Islam & Self-Control

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The Marshmallow experiment—first conducted in 1972 by a researcher at Stanford University to test self-control and delayed gratification—is famous in the field of psychology. In the experiment, children are brought into an empty room and given a marshmallow, after which the researcher leaves the room. The child is allowed to eat that marshmallow, but would be rewarded with another if they abstained until the researcher returns to the room after fifteen minutes. I recently read an article about this still-popular behavioral test, and I saw parallels between the experiment and Islam.

Watch an example of the Marshmallow experiment here:

From a young age, many of us are instilled with the understanding that, as Muslims, life is a test from Allah. Islam is often accused of being a “strict” religion, requiring its believers to abstain from pork, intoxicating substances, revealing clothing, premarital relations between sexes, and gambling, among other things. All of these things are so prevalent in our culture today that one of the tests that we go through on a daily basis is the exercise of self-control in the face of temptation, as in the Marshmallow experiment.

We are also assigned one of the biggest tests of our self-control every year during Ramadhan, when we abstain from food, water, and many other things, in order to purify our selves and our souls.

Also congruous with the Marshmallow experiment, exercising self-control in Islam comes with the promise of delayed gratification: escaping Allah’s wrath and hell-fire, and gaining entry to jannah.

A follow-up on the original participants of the experiment found that the thirty percent of the children who successfully waited out the fifteen minutes and were  rewarded with a second marshmallow went on to do better in school and in life than the others.

I think one explanation for this result is my belief that self-control begets self- respect. Think about it: when you refrain from committing sin, or, to use a more frivolous example, when you refrain from wasting money on something expensive that you really want but don’t really need, you feel good about yourself. And when you feel good about yourself, you gain the confidence to fulfill your true potential.

We often hear that Islam is not merely a religion, but a way of life, and this for me is yet more proof of that. Our religion teaches us to manage our temptations, to resist vices, and in the process, to develop self-worth, which aids us not only in this life, but also in the hereafter.


Shahirah is an aspiring journalist who is interested in social issues, women’s rights, the Middle East conflict, and Islam in the Western world. She is also interested in languages and would like to take up Arabic soon.


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