IN 1965, MARTIN E.P. Seligman, while studying the relationship between fear and learning, accidentally discovered an unexpected phenomenon while doing experiments on dogs using Pavlovian (classical conditioning) technique. Seligman used a harmless electric shock to condition and restrain the dog so it will not run away. Next, he put the conditioned dog into a shuttle box, which consists of a low fence dividing the box into two compartments. The dog could easily see over the fence, and jump over if it so wished. So Seligman rang the bell. He was expecting the dog to jump over the fence. Surprisingly, nothing happened! Then, he decided to shock the conditioned dog, and again nothing happened! The dog just pathetically lay there. Hey, what’s going! When Seligman put a normal dog into the shuttle box, who never experienced inescapable shock, the dog, as expected, immediately jumped over the fence to the other side.

Apparently, what the conditioned dog learned in the hammock was that trying to escape from the shocks is futile. This dog learned to be helpless! In another experiment, a rat was taught helplessness, and put with another fresh rat into a vessel of water. While the helpless rat drowned in two hours, the fresh rat struggled to escape for sixty hours.

The theory of learned helplessness was then extended to human behavior, providing a model for explaining depression. We decide and choose to be helpless, depressed, pessimistic and cynical. Helplessness, therefore, is a learned behavior. It lives in our minds, not out in the world.

The majority of the Muslim Ummah is, in a word, a self-inflicted state of learned helplessness. We, and only we, with the help of Allah, can get ourselves out of it:

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Indeed, never will Allah Change the condition of a people until they change it themselves (with their own souls). But when once Allah wills a people’s punishment, there can be no turning it back, nor will they find, besides Him, any to protect. [Sûrat Al-Raʿd, 13:11]

How have Muslims learned to be helpless and believe that their efforts will not bear fruit, therefore, it is no use to try, and that their enemies will always get their way? Closely connected with this helplessness is conspiracy theory mentality that incapacitates us.

A true revival of the Muslim Ummah is not possible until we begin to believe in ourselves and believe that our actions matter, both in this world and in the hereafter.

In this regard, there is something to learn from some of our fellow Americans who mobilized against the unjust war their administration was waging against the innocent civilians of Iraq. Their attitude in their efforts against the war was commendable – their efforts are untiring – their attitude was “we could stop them in Vietnam, why not now, we can still do it!”

One woman in California lived on a tree for two years – for two whole years she left her home and lived on a tree – to save trees from being cut down. The winning spirit and passion for relatively small things make us wonder: why can’t we garner the same for Allah, His Messenger ﷺ and his Dîn? Where has our energy gone? It has been sacked by our psychological defeatism and helplessness, the other name for weak faith and weak wisdom.

Winners are winners and losers, losers, before they begin their contest. It is their attitude and self-confidence that make all the difference. It is all inside us.

Speaking to my acquaintances in the Muslim world about the Iraq war (It had not begun by then),  I realized  that while most people were aware of and very deeply torn and aggrieved by the war on Iraq, they were mostly sitting quiet because they believed that they could not do anything. Many other instances have taught some of them that they were helpless. While certainly their emotions and love to the Iraqi people were infinitely more – they felt as one blood and one body – Muslims did not fill and roar their streets in the Muslim countries, and in the US, even as much as the peace-activists in a small American town to protest and denounce the war. They learned helplessness.

The Way Out 

Power, or weakness, is, Allah informs us, within ourselves: in our perspective, our mind, our soul, our understanding and our worldview. The following two factors are indispensable to our freedom from helplessness.


Faith, or Îmân, is the greatest power, and the only way out for the Ummah. Îmân is not only belief, but also reliance and trust. It means believing that Allah is powerful over all things. This seemingly invincible military might of the tyrants of today is nothing more than tiny ants that Allah can crush any time, if He wills, through any of his infinite means. Do we not know the Army of the Elephant? Or about the children of Israel in Egypt, as they crossed the Red Sea walking by the permission of Allah and their mighty enemy was drowned? Or how the early Muslims’ faith and trust turned them from shepherds into masters of the world in few years?

Wisdom and History

The book of Allah incessantly orders us to look at the histories of past nations, and learn lessons from them:

Many were the Ways of Life that have passed away before you: travel through the earth, and see what was the end of those who rejected Truth. [Sûrat Âl ʿImrân, 3:13]

The order to walk through the earth to learn lessons from history is repeated no less than 13 times in the Book of Allah. Learning history and its lessons, keeping the big picture in mind, and gleaning wisdom from the history of Muslims as well as other nations, therefore, is incumbent upon us.

How many of us know the history of their own countries, or of early Islamic communities? Or the American and Western history? Are we not guilty of constantly defying the orders of Allah to be informed, educated and learned?

Lessons from history are the biggest source, along with true faith, to avoid helplessness trap.

Looking at the World and History: Two Approaches

There are two ways of looking at the world and its history. One is static: you see and care about only what is now and here. You do not know any better and cannot think any better. You do not look at where we came from and do not care where we are going. In this case, if you are powerful you become arrogant, vain, pompous, and you play god. The Pharaohs of the past and present are the textbook examples of this arrogant way of thinking.

The Quran teaches us another way of thinking about the world and history, and that is dynamic. You know your past, and learn lessons from it. You know that societies and nations go up and down. They are always moving, but the rate of their movement is imperceptible. Just like the sun and the moon, you look at them and you think they are static and they will always stay there. Until you look at the bigger picture and you learn that the Sun was rising in the East a few hours ago and you predict that it will set in the West a few hours later, you realize that it is constantly moving.

The lack of power that characterizes the Muslims today is not permanent, neither is the supremacy of any world power. Do you remember that until only 400 years ago the greatest military world power in the world was the Muslim Ottoman Empire? Do you know that 60 years ago America was not a world power, never thought to become one, was very conservative and religious, and all the sexual promiscuity and shamelessness rampant on the street today were unknown to its people? Read history and you will realize that the civilizations that stooped to such low levels of immorality, and did not repent, were wiped off the face of the earth. Do you realize that a few decades of world dominance in the large scale of Allah’s plan mean less than a split second?

So lose not heart, nor fall into despair: For you must gain mastery if you are true in Faith. [Sûrat Âl ʿImrân, 3:139]

Dr Ovamir Anjum

Uwaymir Anjum is the Imam Khattab Chair of Islamic Studies at the Department of Philosophy, University of Toledo. He is also professor of Islamic Intellectual History at Qatar University. He studies the connections between theology, ethics, politics, and law in classical and medieval Islam, with a subfocus on its comparisons with western thought. Related fields of study include Islamic philosophy and Sufism. His dissertation, published in 2012 by Cambridge University Press, is entitled Politics, Law, and Community in Islamic Thought: The Taymiyyan Moment. His translation of Ibn al-Qayyim's Madârij Al-Sâlikîn is forthcoming.

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