Oscillating Locus of Control

A discussion on the ideal concept of control in a Muslim’s life

By Mikaeel Ahmed Smith

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 sees 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 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 do 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 (peace and blessing be upon him) took the rejection of the Makkan people very heavily.

"It is as if you would destroy yourself (Muhammad) because they won't believe”

In this verse and in similar verses, the Prophet 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 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, '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 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.