Willpower and being tested with it

by Fethullah Gülen on . Posted in Questions and Answers

User Rating:  / 15

Fethullah Gülen: Willpower and being tested with it

Question: What is the willpower and how are we being tested with it?

Willpower is considered as one of the four basic elements of what we call the mechanism of conscience. As expressed by Bediuzzaman in a beautiful phrase, willpower is “one’s inclination or his or her practice in the direction of that inclination.” That is, it is a person’s resolution and performance when he or she is in a situation to prefer one of the alternatives they are presented. As a matter of fact, it is nothing more than an insignificant cause that was made a condition although it is not needed in the true sense of the word. And from this premise, it is disqualified from a connection one would seek between the cause and effect according to the principle of causality. It is no different than binding the enlightenment of all the world to a single touch on the button of an electric network, or that the destruction or construction of huge systems to be dependent on a breath of yours.

As clearly observed in the examples, there exists absolutely no association between the cause and effect. Indeed, under normal circumstances, that cause is impossible to bring about that effect. Accordingly, for Bediuzzaman the nature of willpower is relative and secondary, as other scholars of Islamic theology, kalam.

Then, how are we being tested with our willpower?

1. How does it come that such huge effects are reached by such a small entity (an inclination or a practice on that inclination)? A huge pine tree originates from a little seed and a brood comes out of an egg – or, more accurately, a tiny “organism of vitality.” All these are particular manifestations of God’s power or capability. The role our willpower has in effecting the deeds we have been performing, and the results of them – no matter how huge or grand they are – are identical to the role of the seed upon that huge tree, or of the tiny organism upon the brood. All these, in fact, are the indicators of the truth of “God is great.”

2. Whatever the essence of willpower is, we have to rely on it simply because God has built some particular affairs upon it. Indeed, God Almighty has built our future upon our willpower. That is, willpower, in a way, is like a plan or project in terms of our future. Due to this fact, it is important to maintain a balance regarding the true nature of willpower, by assigning no value to it, or by binding everything to its presence. Willpower is a relative entity. As God Almighty has built many things upon will power, we should not be deceived by looking at the smallness of willpower as opposed to the greatness of all the entities that are created and our willpower serves as an instrument to them. How we define our willpower, and thus conceptualize our future and especially our actions is a great test we sit for.

3. Using willpower within the reasonable limitations in the way God points out is also of great importance. If you do not give your willpower its full due, if you do not, or cannot use it properly, or if you do not cherish it by strengthening it – although you have been striving in the name of the values you defend, the probability of your falling into some mistakes will always be in question. To give an example, if you aim to serve your faith and in that direction you want to pour out to the streets, wage armed struggle, or get into political rivalry instead of good services, and fight with all the world, you have failed the test with your willpower. You will have failed because you do not take the template of the good example of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and his Age of Happiness; you disregard the circumstances of the age, the human condition, and the effect of willpower in all this.

We should utilize our willpower in the light of rationality and not forsake it to emotional traps; in contrast, we should always seek for means to consolidate our willpower. We should, for instance, unify it with our consciousness so that our heart is employed on behalf of our willpower. Thus, the test will be passed, particularly in matters pertaining to faith, worship, and charity work, for our willpower will be guided by the illuminating lights of divine knowledge.

4. We ought to accomplish the tasks falling upon our shoulders, and in no way interfere with manifestations of God’s Lordship. Yes, this is again a matter of willpower. Indeed, the fact that we apply to perform the deeds God shall actualize, is a matter exceeding our willpower. As another matter of fact, applying for things exceeding our power and abilities may lead us to fall into despair and fail the test, as a result. Bediuzzaman quotes aides of a great king who told him, on the way to battle, “You will win the victory!” The faithful king replied: “I am responsible for fighting against the enemy. To make me win or lose is God’s duty.” Actually, I do not know so well whether calling this a “duty” is right or not. But with Bediuzzaman top amongst them, many scholars of kalam have employed this term for God. But still, I prefer to use “manifestations of God’s Lordship.”

