Besides following the obligatory practices of Islam, belief in Allah (swt) and adherence to the Sunnah of our Prophet (sa) entail that we strive towards high morality, continuous self-improvement, and perfection of soul and body. Every believer would like to be in special favour with the Most High: to be the best in deeds, have the most important standing, and be most beneficial for the society. All of us work on ourselves to some degree: every one of us in our own ways, according to our own capabilities and in line with our own understanding of perfection.

When we analyze the results of our work on ourselves, sometimes we realize that we have not achieved much in this life – we have not become better; in some ways, we are even worse than we were a few years ago. We wish to be healthy and fit; however, we do not play sports more often than once a month, thus with every next year becoming more and more ill. We wish to be kind and polite; however, we once again lose our temper on our close ones due to trivial matters. We wish to get up every night for the night prayer; yet, we achieve it only in Ramadan. The endless list of failures goes on and on. Why don’t our efforts bring the desired results? Are we capable of changing towards the good, or maybe that is only for those singled out by Allah (swt)?

All of us know the saying: if you sow a deed, you will reap a habit; if you sow a habit, you will reap a character; if you sow a character, you will reap a fate. The meaning of this saying is obvious; however, to extract the benefit from these words, we must understand the principles behind the functioning of our nervous system. Understanding and feeling how this system actually works will enable us to bring positive changes into our lives as well as evaluate our prospects and capabilities. We will neither underestimate ourselves nor try to reach the impossible.

How does a deed turn into a habit? When we keep on repeating one action over and over again, we make a habit out of it. All of us have habits, many of which are unpleasant and unnecessary – they have formed by choosing the easier alternative and have established themselves in our consciousness. A simple example: after returning home, you have the habit of throwing your clothes on the floor/bed/chair, instead of hanging them neatly on a hanger. There is no physical or moral difficulty for you to hang your clothes on a hanger; however, if you are not in habit of doing it, most likely, it just won’t happen. When we are used to doing something (in this case – hang out clothes on a hanger), we do not involve our brain in this action, as actions happen on subconscious level. Everything happens automatically, mechanically, and therefore is not perceived by our consciousness as an activity that tires us. The same can be said about brushing teeth. If from childhood you have been taught to brush your teeth before sleep, you are living with this habit for years, without changing it – thus, this particular task does not take up any space in your brain, as it has established itself on the level of reflexes. The result of such a habit is undoubtedly obvious and wonderful: your teeth are exceptionally healthy. Your acquaintances cannot stop admiring you: how can you overcome the laziness in brushing teeth? Anything which is happening on the level of reflexes does not make us tired, as such activities do not involve the functioning of our active brain. We don’t get tired when eating or going somewhere, especially if these actions are accompanied by positive emotions or happen as a routine.

In order to fight your bad habits, you have to work on creating good ones. To develop good habits, you need to invest your willpower, time, and persistence. The average time required to establish a reflex is one month, although this may depend from person to person. In order to carry out a desirable action on regular basis, you have to remind yourself about it, forcing yourself to step over the line of ‘I don’t want to’. You can invent for yourself a reward: if I keep on brushing my teeth every night for an entire week, on Sunday I will have my favourite desert. You can observe yourself: after a couple of weeks, you will start noticing that you are not so lazy any more to perform this action – it has started to take roots in your subconscious and form into a habit. When you start to feel that you have enough time and willpower, you can begin working on several good habits simultaneously.

How do habits form a character and affect our fate? There is no doubt that the famous saying “difficulties in training make fighting in battlefield easy” applies also to habits. The principle is the same: you spend efforts on developing a reflex; then your brain, which has formed and polished all the required connections of nerves, forwards all the controls over this action to the unconscious, freeing itself from responsibility about it and becoming ready for new challenges. Actions which you have worked on become a part of you and thus form the traits of your character.

The examples of hanging clothes and brushing teeth are merely for the purpose of illustration. You can work on yourself and form good habits in every sphere of your life. Being punctual and neat, controlling our emotions, speaking with good grammar, being physically active, achieving your goals, having an optimistic outlook on life, performing Sunnah prayers… all of this and so much more depends only on the fact whether or not we are habitual of doing these actions. You can even work on good eating habits: if you have a ‘sweet tooth’, try to stop yourself from anything sweet for about one or two months, and you will surprisingly notice that you no longer crave such great amounts of carbohydrates. Most significantly – it is important to set the right goals, without forgetting to praise yourself for success.

What happens to our brain when we do not work on ourselves continuously and do not take up new challenges? It is not difficult to guess: your brain tires itself out on daily basis, since you are not functioning on polished routes, or gradually stops functioning altogether, if you are not trying to reach any goals at all. There are no age, race or any other limitations for working on yourself – the only requirements are willpower and persistence. Remember that the strong Muslims of our Ummah are those who put continuous efforts towards perfecting themselves and are successful in it. They enjoy the special favour of Allah (swt) and cannot be compared with weak believers, despite the fact that in both groups of people, we may find lots of good.

Translated for Hiba by Laila Brence. Source: