Here’s the thing…
Changing a habit, waking up early to pray, being healthier, putting in time to study and being more productive are all things we all love the sound of. But you know, as well as I do, that in order to actualise these things we need to take consistent action. Consistent action will drive you to your goal but consistent action requires consistent motivation!
You may have set important goals in the past. Perhaps you committed to making some serious change in your life. But have you ever felt that you just lost ‘motivation’? One of the biggest challenges I’ve personally faced has been sustaining motivation. I mean it’s pretty easy to get motivated for something in the beginning, right? But how do you keep that passion and energy alive day in and day out?
How do you keep on striving, even when you don’t feel like it?
For the past few years I’ve been asking myself these exact questions. I’ve obsessively learnt about the subject of motivation and tried to put what I’ve learnt into practise. Based on what I’ve learnt and the little experience I’ve gained, I’ve put together the key ingredients needed to get and stay motivated.
If you were travelling, each of your goals was a destination. Then resources would be the vehicle and motivation would be your fuel. Depending on how far you are from your destination and how many challenges you’ll have to overcome in order to get there, you may choose to walk to your destination on an empty stomach, or perhaps you’ll take a car with a tank full of petrol, or even get a plane.
Motivation is the energy that keeps you going until you reach your goals. It’s what pushes you when you face challenges, it’s the reason someone may get up early or stay up late. In fact, all of human behaviour is driven by some sort of motivation.
Humans are very simply motivated by either perceived pleasure or perceived pain. We seek to move towards what we believe is pleasurable and away from what we believe to be painful. All our behaviour is a tug of war between these two forces. It’s like the carrot and the stick. You move towards the carrot and away from the stick.
When your motivation for the carrot goes down, your fear of the stick drives you to keep going.
This is the Sunnah of Allah, His way. Allah motivates us with paradise and hellfire. Pleasure and pain. If Allah only motivated us with paradise, we would lack motivation when we were feeling complacent. And if He only motivated us with hellfire we would despair and lose hope when we made mistakes.
Our love for Allah rests on both hope in His Mercy and fear of His Punishment. We keep motivated through the desire to earn Allah’s Pleasure and the fear of earning His Wrath.
But all our relationships are based on this same Sunnah. Our relationship with our parents, friends, studies, health and fitness, etc.
Imagine you have a very important exam. An exam that is so important, that if you pass you graduate from university. But if you fail, you’ll have to repeat the whole year. Also imagine that you find pleasure in resting in bed (that might not be too hard). Now imagine you have to wake up early for that exam. How likely do you think it would be that you’d wake up early? Would it be more likely than if you had a super boring lecture, where they didn’t even take your attendance? Why? Because there’s more pleasure associated with passing than the pleasure associated with sleeping in. Or maybe there is more pain associated with failing, than the pain associated with sacrificing a little sleep. Or maybe both!
Whilst, we are motivated by both pain and pleasure. Pain is a stronger motivation in the short term and pleasure is a much much much stronger motivation in the mid to long-term. You can only be forced to do something you don’t want for so long.
Running away from pain is like running away from a dog. You’ll only run far enough that the dog can’t catch you anymore. You won’t keep running after that.
This is where pleasure comes in.
The dog is a great way to force you to start moving and even to build momentum but there has to be something you keep moving towards. You have to have some perceived pleasure that keeps you going once the dog is out of sight.
There is so much in the Islamic tradition, whether that be in the Quran and Sunnah or the works of Islamic scholars, on the subject of motivation and having high aspirations.
However, there are a handful of very comprehensive ahadith that I believe summarize this discussion. The first and perhaps my favourite is a hadith found in al-Bukhari and narrated by Abu Huraira:
The Prophet (ﷺ) taught us that, “Whoever believes in Allah and His Apostle offers prayers perfectly and fasts (the month of) Ramadan then it is incumbent upon Allah to admit him into Paradise, whether he emigrates for Allah’s cause or stays in the land where he was born.”
They (the companions of the Prophet) said, “O Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ)! Should we not inform the people of that?”
He said, “There are one-hundred degrees in Paradise which Allah has prepared for those who carry on Jihad in His Cause. The distance between every two degrees is like the distance between the sky and the Earth, so if you ask Allah for anything, ask Him for the Firdaus, for it is the last part of Paradise and the highest part of Paradise, and at its top there is the Throne of Beneficent, and from it gush forth the rivers of Paradise”. [i]
What is amazing about this Hadith, is that the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) tells us how we can enter Jannah just by fulfilling our obligations. But rather than stopping there he (ﷺ) continued and told us that if we ask of Allah we should ask al-Firdaus. He (ﷺ) didn’t tell us that since it is incumbent on us to enter Jannah, we should only ask for Jannah.
He (ﷺ) didn’t even tell us “there are one hundred degrees of Jannah and we all have different abilities, so aim for whatever you can”. Rather he (ﷺ) told us about one of the noblest deeds in our religion. Then he (ﷺ) commanded us to ask for the highest level of Jannah.
So we’re taught to aim high. To aim for the best. Of course if you’re going to ask Allah for something that great in the hereafter, you have to have to be aiming to do some lofty things in this life so get you there.
The Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) also taught us that “Allah loves lofty matters and superiority and hates inferior matters”. [ii]
Do you want to be beloved to Allah? Do you want your life, goals and ambitions to be beloved to Allah? Or do you want to your life, goals and ambitions to be disliked by Allah? We should really ask ourselves “are my ambitions lofty?.. Am I the best at what I do? Or do I have goals and a life that are mediocre and inferior”.
Even if we think we have pretty lofty ambitions and do everything to a superior standard, we can ask ourselves “do we want to be even more beloved to Allah?” If we do, then very simply we need to aim even higher and strive harder to be even more superior.
Now there is a hadith that comes to mind. A hadith that is often quoted and misunderstood. In fact I personally misunderstood this hadith for a long time, until I asked one of my teachers about it. [iii]
Ok, so once a bedouin with unkempt hair came to Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) and said, “O Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ)! Inform me what Allah has made compulsory for me as regards the prayers.” He replied: “You have to offer perfectly the five compulsory prayers in a day and night (24 hours), unless you want to pray Nawafil.”
The bedouin further asked, “Inform me what Allah has made compulsory for me as regards fasting.” He replied, “You have to fast during the whole month of Ramadan, unless you want to fast more as Nawafil.”
The bedouin further asked, “Tell me how much Zakat Allah has enjoined on me.” Thus, Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) informed him about all the rules (i.e. fundamentals) of Islam.
The bedouin then said, “By Him Who has honored you, I will neither perform any Nawafil nor will I decrease what Allah has enjoined on me.”
Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) said, “If he is saying the truth, he will succeed (or he will be granted Paradise).” [iv]
Now this hadith would make the reader assume that you don’t have to aim high. It’s enough to just fulfil your obligations and get into Jannah. But we mentioned earlier that the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) taught us to aim for the highest level of Jannah.
The reality is that this hadith actually encourages us to aim high and there’s a valuable lesson to be taken from this hadith.
When I asked about this story, my teacher explained that the Bedouin according to some who explained the hadith was a new Muslim. He was also a Bedouin, which despite being obvious explains a lot.
As a new Muslims, the religion of Islam and its commands can be quite overwhelming. And so for this new Muslim wanting to know the obligations and committing to doing every single one of them is a huge deal.
Remembering how to make wudhu and pray can be a big challenge for a new Muslim. So this Bedouin was actually very motivated. Rather than feeling disheartened and overwhelmed, he took on the challenge and committed to all the obligations.
The Bedouin was also a Bedouin. Which is obvious, I know. But it’s an important point to note. The Bedouins were some of the most difficult people when Islam came to them. They were anarchic and not used to an imposed system or way of life. They were rebellious and nomadic in their nature. And they only cared about their animals.
For a Bedouin to submit to a higher authority, commit to a set of fixed practices, put their animals and their crazy unorganised lives aside to do things like pray and fast is actually very impressive.
So if anything this story is an evidence for motivation and not one against it!
It also teaches us that motivation is subjective. We’re all at different stages on our journey. You have to be motivated, very motivated. You have to aim high, very high. But high for me, is not the same as high for you and it’s not the same as high for someone who started their journey 10 years before both us.
There are so many factors that influence what motivation means to different people. We need to accept and respect that.
We also need to tailor our discourse appropriately when we’re talking to different people. When you are teaching a new Muslim how to pray, it’s unwise to start teaching them about the voluntary night prayer. Let them learn how to make wuthu and pray first. Then let them make a habit of praying and taste the sweetness of salah. Then you can take them to the next level!
Ok check this out.
Once Abdullah ibn-Umar was sitting in front of the ka’ba with some of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) and he said “wish for something”. So the companions started wishing for things.
