‘Atomic Habits’: How the Ideas of a Modern Day Book Coincide with the Spiritual Quest – Part I

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ISLAM

5th January 2021

Qasim Choudhary, USA

‘I want to be successful’, a phrase echoed by our internal voice or perhaps repeated in front of a mirror. We all have our goals, aspirations, and an ultimate destination where we would like to see ourselves. Whether it be in our finances, education, fitness or self-improvement, we all seek to progress. As someone who desires spiritual growth and nearness to my Maker, I set out to better understand what steps and habits I could employ that would set me on an upward trajectory for spiritual success. In his phenomenal work, Atomic Habits, James Clear professes the importance of tiny changes and how they can lead to remarkable results. He delves into the science of habit formation, behaviour change, and continuous improvement.

It overjoyed me to find that the statements in this modern-day book coincide with the wisdom that flowed forth from the blessed lips of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (sa) over 1400 years ago and more recently from his servant, the Promised Messiah (as) just over a century ago. If you too desire spiritual prosperity, let’s explore these guiding principles so we can better equip ourselves for a more meaningful, enjoyable, and lasting spiritual journey.

The Valley of Disappointment

Do you become dejected if the scale doesn’t move after eating healthy for three days? Are you impatient if you don’t see any gains in muscle mass after a week of toiling in the gym? Does praying your 5 daily prayers for a month make you question your progress? If the answer is yes, then remember: progress is not linear. It requires time, dedication and perseverance. In the pursuit of our spiritual journey, we venture into a dark and ominous place James Clear refers to as the Valley of Disappointment. How we end up in this dismal valley is all too familiar. We make a few changes and adjustments to our routine and habits expecting they will give rise to extraordinary change. Seeing no tangible results, we simply give up.

It Takes Time, Be Patient

The Promised Messiah (as) profoundly illustrates the mistake people make when it comes to attaining Divine nearness as hastiness. We observe that although people work day and night for the attainment of worldly objectives, the same attitude is not applied when seeking God. Spiritual development is gradual and matters of faith require great patience and steadfastness, but we wish to become saintly and pious at a snap of a finger. Just as running one mile doesn’t make one an athlete, offering a few prayers doesn’t constitute one as godly. Hard work, adversities, and trials are prerequisites to experience the pleasure of heavenly fruit. [1]

Similarly, the Holy Qur’an promises that those who strive and endeavour in God’s way will be rewarded with success. [2] However, steadfastness is essential for success and is the hallmark of a righteous person. As the Promised Messiah (as) aptly puts it, ‘It does not behove one who strives in the cause of Allah to flee within an hour or two.’ [3]

For this purpose, we can draw valuable lessons from the examples of bamboo and oil. A bamboo tree is barely seen in the first five years. It is busy building its roots. When it is ready, it bursts 90 ft into the air within 6 weeks. [4] Similarly, a famous parable mentions that oil and water in a lamp were bickering. The water addressed the oil and contended that despite my purity and refinedness I sit below you. The oil responded that I was pressed into the earth for a long time, I endured great difficulty and refinement the likes of which you have not. [5]

From these examples, we can conclude that much effort is required before we incur our breakthrough moment or Plateau of Latent Potential.

The 1% Rule

atom·​ic | ə-ˈtä-mik

1 – tiny, small, minute

2- the source of immense energy or power [6]

The number ‘one’ appears to be an insignificant amount but it can have a huge effect. For example, you are struggling to wake up for morning prayers so you decide to sleep a little earlier than the night before. If you can keep this up and introduce other small habits that will assist you in waking up in the morning, such as taking your coffee earlier or shutting down your device well before bed, then you might start to see some change. An accumulation and execution of small habits like this for a year will help you exponentially. In other words, if you improve an aspect of life 1% every day, you will have improved 37 times over the year. [7]

Conversely, an accumulation of bad habits can have a detrimental effect on your success curve. When our cheat meals or missed prayers start piling up, so do other tiny mistakes. We then set ourselves on a daily 1% setback which after a year translates into nearly 0% growth. We assume that small mistakes will go unnoticed but when magnified, the result can be devastating. For instance, imagine you are flying from Los Angeles to New York City. If a pilot leaving from LAX adjusts the heading just 3.5 degrees south, you will land in Washington, D.C., instead of New York. Such a minor change is barely noticeable at takeoff—the nose of the aeroplane moves just a few feet— but when magnified across the entire United States, you end up hundreds of miles apart.

