25 Jan 2015




Asalamu Alaikum,

     Ahmed was fed up with his manager, unhappy with the workplace, and unmotivated to work. He couldn’t take it anymore so he decided to leave and start his own company. What happened next? Read on to find out. In the meantime, we tend to underestimate the power of the situation, and how it influences our beliefs as well as our behaviors. How does our situation affect our behavior? How does it facilitate or impede our positive change? The environment at work, home, school or otherwise have a major impact on our financial, spiritual, physical, social, and educational lives. For better or worse, they play a significant role in making us richer or poorer, calmer or angrier, happier or sadder, slimmer or fatter, etc. Remember last Ramadhan. We saw Mosques filled with people breaking their fast together, reading Quran, praying Taraweeh, or supplicating. Such an external factor of the right situation and environment motivated us to change for the better.

What would you say to a man who comes to you and admits that he had murdered many people? He then asks you for advice on how he can change. One of the most beautiful Hadith that inspires hope to change is found in Al Bukhari, in which our beloved Messenger said: “Among those who came before you was a man who killed 99 people. He then asked to be guided to the best worshipper on earth, and he was directed to a monk. He went to him and told him that he had killed 99 people, and he asked whether it was possible for him to repent. The monk said, ‘No.’ The man killed him, making him the 100th victim. He then asked to be directed to the most knowledgeable person on earth, and he was directed to a scholar. He went to him and told him that he had killed 100 people, and he asked whether it was possible for him to repent. The scholar said, ‘Yes, and who will stand between you and repentance? Go to such and such land, for in it dwell a people who worship Allah , so go and worship Allah with them. And do not return to your land, for it is a land of evil.’ He left, and when he reached the halfway point of his journey, he died. The angels of Mercy and the angels of Punishment disputed with one another [in regard to his case]. The angels of Mercy said, ‘He came to us to repentant, advancing with his heart towards Allah.’ The angels of Punishment said, ‘Indeed, he never performed any good deeds.’ Then an angel came in the form of a human being, and both groups of angels asked him to be the judge between them. He said, ‘Measure the distance between the two lands. Whichever land he is closer to is the land that he is closer to [in terms of being of its people]. They then measured the distance and found that he was closer to the land that he was heading towards, and so it was the angels of Mercy who then took his soul.” While we learn about the mercy of Allah to a person whom by all standard was considered a ruthless criminal, we must not overlook the solution to change. The scholar directed him to leave his current land (situation) of evil, and head toward the land (situation) of the righteous. Essentially, the wrong person in the wrong situation increases the chances of the wrong behavior, but the wrong person in the right situation increases the chances of the right behavior.

On the other hand, the right person in the wrong situation increases the chances of wrong behavior. A classical study called Stanford Prison Experiments illustrated the power of situational factors (external: environment)  over dispositional factors (internal: beliefs, values, etc). To make the simulation as seemingly real as possible, the researchers constructed a mock prison with cells and utilities similar to that of a real prison. They randomly selected a sample of 24 physically and mentally healthy students. They then assigned them randomly to 2 groups: either prisoners or guards.  They provided the participants with uniforms, clubs, whistles, glasses and other accessories depending on their roles. The guards were not given any particular instructuctions or training except to maintain the law. Within just a few days, it seemed as if those guards didn’t consider it to be an experiment anymore and behaved as if it was a real prison. The guards harrased and stripped prisoners naked, forced them into solitary confinement, took their beds and food away,  prevented them from their toilet “privilege’, and became very aggressive toward them. They were cruel and abusive verbally and physically to the point that many prisoners suffered intense stress and depression. The study was scheduled for 14 days but had to be stopped on the sixth day. The researcher deemed it unethical to continue due to the degrading and dehumanizing actions of the guards. Remember that the guards were good students with no prior records of violence or any sadistic behaviour. However, the power of the external factor of the situation dominated the power of the internal factor of their good traits.

To illustrate this even further, I don’t think I can ever forget a parent who came to me last year after giving a youth talk. He asked me to sit with his teenage son who was an extreme alcoholic. Before referring the son to a specialist, I asked him multiple questions including what led to his addiction? He told me that his father pushed him to work in his grocery store. His job was to stock and fill up the fridges with different types of beers. His coworker, who wasn’t a Muslim, used to drink beer and convinced him to try one. That introduction made him hooked and enslaved to drinking to the point that he was incapable of functioning normally at all. The situation and the environment corrupted the behavior of an ordinary teenager.

Changing our situation will help change our cognitions, emotions, and actions. My friend Ahmed whom I mentioned earlier who started his own company is now better than ever Alhamdulillah. Within five months, his revenue has grown tremendously with the blessing of Allah to the point that he hired six full-time employees. I met him last week and saw in him a new level of energy, confidence, and commitment to work harder.  Know that situations don’t easily change leaders; leaders change situations. Leaders know that change isn’t an adjective, rather it is a verb. It is a continuous journey of improvement. As long as our souls are in our bodies and our hearts are still beating, we have no excuse but to become better. Placing ourselves in the right situation will make that easier for us and faster.


I welcome your responses, questions, or reflections. You can comment below, or tweet at @AlmathilNY using the hashtag #OTINewYearNewYou on twitter, and I will do my best to respond to them.


Best regards,

Mohammed Almathil