One said “I wish to be in charge of the Khilafa”
another said “I wish that people take knowledge from me”
another said “I wish I can be in charge of Iraq”
and then Abdullah ibn-Umar said “as for me, I wish for forgiveness from Allah”. [v]
What I find amazing about this story, is that the companions were different, they had different ambitions. Some inclined towards serving Islam through political leadership, whilst others sought to do so through knowledge. And some were so concerned with earning Allah’s forgiveness that everything else was insignificant.
I often find brothers and sisters thinking of “being practising”, being “upon the Sunnah” and the way of the companions in a very robotic way.
If you sit with one group they seem to think that aiming high is becoming a scholar and any other goal is insignificant.
However, it is from the mercy of Allah that Jannah has different gates. [vi]
Some of us will, inshAllah, enter Jannah through the gates of prayer, some the gates of fasting, or constraining anger, or striving in the way of Allah. Some of us will enter through the gates of charity. Striving generally requires health and giving charity generally requires money.
Some of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) were so aware of the importance of having finance in Islam that they complained to Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ).
They said “يا رسول الله ، ذهب أهل الدثور بالأجور”. Meaning “Oh Messenger of Allah the wealthy people have taken all the rewards”.
They went on to explain that the rich companions prayed and fasted the same way they did but then to top it off they gave charity. [vii]
The poorer companions were of course conscious of how being poor meant they were missing out big time. The Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ), as was his habit, left no room for excuses and went on to offer solutions. He (ﷺ) told them of various ways they could accumulate reward.
We of course know that intention plays a massive role in how we are rewarded. So someone who donates one pound can get more reward if they’re sincere than someone who donates a thousand.
But what about someone who donates a million and is more sincere than both of them?
What about someone who utilises all the things the Prophet (ﷺ) advised the poor companions to do, tops it off with giving loads of money to charity and is sincere in the process?
Hey, do you remember when the companions of the Prophet (ﷺ) wished for different things in front of the Ka’ba?
Guess what? It’s been narrated that they all got what they wished for and it is hoped that Abdullah ibn Umar will be forgiven. [viii]
They wished for something and it became true. Obviously something happened in between them wishing and it coming true. But the point is they wished for something and came true! They wished for big things and they became true!
When was the last time you wished for something big?
Was it as big as being the Khalifah or a leading scholar for the Muslims to benefit from?
There are so many stories and narrations we can quote regarding the importance of knowledge, finance and health in Islam. But it suffices us to realise that we must be motivated and ambitious and have lofty goals.
These goals will differ from person to person. For some of us we will have amazing goals with our studies. For others it will suffice for us to study the foundation of our religion, but we’ll aim sky high when it comes to business. Others will make health and fitness their priority. Some of us will master and aim sky high in all of these areas.
Well there are a few strategies. I’ve actually found that a lot of the strategies mentioned by modern psychologists and personal development gurus resemble what has been said by Islamic scholars and in the Islamic Islamic tradition.
This comes as no surprise to me. Because Allah’s laws are universal.
Gravity is a creation of Allah, it’s also one of Allah’s laws and it’s universal. It doesn’t matter what your religion is, gravity pulls you a certain direction. You can live life using that to your advantage or you can try resisting it.
Similarly Allah’s laws for success are universal. The more of these laws you live by, the more successful you’ll be.
Based on sources that are rooted in Islam and sources that are just rooted on research and experience, some of the most effective motivational strategies are the following:
You can expect lots of content coming your way on the above topics inshAllah.
For now, take a moment and think about some of the Prophetic sayings we mentioned above.
Really let them sink in and think about them.
Also try and honestly answer the following questions.
I’d love to open the conversation with you in the comments below so drop some of your answers there and we’ll have a chat inshaAllah.
[i] Retrieved from http://sunnah.com/bukhari/97/51
[iii] The question was posed to Ustath AbdelRahman Hassan in September 2015.
[iv] Retrieved from http://sunnah.com/bukhari/30/1
[vi] Refer to the following for more on the different gates of Jannah http://www.islamweb.net/emainpage/index.php?page=showfatwa&Option=FatwaId&Id=84473
[vii] Retrieved from http://sunnah.com/riyadussaliheen/1/120
[viii] Taken from the same narration that was retrieved from http://library.islamweb.net/hadith/display_hbook.php?hflag=1&bk_no=1387&pid=887247