By Amreen Pathan
Being a creature of habit doesn’t always feel like a highly sought-after personality trait. It sometimes comes across as being risk averse or as a debilitating inability to stray from routine.
Being able to take risks is important of course as is the ability to adapt if circumstance calls for it. All those interested in professional development and personal betterment will undoubtedly agree.
However, being a creature of habit doesn’t have to be a negative notion – or shouldn’t be – particularly not in the month of Ramadan.
I referred to Ramadan as a training ground here and the analogy still stands. It encapsulates the very essence of Ramadan: fixing bad habits and making new ones. No, not just for a mere 30 days but as one might expect from the most successful training program, for a lifetime or until the next opportunity for a refresher presents itself again – in this case the following Ramadan!
Habits are defined as actions that are triggered automatically in response to contextual cues. Washing hands for example after using the toilet (contextual clue) is a habit. In the context of this article, offering prayers as soon as the call to prayer is heard would be a habit. Retaliating in anger after having been antagonised would be a habit.
When something becomes a habit, space is made in one’s cognitive and mental space because habitual actions are automations. As such, no thinking is required. This does not mean a task is carried out soullessly and with no intention. In fact, in Islam, all actions are judged according to intentions (Muslim). A simple act of entering the home with the right foot instead of the left for example, can become rewarding based on the intention it is performed.
What this does mean however in the process of habit formation is that it becomes easier and easier to perform or adhere to the intended act. What might have been difficult at the beginning, such as performing one’s prayers on time, becomes seamless and burdenless with the reward being in no way diminished. More on this below.
Nature of habits
What kinds of habits should we be nurturing and which habits should we be breaking?
In this piece, I compartmentalised the benefits of fasting into three:
It make sense to compartmentalise habits too.
- Physical: excessive eating, nature of the food and drink we consume, exercise, sleeping routine, assisting in the home, acting responsibly within one’s community, refraining from impermissible acts, perfecting physical acts of worship such as offering prayers in the masjid and offering them on time.
- Spiritual: exercising patience, repenting after sinning, refraining from backbiting and gossiping, eliminating pride and arrogance, rectifying intentions and always speaking the truth.
- Mental: restricting means of procrastination, expressing gratitude, offering charity, making Dua’ and showing empathy.
This list is by no means exhaustive. One should of course aim to create their own targets prior to Ramadan to truly make this training ground a triumphant one.
A permanent habitation
The energy and enthusiasm that comes with the commencement of Ramadan is infectious. Symptoms? A high fever – sorry, fervour – to read the Noble Quran as much as possible, to freely proffer alms to the needy, to indulgently seek forgiveness from one’s Creator and to stand in prayer all night.
As one should.
However, what happens once the fervour subsides? What practical steps can one take to extend their ‘trial period’ for the remaining eleven months of the year?
In a tradition narrated by ‘Aisha, Allah’s messenger (peace be upon him) said, “Do good deeds properly, sincerely and moderately and know that your deeds will not make you enter Paradise, and that the most beloved deed to Allah is the most regular and constant even if it were little.” (Sahih al-Bukhari)
Consistency adds value. This is what elevates a deed in the eyes of Allah Almighty. Similarly, consistency perpetuates moderation in that despite the seemingly substandard nature of the deed, Allah promises a reward based on consistency. This means that a person need not over-exert themself to win the pleasure of Allah thereby avoiding, as the expression goes, burn out.
After all, isn’t Islam all about ease?
‘Allah intends to provide ease for you and does not intend to create hardship for you.’ (2:185)
Here are five practical tips to ensure consistency even after we bid farewell to the month of Ramadan:
- Try to fast twice a week. Fasting will increase the likelihood of sustained good habits and the riddance of bad ones.
Abu Hurayrah reported that the Messenger of Allah said: ‘Deeds are presented on Monday and Thursday, and I love that my deeds be presented while I am fasting.’ (At-Tirmidhi)
For this reason, the Prophet of Allah (peace be upon him) would fast every Mondays and Thursdays.
- Continue offering Sadaqah (voluntary alms). Not only does this contribute to overall community cohesion, but also ‘extinguishes the wrath of Allah just like water extinguishes fire.’ (Sunan ibn Majah)
- Abu Umamah relates that the Prophet (peace be upon him said): ‘Read the Quran, for verily it will come on the Day of Judgement as an intercessor for its companions.’ (Muslim)
Limiting one’s reading only to the month of Ramadan cannot guarantee intercession. So, schedule in time for the recitation of the Quran daily, be this in the morning or evening or both.
- Stay away from things that may trigger bad habits and attach a small reward to the behaviours that do not impede good habits. A social smoker for example may choose to avoid the company of those who smoke to inhibit their own urge to smoke.
- Evaluate, evaluate, evaluate! This could be daily, this could be weekly. Whatever the arrangement, evaluate. Evaluation is an essential part of growth in any field as it helps to assess the extent to which aims are met and discover the story behind the result. I find planners to be key and there are a wealth of Islamic goal and intention setting journals available on the internet.
‘The best laid plans’
You may be familiar with this proverb originating from the poem titled ‘To a Mouse’ by Robert Burns. No matter how carefully a project is planned, something could still go awry. In the same spirit, outcomes for spiritual and religious goals may go a little amiss too.
However, Allah’s mercy has room for the highs and lows and this is why the noble Prophet (peace be upon him) said: ‘If a person becomes sick or travels, he will have the same reward as when he was healthy or not travelling.’ (Sahih al-Bukhari)
What does this mean? Quite simply, if one sees their best-laid plan laid amiss due to circumstances beyond their control, they will still be rewarded as though the plan had met completion.
This is the power of consistency in Islam and this is why creatures of habits should be celebrated.
May your month of Ramadan be a fruitful one and may its fruits flourish beyond its departure.
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