The Motivated Muslim: Bridging Neuroscience and Islamic Wisdom

Faith and Motivation

Motivation has been defined as “the reason why somebody does something or behaves in a particular way” or “the feeling of wanting to do something, especially something that involves hard work and effort.”1 One thing that can instinctually be understood is that when the human body requires a particular biological need, the body automatically acts. While we comprehend instinctual responses as biological needs, understanding why individuals feel motivated for non-biological actions remains unclear. By exploring this concept, this article seeks to develop a contemporary approach, blending neurobiology and Islamic wisdom, to enhance motivation, increase iman (faith), and strengthen positive Islamic actions.

A Muslim’s iman is never stagnant – it increases and decreases throughout one’s life and on a daily basis; one might have different levels of iman when praying fajr and asr on the same day. This notion is well documented in hadith, as Abu Ja’far reported from Hazrat Umayr ibn Habib (RA) that: “Faith increases and decreases.” It was then asked, “How does it increase and decrease?” ‘Umayr said, “If we remember our Lord and fear him, it will increase. If we are heedless and we forget and we waste our time, it will decrease.”2

This article posits that these fluctuations in iman are rooted in motivation. The above Hadith postulates a relationship between feelings and actions and their subsequent effect on our iman. Theologists, philosophers and psychologists have long studied this interdependency between feelings and actions. An age-old question amongst intellectuals is what posits a necessary action: Is an action only possible after a feeling for it has been invoked, or can a necessary action be taken simply through will, regardless of the feeling? This relationship and the interdependency of actions and feelings can be summarised in one word: motivation.

Neurological Basis of Motivation

The advent of the 20th century has allowed scientists and psychologists to better understand the science behind motivation through molecular neurobiology. Motivation is more than just a feeling–at its core is dopamine, a neurotransmitter that governs motivation and an internal, almost intuitive, cost/benefit analysis on a metaphysical, molecular level.3 There are a plethora of studies and experiments that show that a lack of dopamine causes a decrease in feeding, locomotion, and a general lack of sensory-motor response.4 Thus, dopamine is essential in giving one enough energy and motivation to achieve goals. However, individuals find it subjectively difficult to attach dopamine to a task they do not want to complete, regardless of the necessity of completing that action. There are two simple solutions outlined in the Quran and Hadith that can help spike dopamine and subsequently increase motivation.

Method # 1: Mental Contrasting

A study shows that one of the more well-researched methods of increasing motivation and achieving a set goal is ‘mental contrasting’.5 This technique utilises interchanging positive and negative thoughts to force dopamine neurons to activate and help achieve one’s goals. This can include thinking of the positive benefits or results achieved upon completing the task while periodically thinking of all the negatives that could stem from leaving the task unfinished.6
The Quran is a perfect example of this concept. Allah continually uses the themes of Paradise and Hell to elucidate positive and negative thoughts within the reciter to try and help them become better Muslims. There are also powerful references to past Ummahs who have transgressed and the punishments they have received, as well as examples of Prophets (Alayhis Salatu Wassalam) who have been awarded for their perseverance and Dawah.

Method # 2: Growth Mindset

“Growth Mindset”, a term coined by Dr Carol Dweck, is a philosophy that argues that the struggle towards one’s goals should be the motivator, not the goal itself.7 This idea, backed by Dr Huberman, a neuroscientist, articulates that one needs to not only release dopamine but also associate dopamine release with the actual challenge of completing a given task.8 To achieve a growth mindset, as opposed to a fixed mindset, psychologists implore a technique that can be loosely coined as ‘contextual truth’.9 Contextual truth involves training oneself to empathise with the pain and fears one might feel while accomplishing goals and seeing them as positive rather than negative. This may feel like an internal lie. However, it is under the ‘context’ of truth because it is a feeling one wishes to invoke within oneself.
Contextual truth can also be connected to one’s iman, rooting actions in tawakkul (reliance) will help achieve a growth mindset. Shaykh ul Islam Dr Tahir ul Qadri advises that the foundation of tawakkul, reliance on Allah, is to develop absolute certainty and trust in Allah.10

“So surely ease (comes) with every hardship. Verily, with (this) hardship (too) there is ease.”

(Qur’an, 94:5-6)11

In this ayat of the Holy Qur’an, Allah The Almighty assures us within His infinite wisdom, not once but twice, that truly, with hardship comes ease. Uttering one’s niyyah during salah while not feeling that sincere connection to Allah is also a contextual truth that is based on love and faith; while one may not feel khushoo (serenity), the repeated bodily motions of salah will eventually reach spirit and mind as well. Once an action, like salah, is done enough times and with a committed mindset, internal dopamine neurons are activated, thereby elucidating the feeling of motivation and pleasure during the actual work rather than just the end result.12 During times of low iman, contextual truths can be used to grow our mindsets; rather than becoming demotivated, one should hold tight to tawakkul in everyday actions to trigger the process of dopamine production and activation.

Method # 3: An Ultimate Purpose, Not a Goal

Having tawakkul in Allah and believing in the ultimate purpose of pleasing Allah is the goal of every Muslim.13 However, we have been conditioned to set a finite number of goals, and we often forget our ultimate purpose. Upon reaching certain goals, one feels a certain sense of accomplishment and euphoria through dopamine release. However, over time, the dopamine begins to decrease, and we must start the process all over again to set a new goal and work towards that goal. This creates an infinite paradoxical loop where one constantly hops from one goal to the next while not achieving a holistic goal or a goal that may make the ‘ultimate’ picture clear. James Clear asserts that a better method to increase motivation is to set up a system to make progress.14 This will always help motivate one towards a greater purpose rather than finite goals. While keeping our ultimate purpose in mind, smaller goals can motivate us to achieve ways of pleasing Allah in this world and the next.

