By Aliya Vaughn
Upon entering Islam, a new Muslim will face plenty of new changes to their lifestyle, including the breaking of bad habits. But do old habits die hard? I suppose it depends upon the person and which habit you’re talking about.
‘But I’ve been doing it for years!’ I hear you cry. ‘It’s all I’ve ever known.’ ‘How can I imagine life without x, y and z?’ Whether its smoking, drinking alcohol, swearing, flirting, clubbing, listening to music or eating pork, the list goes on. There are so many bad habits that we think we cannot change because we’ve been doing them for so long. For one sister I know, alcohol was the first thing she gave up when she became a Muslim. In fact, she couldn’t wait. A non-Muslim friend asked her to go to the pub the night before she took her Shahadah. It would be ‘her last binge’ as she put it. She declined however, as she knew the alcohol would still be in her bloodstream the next day. She also knew the damaging effects intoxicants had on her and that’s why it was so easy to stop. Abstinence isn’t that difficult when there are obvious benefits for giving up. It’s harder when you enjoy your old habits or are attached to them (or they are attached to you, quite literally, like skimpy, tight fitting clothes that reveal your best assets)!
Finding alternative social avenues and friends
Life as a new Muslim requires a change in lifestyle that is often contrary to the life we’ve lived previously. If we haven’t got any alternative habits to replace the old, then it can be harder to let go. Breaking daily or weekend routines can only be successful if we’ve put other habits in place that are equally, if not more enjoyable or beneficial. Social outlets are still possible but some of the venues and type of friends may need to change. There are some people we may have to disconnect from if they are a bad influence, while other relationships may need to be adjusted to complement our new faith conversion. Friends that were meant to last can easily accommodate for us. Those who cannot are probably not worth having. One of my friends cried when I told her I had become a Muslim. However, her tears were for her own loss rather than my gain. If I had remained in her company, I’m sure I would have been tempted to indulge in my old habits again.
Before I reverted, I joined a group of sisters to learn about Islam. I revelled in my quest for new knowledge. In fact, I hungered for it. I realised, like many new reverts do, that it is possible to be sober and still enjoy simple pleasures with good company. Even ‘women only’ activities allowed me to continue my favourite way of keeping fit or learning a new skill. More adventurous activities were still permissible if they fell within the parameters of Islam and those that didn’t were considered a worthwhile sacrifice.
Finding the reason for change
I make it sound so easy and yet I am all too aware of the difficulties that accompany change. It doesn’t always happen overnight and it’s not always smooth and straightforward. We may even trip up and fall back into our old ways. Change has to happen in our own time and pace. Being forced, coerced or guilt tripped will only lead to short term changes, resentment and possibly relapse. There has to a willingness to give up and a purpose. For me the willingness is usually derived from the benefits of giving up, while the purpose is always to please Allah before myself.
There is a ‘push and pull’ theory of giving up any bad habit. Simply put, the ‘push’ element is avoidance of pain or moving away from any unpleasant or unwanted reality. Some people will quit ‘haram’ activities because they fear the outcome in this life such as STI’s from promiscuity, cancer from smoking etc or they fear the consequences in this life and the next such as Allah’s anger, punishment and the hellfire. The ‘push’ element of changing habits is usually a negative one and an unstable source of motivation particularly if it’s used on its own. It is not always long lasting and there is a risk of returning to the bad habit for various reasons which are too lengthy to mention in this article. The ‘pull’ element of giving up bad habits is more positive and more effective especially if you set small, achievable goals towards an outcome that is highly desirable. So, the positive reinforcers for giving up bad habits are social, financial, mental and physical health benefits in this life and earning Allah’s pleasure and reward both in this life and the next, including paradise. Its all about what you gain rather than lose in giving up the bad habit that determines whether or not you are successful. It’s a fascinating subject and well worth researching if you want to understand more about the psychology surrounding motivating factors for breaking bad habits and forming better habits. However, from an Islamic perspective there should always be a healthy balance in worshipping Allah with love, fear and hope.
We sacrifice our wanton desires or abstain from sinful actions out of our love for Allah. We fear his punishment and so keep away from sin and we hope to gain Allah’s pleasure and rewards for giving up our sins for His sake. Our focus on ‘hope’ keeps us going, even when the going gets tough and we want to give up or we backslide. We keep on striving regardless.
