In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
Our thoughts have a powerful ability to determine our feelings and emotional states and ultimately affect how we behave, for better or worse. Islam teaches us to direct the act reflection (tafakkur), or deep thought, towards the signs of Allah, the names and attributes of Allah, to his blessings and wonders, to hope in the Hereafter, and to optimism. By controlling our thought processes in a positive manner, we can increase the effectiveness of our prayers and worship as well as relieve ourselves from the anger, depression, and anxieties that worldly thoughts induce.
Contrary to popular belief, we have control over which thoughts we choose to follow. We may not have a choice over which particular thought occurs initially in our minds at a given time, but we do have a choice to either ignore it or pursue it.
Our voluntary thoughts are nothing more than inward statements. Hence, the rule is that we should only engage good thoughts or keep our minds silent.
Abu Huraira, RadhiAllahu Anhu, reported: The Messenger of Allah, SallAllahu Alayhi Wa Sallam, said:
وَمَنْ كَانَ يُؤْمِنُ بِاللَّهِ وَالْيَوْمِ الْآخِرِ فَلْيَقُلْ خَيْرًا أَوْ لِيَسْكُتْ
Whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day, let him speak goodness or remain silent.
Source: Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 6110, Grade: Muttafaqun Alayhi
Sometimes Satan will throw evil suggestions into our minds. These suggestions have no power over us unless we choose to act on them. If we follow an evil or negative train of thought, then it will lead us to a terrible end.
Thus, when we find ourselves caught up in a bad line of thinking, we need to immediately replace these negative thoughts with positive inward statements to cancel their effects.
Abu Dharr, RadhiAllahu Anhu, reported: The Messenger of Allah, SallAllahu Alayhi Wa Sallam, said:
وَأَتْبِعْ السَّيِّئَةَ الْحَسَنَةَ تَمْحُهَا
Follow a bad deed with a good deed and it will erase it.
Source: Sunan al-Tirmidhī 1987, Grade: Sahih
Positive thoughts are those that produce good feelings, good deeds, peace of mind, gratitude, tranquility, contentment, and other positive emotional states. These are truthful thoughts about Allah, hope in the Hereafter, the prophets, our blessings, good deeds, and so on. They produce wisdom and enlightenment in the heart.
Negative thoughts are those that produce bad feelings, anger, envy, jealousy, hatred, anxiety, depression, and other negative emotional states. These are thoughts about the world, our wealth, our status, people we do not like or who have wronged us, and so on. The cause of these thoughts is an attachment to the delusions of worldly and materialistic life that cloud the heart and prevent its purification.
Abu Sulaiman, may Allah have mercy on him, said:
الْفِكْرُ فِي الدُّنْيَا حِجَابٌ عَنِ الآخِرَةِ وَعُقُوبَةٌ لأَهْلِ الْوَلايَةِ وَالْفِكْرَةُ فِي الآخِرَةِ تُورِثُ الْحِكْمَةَ وَتُحْيِي الْقَلْبَ وَمَنْ نَظَرَ إِلَى الدُّنْيَا مُوَلِّيَةً صَحَّ عِنْدَهُ غُرُورُهَا
Thought upon the world is a veil over the Hereafter and a punishment for the people. Thought upon the Hereafter produces wisdom and life in the heart. Whoever looks to the world as his protector will come to accept its delusions.
Source: Hilyat al-Awliyā 14447
Not all thoughts about the world are evil. Thinking about something Allah blessed us with in the world is good. And we have a duty to take care of our worldly affairs, meet our work obligations, pay our bills, fulfill our trusts, and so on. We should think about these things in so far as they are necessary and beneficial.
For example, we may need to think about how we are going to complete a work project. But perhaps at work someone said a mean word to us or did something to annoy us. If we constantly dwell upon that negative interaction, it will only cause harm to us and produce no benefit. It is an unnecessary worldly thought and should be dismissed.
In fact, a step on the road to excellence in Islam is learning to think about only those things that should concern us.
Ali ibn Hussein, RadhiAllahu Anhu, reported: The Messenger of Allah, SallAllahu Alayhi Wa Sallam, said:
إِنَّ مِنْ حُسْنِ إِسْلَامِ الْمَرْءِ تَرْكَهُ مَا لَا يَعْنِيهِ
Verily, part of perfection in Islam is for a person to leave what does not concern him.
Source: Sunan al-Tirmidhī 2318, Grade: Sahih li ghayri
Ibn Al-Qayyim writes:
فأنفع الدَّوَاء أَن تشغل نَفسك بالفكر فِيمَا يَعْنِيك دون مَالا يَعْنِيك فالفكر فِيمَا لَا يَعْنِي بَاب كل شَرّ وَمن فكّر فِيمَا لَا يعنيه فَاتَهُ مَا يعنيه
The most beneficial remedy is that you preoccupy yourself with thoughts of what should concern you and not those that should not concern you. Thinking about what does not matter to you is the door of every evil. Whoever reflects upon what does not concern him, then he will miss what does concern him.
Source: al-Fawā’id 1/175
This means busying ourselves with worldly thoughts only to the extent necessary, and also learning not to worry about matters beyond our circle of influence or control. If we constantly worry or get upset by things we cannot change, that will take our attention away from what we can change.
After understanding the effects of positive and negative thoughts, we then need to direct our thought processes towards positive trains of thought and learn to dismiss negative thoughts before they take us into a downward spiral. Many of the Prophet’s companions considered the skill to direct thought in a positive way as the enlightenment of true faith.
Amir ibn Abdi Qais, may Allah have mercy on him, said:
سَمِعْتُ غَيْرَ وَاحِدٍ وَلَا اثْنَيْنِ وَلَا ثَلَاثَةٍ مِنْ أَصْحَابِ مُحَمَّدٍ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ يَقُولُونَ إِنَّ ضِيَاءَ الْإِيمَانِ أَوْ نُورَ الْإِيمَانِ التَّفَكُّرُ
I heard from more than one or two or three of the companions of Muhammad, SallAllahu Alayhi Wa Sallam, that they said the radiance or light of faith is in reflection.
Source: al-Durr al-Manthūr 3:190