Islam undoubtedly teaches us this very phenomenon to permanently give us the motivation to increase our motivation continually. To achieve our Ultimate Purpose is to please Allah, and to please Allah is to purify our Nafs and place Him before anything to achieve success:

قَدْ اَفْلَحَ مَنْ زَكّٰىهَا۪ۙ

“Indeed the one who purifies his (ill-commanding) self (from all vain and vicious desires and cultivates in it virtue and piousness) succeeds.”18

Method # 4: Follow the Sunnah

The final method is deeply rooted in the Prophetic tradition. At any point in time when one feels stuck or can only find a lacklustre approach to a task, the Hadith below provides an all-encompassing management plan or modus operandi.

Abu Huraira reported Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) as saying: “A strong believer is better and is more lovable to Allah than a weak believer, and there is good in everyone, (but) cherish that which gives you benefit (in the Hereafter) and seek help from Allah and do not lose heart, and if anything (in the form of trouble) comes to you, don’t say: If I had not done that, it would not have happened so and so, but say: Allah did that what He had ordained to do and your “if” opens the (gate) for the Satan.”16

To extrapolate lessons from this hadith, anyone can follow one of the following five steps:

  1. Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) states that a strong believer is more beloved to Allah the Almighty. This strength is not only referred to as the physical strength one possesses but can be understood to be the strength in terms of acquiring skills, talents and education. Thus, the first step is to acquire good health, skills, or knowledge as they are all-inclusive in the task of becoming a ‘strong believer’.
  2. ‘Cherish that which gives you benefit’. When one cherishes something, a plan must be formulated to keep the objective clear and straightforward. Since the believers’ ultimate purpose lies in pleasing Allah, begin to create short-term goals that are achievable and reasonable.
  3. ‘Seek help from Allah’. Before any task, or as problems and issues arise, do not shy away from asking Allah for help. Indeed, “Allah alone is you Excellent Protector; what an Excellent Protector and what an Excellent Helper17
  4. ‘Do not lose heart’, do not give up! We return to the concept of peaks and valleys. Just as our iman does not stay stagnant, we are required to maintain a firm level of conviction in our hearts. A Muslim is one that continuously struggles and strives in the way of Allah.
  5. ‘Don’t say: If I had not done that, it would not have happened so and so’. The accumulation of negative thoughts nurtures a negative mindset. As humans begin to explore “what ifs” and begin ruminating on the past, this only leads to a downward spiral that will ultimately produce a lack of motivation. Since the “‘if’ opens the (gate) for Satan”, as believers, it is foundational that our mindset remains to accept the wisdom of not knowing the “whys” and the “what ifs” as Allah is truly All-Knowing.

Putting it All Together

The relationship between the fluctuating levels of iman and one’s level of motivation is quite evident, motivation methods can be used to increase one’s faith. To get started, one should first observe and self-reflect on their current state of iman. Allah commands us, “So always worship Me, and establish Prayer for the sake of My remembrance.”18 As a believer, prayer is a testament of faith (iman), and as one begins to lose their foothold in faith, a lack of not only interest in prayer but the action of it can be found. The motivation practices mentioned above can enable believers to find practical ways of increasing one’s iman.

1 Oxford Advanced Learner’s,, 2022.

2 Transmitted by Imam al-Bayhaqi in Shuab al-Iman, 55.

3 Salamone, John D., and Merce Correa. 2012. Review of The Mysterious Motivational Functions of Mesolimbic Dopamine. Neuron 76 (3): 470 85.

4 Salamone, Review of The Mysterious Motivational Functions, 2012.

5 Oettingen, Gabriele, Hyeon-ju Pak, and Karoline Schnetter. 2001. “Self-Regulation of Goal-Setting: Turning Free Fantasies about the Future into Binding Goals.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 80 (5): 736–53.

6 Ph.D, Nicole Celestine. 2020. “What Is Mental Contrasting and How to Benefit from It?” January 1, 2020.

7 Dweck, Carol S. 2016. Carol Dweck’s Mindset : The New Psychology of Success : Summary. Ant Hive Media.

8 Huberman Lab, Episode 39, September 30, 2021.

9 “Bielecki, Andrzej. 2020. “The Systemic Concept of Contextual Truth.” Foundations of Science 26 (4): 807–24.

10  Dr.Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, Shaykh-ul-Islam. Fulfilling the Rights of Tawqa.

 11 Surah ash-Sharh , Chapter # 94, Ayah #5-6 (Translation from Irfan-ul-Quran)

12  Huberman Lab, Episode 39, September 30, 2021.

13   Dr.Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, Shaykh-ul-Islam. Human (Insan) Is Created to Love the Divine.

14   Clear, James. 2018. Atomic Habits. Penguin Publishing Group.

15   Surah Ash-Shams, Chapter # 91, Ayah # 09 (Translation from Irfan-ul-Quran)

16   Transmitted in Sahih Muslim, Kitab-ul-Qadr (Book 46), 42.

17   Surah Al-Anfal, Chapter # 8, Ayah # 40 (Translation from Irfan-ul-Quran)

18   Surah Taha, Chapter 20, Ayah 14 (Translation from Irfan-ul-Quran)

Dr. Abdullah Raja

Dr. Abdullah Raja is an award winning neuroscientist completing his MD degree at McMaster University. His research involves studying the neuronal links which cause aggression & motivation and the causes behind why these emotions are found on a spectrum from human to human. He is also a motivational speaker, speaking on TEDx and platforms locally. He has completed his Dars-e-Nizami, MA in Islamic Studies & PhD in Hadith Sciences, he aims to bridge the gap between Islamic and Academic Sciences to empower the Muslim youth to reconnect with the spirit of Islam.