Steps to take to give up bad habits
What if we have a habit that involves a long-term addiction or psychological problem? Allah is Merciful. There is reward for every step we take towards a life that is more pleasing to Him. I agree – it’s no easy task. There may still be remnants from the past that we carry with us. To this day there are sisters who live with the memories or scars of their past life. But they have to remind themselves that they are a different person now. Their previous sins have been forgiven and they should only look forward. A new habit starts with small, continuous steps and we know Allah loves deeds that are performed regularly even if they are small. So set a date. Give yourself incentives, rewards and reminders for all the benefits that giving up your old habit and forming your new habit will bring.
The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said:
‘The dearest actions to Allah is that which is done regularly, even if it is small.’
Narrated by Aisha (in another similar narration). Bukhari & Muslim
One sister wanted to give up smoking. She made so much dua to Allah to help her with her nicotine addiction. What followed was truly a blessing. She decided to give up smoking during Ramadan, so she didn’t smoke between dawn and dusk. She also fell sick with a flu virus that lasted two weeks and put her right off the taste of cigarettes. So, she didn’t smoke at all during that period. Towards the end of Ramadan, she also fell pregnant. She vowed she would never smoke if she got pregnant as it wouldn’t just be her life she was affecting. Morning sickness may not have been fun but it really helped her to quit. The overall benefits to her health and personal finances for quitting were also an added bonus.
The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said:
“O Allah, nothing is easy but that which You make easy and You can make hardship easy if You will.”
Narrated from Anas. Ibn Hibbaan, 3/255;classed as saheeh by al-Albaani in al-Silsilah al-Saheehah, 2886.
If it is proving difficult to overcome psychological issues, your GP can refer you to see a psychologist. If you need a Muslim one or someone who is sympathetic to your faith requirements, then you can ask specifically for that. Even self-help groups and specialist services can sometimes offer the help and support you need, including help to overcome addictions.
Benefits of giving up
If you knew success was a possibility – what would you do?
Imagine the person you will become when you give up that bad habit. Although it may be hard to envisage, it’s not impossible to change. But change will not happen and amazing things will not fall into our lap if we sit back and do nothing. If we want to improve, we need to take action. But nothing too overwhelming. Take that first step towards Allah and the doors will open for you.
Steps towards change
- Intention – what is the real purpose for changing? Keep refreshing your intentions with Allah at the forefront of your mind.
- Make dua – pray to Allah for guidance, support and help in achieving that change, especially when it gets difficult or boring!
- Keep the end goal in sight. Who will you become? A better Muslim? Mentally and physically healthier? Calmer? Better in character? Socially or financially better off? Focus on the rewards in this life and the Hereafter.
- Take small steps out of your comfort zone, little by little. Write down your goal and the steps you need to achieve it. Reward yourself for milestones achieved.
- Make the steps realistic, manageable and beneficial. Google ‘SMART’ goals.
- Ease – Ensure the steps you take towards change cause the least bit of disruption to your life and the lives of others. Be firm and consistent but go gentle upon yourself.
- Support – Find people who can help or have made that change themselves. What behaviours, attitudes and mind set can you adopt? Keep good company.
- Don’t despair. Turn to Allah, keep repenting and keep trying.
‘And who despairs of the Mercy of his Lord except for those astray?’ Surah Al-Hijr 15: 56
Say, “O My servants who have transgressed against themselves [by sinning], do not despair of the mercy of Allah. Indeed, Allah forgives all sins. Indeed, it is He who is the Forgiving, the Merciful.” Surah Az-Zumar 39:53
- Have faith and remain positive
‘Verily, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.’ Surat Ar-Ra’d 13:11
‘Except those who show patience and do righteous good deeds: those, theirs will be forgiveness and a great reward (Paradise).’ Surah Hud 11:11
All of us will struggle with certain issues throughout life and breaking bad habits may just be one of those many struggles. If we focus more on the solution rather than the problem itself, it will increase our optimism and hope for a better outcome. Anything is possible with the help of Allah. Overcoming our bad habits can actually be a form of ibadah (worship) if carried out with the right intention. Often the only reason for giving up something is for other than our own self and who better than for Allah? The reward and final result will ultimately be worth it.
The Prophet, (peace be upon him) said:
“Verily, you will never leave anything for the sake of Allah Almighty but that Allah will replace it with something better.”
Reported by Abu Qatadah. Source: Musnad Aḥmad 22565 Grade: Sahih (authentic) according to Al-Albani
About the author:
Aliya Vaughan has been a Muslim for 23 years. She lives in the UK with her husband and six children. She is a qualified life coach and author. She has recently published her award-winning children’s story ‘A Race to Prayer’ with Kube Publishing.