As I write these words, the last few hours are about to drop from the top of the 2017 hourglass into the past…
A tradition that is customarily done right about now, which I like very much, is that of the New Year resolution. It is meant to be a moment of introspection about our lives that results in a resolve to change ourselves and our lives for the better. Those who are familiar with the teachings of various faiths and religions already know that this act of making resolutions and commitments is found and encouraged in Christianity, Judaism and other faiths, precisely as an opportunity for reflection and self-improvement.
Whether your goals have to do with your physical well-being, your financial situation, your education, your participation in charity work, your attitude towards life and people, your addiction to social media, or your procrastination about things you know you could have accomplished in your life by now, in Islam, all of these goals go hand-in-hand with becoming more spiritual, and a better servant to the Lord, by appropriately taking care of all the dimensions of your being.
Allow me, therefore, to present the Islamic self-improvement cycle that is taught in akhlaq or ethics, and which may be considered the equivalent of the resolution. Whether you’re a Muslim or not, I hope that these four stages of the cycle will give you something to use in your everyday life, starting with your New Year resolution, so that you can literally charge into January 1st with the positive energy and the tools you need to accomplish all that you set out to do and more!
Stage 1: Al Musharata or pledging
This is in fact a promise that one makes with oneself, like the resolution. In Islamic morals, this generally takes the form of a personal commitment in not engaging in any sins, especially in situations and circumstances where the person knows that they may forget or gets distracted from their pledge. In the classic teachings, a good Muslim will be encouraged to try to take a moment at the beginning of every day and clearly identify what their pledge is for that day. The daily aspect is also important in itself because it makes things a lot more manageable and realistic. Everyone will agree that they are able to go one full day without committing a sin, or to pray all of their daily prayers for one day… So let us simply take things one day at a time and go from there.
Stage 2: Al Muraqaba or monitoring/surveillance
Once we have made the pledge, it is now important to remain in a state of vigilance throughout the day, always on the lookout. In practice this means that we try to adopt, at once, two perspectives: our normal perspective, and a second, “out-of-body” perspective, that is observing our every move and action, and keeping track of it all: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Stage 3: Al Muhasaba or self-assessment and accountability.
Now that all of our actions have been tracked, it is important to hold ourselves accountable for them by doing a thorough review of our day, our week, our month, our year, and our life thus far, and comparing our performance against the objectives we set ourselves during our pledge. There are multiple Islamic narrations stating that a Muslim must regularly do self-assessment.
In providing advice to his companion Abu Tharr, Prophet Muhammad said:
“A servant will not be considered having faith until he engages in a self-assessment that is more rigorous than the one done by a business partner. He must know where his food came from, where his drink came from, where his clothes came from… from licit, or illicit sources?”
Imam al-Kadhum said:
“The one who does not perform self-assessment every day is not one of us. When he finds that he did good, he is to pray God to help him do more good, and if he finds himself having done wrong, he is to seek God’s forgiveness and never return to it.”
It is usually recommended to perform the accountability and self-assessment stage at the end of the day, before going to bed.
And it is important to try to track the negative as well as the positive. While it is very good to go to bed knowing that I have had a good day because I have not committed any sins or injustice against anyone for instance, I should also look at what good actions did I accomplish, and whether I could have done more. How have I helped others? What have I done to build a better life? How have I prepared myself for my afterlife? Accountability has to keep a tally of both the losses as well as the gains, so I must ask myself: what have I gained today? How have I used this day to gain something that will help me? What have I lost today? What is the damage that I have done?
Stage 4: Al Mu’aqaba or punishment.
As its name implies, it consists in first clearly setting some appropriate self-punishments for the sins and weaknesses that we each know ourselves to be prone to. And then, for every broken pledge, one must proceed to apply the punishment consistently. The punishment cannot be so difficult so as to lead someone to give up after one or two times, nor so easy that we do not mind applying it repeatedly. This is a form of spiritual exercise that strengthens self-discipline and purifies the soul with time, and which is entirely internal and individual. For instance, if I watched something I should not have, I can pledge to fast the next day. This punishment is uplifting spiritually, and causes enough discomfort that I may think twice next time before engaging in this action. Other appropriate punishments can be giving a certain amount to charities, or volunteering, or abstaining from something I like for a week, for instance.
Anyone who has applied this cycle will tell you that it gives one a great sense of accomplishment, pride and contentment, because you feel that you are making progress and owning up to your decisions and your actions, while clearning your heart and soul.
As Socrates is reported to have said at his own trial, when he chose death over life, an unexamined life is not worth living.
And may 2018 bring you all health, wealth, and happiness in faith!