The Holy Qur’an magnificently encapsulates this essential truth that none of our actions, good or bad, go unaccounted for, ‘Then whoso does an atom’s weight of good will see it, And whoso does an atom’s weight of evil will also see it.’ [8]

An idea that occupies a large part of our brain is believing that massive success requires massive action. We overestimate the importance of one defining moment and underestimate making small improvements. James Clear suggests that success is a gradual evolution—a long series of small wins and tiny breakthroughs— so start small. This idea of the 1% rule is not foreign or unheard of for Muslims. The Holy Prophet (sa) summarized this principle ages ago by stating, ‘The most beloved deed to Allah is the most regular and constant even if it were little.’ [9]

Identity-Based Habits vs Outcome-Based Habits

These two principles are key to forming good, lasting habits, and breaking the vicious cycle of bad habits. Imagine two people are offered alcohol. The first says, ‘No thanks, I’m trying to quit.’ A reasonable and sound response. However, this person still believes they are weak and not fully reformed. Such a person has not resorted to what is known as iqla in Arabic, which is to discard negative thoughts that arouse evil propensities. [10] The other person responds, ‘No thanks, I’m a Muslim I don’t drink.’ This person is cognizant and proud of their identity. Once pride is brought into the equation, he will do anything to maintain that habit. Hence, this person exhibits azm, an Arabic term which means to make a firm resolve to never revert to those vices in the future. [11]

If you are a proud Muslim, you will fight tooth and nail to not do anything that runs contrary to your identity. You can use this technique to build more meaningful habits. Suppose you want to start going to the gym and tending to your physical health. You say to yourself ‘I want to lose weight’ or you can say, ‘I want to lose weight because the Holy Prophet (sa) said the stronger believer is better and more beloved to Allah than the weaker believer’. [12] By using our beliefs and identity as the driving force, we activate an ultimate form of intrinsic motivation. [13] Habits are how we embody our identity. When you study every day, you embody a studious person. When you run five miles every morning, you personify an athletic person. When you offer your Tahajjud [pre-dawn supererogatory] prayer regularly, you epitomize a pious person. The more we can repeat and increase the frequency of that behaviour, the more we reinforce it as part of our identity. Thus, frequency is essential in forming our true self-image. Just as weightlifting once does not make a bodybuilder, so too does praying once not make one a saint. When we invite bad habits into our lives, we forgo our identity. [14] So be proud of your identity and stand firm in your beliefs. Where beloved Huzoor, Hazrat Mirza Masoor Ahmad (aba), the current worldwide head of the Ahmadiyya Community, repeatedly reminds us not to hold any form of inferiority complex in matters of faith, he also draws our attention to the importance of living our Islamic identity, ‘The more you take pride in your religion and the more you live your lives according to the teachings of Islam, the more others will respect you and this is how your honour and dignity will be established in the world.’ [15]

Stay tuned for Part II of this article wherein we shall explore an effective method to break bad habits and why the journey should hold more focus than the goal in our spiritual quest.

About the Author: Qasim Choudhary is a recent graduate from the Ahmadiyya Institute of Languages and Theology in Canada, and serves as an Imam of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in the United States of America.

ENDNOTES

[1] Malfuzat Vol.8, by Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as), p. 356-357

[2] The Holy Qur’an, 29:70

[3] Malfuzat Vol.1, by Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as), (Eng.Translation) p.23

[4] Atomic Habits, by James Clear, (iBook) p.60-61, New York: Avery, Penguin Random House (2018)

[5] Malfuzat Vol.1, by Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as), (Eng.Translation) pg. 24-25

[6] Atomic Habits, by James Clear, (iBook) p.11, New York: Avery, Penguin Random House (2018)

[7] Atomic Habits, by James Clear, (iBook) p.50, New York: Avery, Penguin Random House (2018)

[8] The Holy Qur’an, 99:8-9

[9] Bukhari, Kitab Ar-Riqaq

[10] Malfuzat, Vol.1, by Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as), (Eng.Translation) pg.135

[11] Malfuzat Vol.1, , by Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as), (Eng.Translation) pg.136

[12] Ibn Majah, Kitab Al-Muqadimah

[13] Atomic Habits, by James Clear, (iBook) p.97, New York: Avery, Penguin Random House (2018)

[14] Muslim, Kitab Al-Imaan

[15] https://www.alislam.org/press-release/waqf-e-nau-ijtema-uk-girls-2019/

Related Posts:
‘Atomic Habits’: How the Ideas of a Modern Day Book Coincide with the Spiritual Quest – Part II
‘The Quran on a Mountain’: Lessons for Spiritual Progress
From the Archives: Why I Believe in Islam
Does Islam Belong Here?

source THE REVIEW OF RELIGIONS

‘Atomic Habits’: How the Ideas of a Modern Day Book Coincide with the Spiritual Quest – Part I

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