بِسْم الله الرحمن الرحيم
“Nothing can be done, except little by little” – Charles Baudelaire.
This life is a journey that we all need to traverse in order to reach our ultimate destination; death, practically, as that is the end of all actions for us.
Yet, the Prophet ﷺ cautioned against exerting one’s self in this journey. He likened it to a horse who has a set amount of distance to traverse. If the rider attempts to finish the journey considerably faster, he will end up breaking his horse and be stranded. This characteristic is called josh in Urdu and means extreme enthusiasm. The Qur’an also cautions us against such extremes and asks us to take the “middle path” (Qur’an, 2:143).
Now, as Muslims, we all yearn to please our Lord and give our all to Him. Throughout the year, we face the onslaught of our commanding self (nafs al-ammarah), our base desires (hawa), shaitan, and the temptations of the dunya, the worldly life. These four; nafs, hawa, shaitan and dunya, keep us very busy. However, especially during Ramadan, most of these obstacles are removed and our hearts that were all in a covenant with God before we came to this world, becomes elated as a result of being exposed to the Divine Way – for example, during the whole Ramadan experience. This can also happen outside of Ramadan of course, such as post-Hajj/Umrah, or after an inspirational and motivational lecture. Our hearts as a result of this new-found attachment or window to the Unseen, becomes disgusted with the dunya and wants to do everything possible under the Sun in order to gain the pleasure of Allah. This is nothing but extreme enthusiasm which is not good.
Why-? Two reasons.
Firstly, such bursts of enthusiasms (which are only natural as our emotions undergo change throughout the month/year) keep you performing extra ibadat for as long as these last; it is almost like an extended adrenaline surge. After this is over, you can actually hit a deeper low than previous.
Secondly, is the matter of the Will. or Willpower. The foremost reason most people’s sudden endeavours in the deen do not last, is because of the fact that their willpower has remained the same, yet their commitment to the deen has multiplied, often by many counts. So, for example, a person who otherwise does not pray the Fardh Salah, will start to pray Tahajjud in Ramadan. Their nafs has for years, been used to skipping the Salah and not caring about it. Suddenly, it is overloaded with not just the Salah, but nawafil. It wants to pray the Wajibs, the Sunan, the Taraweeh, and even the Tahajjud! It is on a course of total rectification! And do not misunderstand, it is not a question of sincerity. Here, the person genuinely and whole heartedly wants to please their Lord.
So, what is the matter? The problem is that, quite simply, the nafs cannot handle it. So, post Eid, and often even before Eid, the nafs admits defeat. And there goes even the Fardh prayers – let alone the Sunan or the Tahajjud.
How do we remedy this? Remember, the Sahabah did not become the mighty Sahabah instantly and overnight. They went through 23 years of training. Ramadan would come and go and they were not required to fast. They could drink alcohol for a while. Fasting and prohibitions came gradually. Along the way, they added elements to themselves until they reached a level that would be considered super-human today. They had nothing left of the attractions of the world or the desires of their nafs; hence why the Prophet said, “My companions are like stars, whichever of them you use as a guide, you will be rightly guided” (al-Mabsut, et al).
The answer lies in a gradual training of the soul. We all have more than just our conscious self. We have a subconscious self too. This can be termed the nafs. The latter can be trained or left to completely reign us however it desires, eventually resulting in a hedonistic and/or narcissistic personality.
The more you have given in to the cravings of your nafs, the more strength it has acquired, and thus, the more effort you will require in combating it. Do not jump into the deep end; you will drown. Start slow, start small, but be regular, or you will cancel out all of the effort. This is why when the Shaykhs give out prescribed dhikr practices, they say not to take anything on unless you can guarantee its regular upkeep. Now, you may say, what is the harm even if I cannot do it tomorrow, at least I will have done x or y number of worships today-? The answer has nothing to do with ibadat – rather, it is detrimental to your nafs if you give it up tomorrow, as your nafs will rejoice from the fact that you have just quit a good deed! This alone will diminish your will further as you have given in to your nafs call to STOP the ibadat. This is what it says to you every day. STOP! STOP! STOP! Or, if that fails, at least DELAY! DELAY! DELAY!
If you give in, it will not reward you. Rather, your blaming self – nafs al lawwamah, or your conscience, will feel the guilt and blame which will damage not just your soul, but your health too. But more importantly, it will weaken your heart and your willpower such that, the next time it calls you to sin, you will find it even harder to resist.
On the other hand, if you ignore it, it will still keep calling you to STOP every single day! Until when-? Until it knows that it will not affect you anymore and will become quiet with regards to this act. Thus, consider this particular act to have become engrained in you and have become a natural habit. Well done. Now you may add something else!
On the other hand, consider a person who has not prayed his Fardh in months; come Ramadan, he is praying Tahajjud! He has kept it up for a week. On to his second week now. His feet are extremely tired; his nafs tells him he is smashing it. He is up there with the elite. Pride, has thus destroyed his good deeds. If that does not work, it gives in under the extreme added weight and causes him to tumble. For piety, taqwa, is a high rank indeed.
Imagine a flight of stairs – It is difficult to climb them as compared to descending, but you can climb them one by one. On the other hand, one small slip, and it is not one step you will lose; you will tumble down all the way! In other words, when you overburden yourself, you will not just skip Tahajjud, you will come back to skipping the whole thing! Fardh included! And you will go back to your old self, satisfied, albeit unhappily, that you just cannot do this! Why? Because you forgot to train your willpower which is very similar to a muscle. Your heart, too eroded and dirty from sins, does not want to perform good deeds but you will ignore it initially by being blind to it from your extreme enthusiasm. However, once this enthusiasm dissipates, you are left with what your (diseased) heart wants. And that is to sin and do as it pleases. And so, you will give up all the hard work you started.
Thus, you have broken your horse. This is what the Prophet warned us about. Often, it can lead to a worse state than you were in previously.
So, the best method is to grow gradually. If you have started to practice, perform your Fardh only – be consistent with that! Do not add tasbihs, etc. Walk away. Once you know there is no stopping you from this, because you have come to love the Salah and not think of it as a menial obligation that must be done, then add to it, but slowly.
Imam Busiri (rahmatullahi alaih) mentions the following in his celebrated ode to the Prophet ﷺ, the Qasida Burdah. He says,
“Your nafs is like a child who when breastfed, loves suckling, but when you wean it, will stop”
In other words, just as a baby desires milk, so too does the nafs desire to sin, and just as the baby will stop craving milk once it is weaned, so too can the nafs be weaned and will thus, no longer desire sin.
This is why we have Shaykhs who can train us in the ways of the heart, as they are experts in knowing how the heart and nafs function and can guide us through the steps from repentance to ma’rifah – cognition – when the heart recognises its Lord. This is a euphoric stage as there is no veil between the heart and its Lord.
May Allah bless us with the highest stage of the nafs; the nafs al mutma’inn – the content soul – as the Qur’an calls it. Ameen.