At that moment, such a question may come to your minds: “Are we not going to pass this test with our willpower again?” Yes, that is correct. Because of this, willpower should be ceaselessly strengthened. Prayer and appealing for pardon are two factors of vital importance. According to Bediuzzaman, “Asking forgiveness cuts off the root of one’s inclination to evil; prayer enhances one’s inclination to goodness.” Man essentially has been beset by an array of thoughts and by corporeal lust – such as eating, drinking, sleeping, getting up, and all other feelings. Humans are so surrounded by lust, that even just a single step could plunge a person into incredible depths of sin. In fact, to interpret the lust stated in the hadith merely as the attraction one feels for the opposite gender, as some people do, is not true. Here, lust bears a much more general and universal reference. In accordance with such a general and universal comment, gambling, drinking alcohol, and adultery are considered as varying dimensions of lust. If one is trapped by one of these variances of lust, he or she shall probably be hunted by his or her carnal soul, and one day he or she may totally become a slave to it. You see, begging for pardon against all of these shall become a spell cutting off any kind of evil and inclination towards evil.

To clarify a little bit further, we could say that the particular apology that shall cut off the inclination to evil requires a deep repentance for the sins of the past, preservation of the present legitimate path, a particular determined attitude towards the probable sins of the future, and resolution in that determination … Plus, one has to stress this resolution all the time; in other words, one ought to feel and sense his or her orientation towards God in his or her conscience to the fullest degree.

As of the prayer enhancing one’s inclination towards goodness, we may point out some verses from the Qur’an, like: “Your Lord has said: ‘Pray to Me, (and) I will answer you’” (40:60); “And when (O Messenger) My servants ask you about Me, then surely I am near: I answer the prayer of the suppliant when he prays to Me” (2:186).

In other words, God Almighty might mean something like, “my servants shall in no way fall in despair, as I am closer to them than their own carotid is; if they are not able to practice actual prayer, they may do it verbally; if they are still unable, they shall gravitate their hearts to Me; that is, if they are not satisfied with their verbal utterances, they may sail themselves away to the vastness of their consciences and recite something like, ‘O my beloved Lord! I have asked for Your help on that issue with 30–40 sentences. In fact, I am sure that I have not asked for so many things that must actually be asked from You, and that surely Prophets, the Purified souls, saints, the close and the distinguished ones have asked from You. I may have not known them, comprehended them, and asked for them. Now, I am taking all those holy wishes and prayers into consideration, and getting oriented towards You, with all my soul, one more time, touching the handle of Your Door of Mercy, and moaning.’”

Yes, we should keep our zeal as vast as possible, and should not go to the door of our Lord as if going to someone lacking wealth or power. In contrast, we should go in with an air that we apply to the Owner of Infinite Wealth whose treasure would not be lessened even though He bestowed us a Paradise every day. Besides, as stated in a verse, “my Lord would not care for you were it not for your prayer” (25:77), one of the significant aspects of man is his or her orientation towards God by means of prayer.

Other practices of worship may not be as sincere as a sincere prayer or invocation, since they are open to hidden or apparent showing-off. And still some others may be practiced in a kind of compulsion within the frame of ostensible causes. A sincere prayer, indeed, is like a weapon man falls back on when all the causes in the physical world are exhausted. Causes are never appealed along prayers. In a way, it is closed to hidden or apparent kinds of showing-off. Thanks to prayer, man gets oriented to his or her beloved Lord in a particular place where no one else is present, opens his or her hands, lays him or herself flat for prostration, and keeps begging, and washing his or her prayer rug with tears. You see, it is this prayer said on this line that shall enhance the inclination to goodness; that is, that shall empower one’s will power in terms of doing good. In fact, God’s Messenger, peace and blessings be upon Him, begged forgiveness 70 or 100 times a day, according to varying reports. In all the phases of His blessed life, in different times and places, from the moment a rooster crowed to the time of putting on something new, He always prayed for each occasion.

Let us close with a poem by Yunus Emre.

So incapable has the cruel carnal soul made me,
It is unable to be saturated with joys of that world.
Its eyes are blinded by the shirt of unawareness,
It does not notice life is passing away.

O my Lord, how do you call those wearing the shirt of unawareness,
Do you indeed call those yielding to carnal soul as “believers”?
Those keeping earning but spending in vain
Unable to donate even a penny for God’s sake.

O my Lord, alert my eyes from unawareness,
so that I shall not be ashamed in your Divine Dwelling.
Yunus says, do listen to me and do what I say:
Those loving the world cannot find the Hereafter.

This article has first appeared in the 97th issue of Fountain Magazine (January - February 2014). The Fountain can be reached online at