We live in an era in which the world is mired in great challenges. It is no longer possible to ignore the turmoil that surrounds us, be it the instability in many countries or the problems associated with the millions struggling to make a living. Whatever be the reasons that led the world to this stage, it is clear that a change is essential to get out from this chaos.
Personal Change in Islam
Our personal lives are not immune from this turmoil. Many times we all seek to correct the course of our lives to maximize our share of worldly and spiritual fulfillment. Whether it is to inculcate better Islamic habits or others related to secular aspects of our lives, the process of personal change provides us with an opportunity to improve ourselves.
The ability to come out of this state – to change – also gives us hope for a better future. Fortunately, we live during times where good advice surrounds us. The easy and rapid flow of information in all directions through latest technology have provided us with a way to gain instant access to people with the knowledge and words of wisdom leading towards Divinity. The problem, however, has been that our pace of change hasn’t kept up with what we learn from this knowledge. You see, there comes a point in our lives where we need to go beyond learning and to eventually change and start living that wisdom.
Making Lasting Change Happen for Muslims
Bringing lasting personal change however, isn’t that easy and many of us give up trying. But since change is important to get us out of our current states, we simply can’t quit. So, the struggle must go on until we find a way to overcome barriers to personal change.
Why Do People Not Change?
We may wonder about why we fail to change? For those of us who have attempted to change with not much to show for, the process can be frustrating. Understanding reasons that lead to this failure can help us overcome these obstacles. Let’s review those below.
Desensitization to time
Procrastination is known to be one of the biggest hurdles to change. Psychologists refer to procrastination as “the act of replacing high-priority actions with tasks of low-priority, and thus putting off important tasks to a later time.” Whether one procrastinates in worldly or spiritual matters, it has its consequences. Procrastinators falsely assume that time will be available in the future, which may not be true. For example, we see that in the Quraan, Allah (Subhaanahu Wa Ta’aalaa) mentions numerous nations who were given time to heed to His message and change. The ones who didn’t were suddenly taken by surprise at their appointed time. Allah (Subhaanahu Wa Ta’aalaa) says in Quraan:
فَلَمَّا نَسُوا مَا ذُكِّرُوا بِهِ فَتَحْنَا عَلَيْهِمْ أَبْوَابَ كُلِّ شَيْءٍ حَتَّى إِذَا فَرِحُوا بِمَا أُوتُوا أَخَذْنَاهُمْ بَغْتَةً فَإِذَا هُمْ مُبْلِسُونَ [الأنعام: 44]
“Thereafter, when they forgot the advice they were given, We opened for them doors of everything, so that when they became proud of what they were given, We seized them suddenly and they were left in despair.”
The message above couldn’t be clearer. Allah (Subhaanahu Wa Ta’aalaa) gives us the time to reform ourselves. When we postpone indefinitely, we shouldn’t be surprised if our conditions worsen. Allah (Subhaanahu Wa Ta’aalaa) says in the Quran:
وَلَقَدْ أَرْسَلْنَا إِلَى أُمَمٍ مِنْ قَبْلِكَ فَأَخَذْنَاهُمْ بِالْبَأْسَاءِ وَالضَّرَّاءِ لَعَلَّهُمْ يَتَضَرَّعُونَ [الأنعام: 42]
”We did send messengers to communities before you and put them to hardships and sufferings, so that they may supplicate in humility.” (Al-An’aam 6:42)
We should, therefore, urgently start facing up to our spiritual and worldly imperfections which may be manifesting as sins. Accordingly, we need to make the connection between those imperfections and our undesirable conditions. Remember, the price of putting off change can come in the form of tough times and future regrets. Let’s not procrastinate until tomorrow because even if we had the extra time, tomorrow could bring additional challenges thus increasing the load of our burdens.
Desensitization to falsehood and imperfections
Change of any type first requires clearly identifying and recognizing the negative behavior, habit, thought, or belief. However, when one gets desensitized to such imperfections, the need for such a change is no longer felt. The “negatives” become part of our existence and we become complacent about them. For example, many amongst Muslims offer Fajar Salaah (Dawn Prayers) after the prescribed time (or miss it altogether) and no longer see it as a sin or feel the impulse to correct such a behavior.
Today, we live in trying times where guidelines driven by personal interests rather than based on divine teachings are being used to decide the Halaal (Lawful) and the Haraam (Unlawful). This is slowly blurring the dividing lines between falsehood and truth. As a direct consequence, though unknown to many of us (including Muslims), we have slowly begun to be more accepting of wrong behaviors leading to devastating consequences. This is similar to the boiling water and frog analogy, which states that if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out. However, if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will fail to feel the change and thus will never jump out, dying in the process.
