the stress of uncertainty, otherwise your mind loves to wander.

If we feel captured by the forces of sadness, self-pity and failure its useful to have a plan:

  • If you feel fear, plunge ahead
  • If you feel poverty, think of wealth to come
  • If you feel incompetent, remember past success
  • If you feel insignificant, remember our goals

Similarly, balance this in times of seeming success, with:

  • When feeling overconfident, recall your failures
  • When overeating or binge-watching, think of past hungers
  • When enjoying moments of greatness, remember moments of shame
  • When feeling rich, remember the unfed mouths all around the world

Know what you know, and what you don’t In the famous hadith of Jibreel (AS) recorded in Sahih Bukhari, Umar(RA) reports someone they didn’t recognise cam and sat by the Prophet(SAW) and asked him a series of questions about Iman, Islam and Ihsan. On confirming the answers to these questions, he then went on to ask the Prophet (SAW) “When is the hour?” To which the Prophet(SAW) calmly responded Mal mas’oolu ‘anha bi a’lama min as-saa-il “”The answerer has no better knowledge than the questioner.” And then he(SAW) went on to share what he did know “But I will inform you about its portents.”

Take stock of what you know and what you don’t know and assign a factor of importance to each. Identify as many of these things as possible.

Embrace the things you can’t control Remain honest and face the reality of what you know and don’t. The only thing we really control is the process through which we reach our decisions. That’s the only rational way to handle the unknown, and the best way to keep your head on level ground. Don’t be afraid to step up and say, “Here’s what we don’t know, but we’re going forward based on what we do know. We may make mistakes, but that’s a lot better than standing still.”

Focus on what matters Some decisions are make or break but most just aren’t that important. The people who are the best at making decisions in the face of uncertainty don’t waste their time getting stuck on decisions where the biggest risk is looking foolish in front of others e.g. co-workers, family, friends. When it comes down to it, almost every decision contains at least a small factor of uncertainty. Learning to properly balance the many decisions on your plate, however, allows you to focus your energy on the things that matter and to make more informed choices. It also removes the unnecessary pressure and distraction caused by a flurry of small worries.

Remember, whereever you focus your attention will determine your emotional state. When you fixate on the problems that you’re facing, you create and prolong negative emotions and stress, which hinders performance. When you focus on actions to better yourself and your circumstances, you create a sense of personal efficacy that produces positive emotions and improves performance. Emotionally intelligent people don’t allow themselves to become preoccupied with the uncertainties they face. Instead, they focus all their attention and effort on what they can do, in spite of the uncertainty, to better their situation.

Have a Plan B but don’t fall into analysis-paralysis

The saying is that failing to plan is a sure plan for failure. Don’t worry about making mistakes in your planning but do make detailed, rational, and transparent contingency plans before taking action. Successful people know they aren’t always going to make the right decision. They know how to absorb and understand mistakes so that they can make better decisions in the future. And they never let mistakes get them down for too long.

Things can go in a million different directions, and the more time you spend worrying about the possibilities, the less time you’ll spend focusing on taking action that will calm you down and keep your stress under control. Successful people know that asking “what if?” will only take them to a place they don’t want, or need, to go to.

Abu Huraira reported Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) as saying: A strong believer is better and is more lovable to Allah than a weak believer, and there is good in everyone, (but) cherish that which gives you benefit (in the Hereafter) and seek help from Allah and do not lose heart, and if anything (in the form of trouble) comes to you, don’t say: If I had not done that, it would not have happened so and so, but say: Allah did that what He had ordained to do and your” if” opens the (gate) for the Satan. [Sahih Muslim 2664]

Consider others emotions

Similarly, remember the moods of those you meet. Make allowances for their anger and irritation as they may not know about emotional intelligence and control. Withstand their arrows and insults for now and know that tomorrow they will change.

Take positive action Master your moods through positive action.

Remember, just like the tone of our voice, our body language can do much to indicate where our intention truly lies during a conversation. Turn your full face and body towards the person that is speaking to you. Give them your undivided attention and listen to what they have to say. If they feel valued and as though they are truly being heard, they are more likely to trust you and accept your advice. As humans, this is one of our most foremost social needs.

Once, a psychology professor walked around his classroom full of students holding a glass of water with his arm straightened out to the side. He asked his students, “How heavy is this glass of water?”

The students started to shout out guesses–ranging anywhere from 4 ounces to one pound.

The professor replied, “The absolute weight of this glass isn’t what matters while I’m holding it. Rather, it’s the amount of time that I hold onto it that makes an impact.

If I hold it for, say, two minutes, it doesn’t feel like much of a burden. If I hold it for an hour, its weight may become more apparent as my muscles begin to tire. If I hold it for an entire day–or week–my muscles will cramp and I’ll likely feel numb or paralyzed with pain, making me feel miserable and unable to think about anything aside from the pain that I’m in.

In all of these cases, the actual weight of the glass will remain the same, but the longer I clench onto it, the heavier it feels to me and the more burdensome it is to hold.

The class understood and shook their heads in agreement.

The professor continued to say, “This glass of water represents the worries and stresses that you carry around with you every day.  If you think about them for a few minutes and then put them aside, it’s not a heavy burden to bear. If you think about them a little longer, you will start to feel the impacts of the stress. If you carry your worries with you all day, you will become incapacitated, prohibiting you from doing anything else until you let them go.”

Put down your worries and stressors. Don’t give them your entire attention while your life is passing you by. Let go of things that are out of your control. Don’t carry your worries around with you everywhere you go, as they will do nothing but bring you down. Put your “glass down” each night and move on from anything that is unnecessarily stressing you out. Don’t carry this extra weight into the next day.

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