This loss of our sense to distinguish between falsehood and truth makes Shaitaan (Satan) sneak into our lives, further hindering our efforts to improve. Allah (Subhaanahu Wa Ta’aalaa) says in the Quran:
وَمَنْ يَعْشُ عَنْ ذِكْرِ الرَّحْمَنِ نُقَيِّضْ لَهُ شَيْطَانًا فَهُوَ لَهُ قَرِينٌ  وَإِنَّهُمْ لَيَصُدُّونَهُمْ عَنِ السَّبِيلِ وَيَحْسَبُونَ أَنَّهُمْ مُهْتَدُونَ [الزخرف: 37]
“Whoever makes himself blind against the advice of RaHman, We assign for him a devil who accompanies him all the time. And they (the devils) prevent such people from the (right) way, while they deem themselves to be on the right path” (Az-Zukhruf 43:36,37)
Islamic teachings thus warn us against getting into such traps and instead instruct us to never lose sight of the distinction between right and wrong. Just because we chose to ignore rectifying the wrong to suit our situations doesn’t transform wrong into right. By maintaining that distinction we can still expect to rectify it someday.
Lack of commitment
Commitment to change is essential for any major change of attitude to take place in the long run. Research has proved that things such as “will power” can take us only so far and for so long. We need a more stable “inner resource” to sustain our change efforts for the long run.
One way to ensure that you stay committed to any change effort is to clearly define the outcome that you envision from that change. Envisioning the outcome for a change is quite different from simply having the desire to change. Although desires may provide the emotional fuel behind our change efforts, they don’t manifest the underlying complexities to drive an actual change process. Outcomes from the intended change must therefore be envisioned clearly, e.g. the new person that you will become after you give up a certain negative behavior, to ensure continued commitment levels.
Take the example of the prophet’s commitment when he started propagating the Islamic message during the early days of Islam. When the uncle of the Prophet Hadhrat Muhammad (SallAllaho Alaihe WaSallam) warned him of the risks of doing so, he clearly stated:
يا عم ، والله لو وضعوا الشمس في يميني ، والقمر في يساري على أن أترك هذا الأمر حتى يظهره الله ، أو أهلك فيه
“O my uncle! By Allah! If they put the sun in my right hand and the moon in my left in return for my giving up this cause, I would not give it up until Allah makes Truth victorious, or I die in His service.”
It was that kind of a commitment that kept him going for the rest of his life and to bring about the change that he did. (Seerah Ibne Hishaam)
To motivate us to do good deeds and to put our temporary stay in this life in perspective, Allah (Subhaanahu Wa Ta’aalaa) and His Prophet Hadhrat Muhammad (SallAllaho Alaihe WaSallam) have very clearly defined the outcomes of our actions in this life and hereafter. The detailed account they have provided us about our stay in this world and after we take the last breath, show us a clear path from now until our final destination. For us to make any change therefore, we should commit ourselves and clearly envision the outcome that we expect from our change.
Lack of a personal change system
Islam constitutes a system of obligatory Ibaadaat (Worships) such as Salaah (Prayers), Sawm (Fasting), etc., that helps a Muslim adhere to a discipline of maintaining his or her relationship with Allah (Subhaanahu Wa Ta’aalaa). No one would disagree that if such Ibaadaat were instead optional, most of us wouldn’t be able to maintain our current levels of spirituality. So, just as methodical and disciplined systems help us perform effectively in both our spiritual and worldly matters, instituting a methodical “personal change system” is equally important to help us follow through on the changes that we want to make in our lives. Such a system will help us to make, track, and sustain changes throughout our lives.
Finally, let’s remember that to seek a change in our conditions we must do things differently from the way that initially led to where we stand today. So, the road from misery to fulfillment, from good to great, and from Allah (Subhaanahu Wa Ta’aalaa)’s displeasure to seeking His pleasure starts with you getting on the process of change. As Allah (Subhaanahu Wa Ta’aalaa) says in the Quraan:
إِنَّ اللَّهَ لَا يُغَيِّرُ مَا بِقَوْمٍ حَتَّى يُغَيِّرُوا مَا بِأَنْفُسِهِمْ [الرعد: 11]
“Surely, Allah does not change the condition of a people unless they change themselves.” (Ar-Ra’d 13:11)