Is fasting a habit or is it an act of spiritual devotion?
It is related that Prophet Muhammad said:
"Good conduct is a habit, and bad conduct is just obnoxious." [Sahih Ibn Hibban and Sunan Ibn Majah with a good chain of transmission]
This Prophetic statement brings up the question of the extent to which our formal worship is prescribed to us to positively develop our personalities and cultivate our spirituality.
This role for our worship is further reinforced by the Prophet's words:
"A man continues to speak the truth and verify the truth until it is written with Allah that he is an honest man... And another man continues to lie and chase after false reports until it is written with Allah that he is a habitual liar." [Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim]
When we do an act over and over again, it becomes a habit. Carrying it out becomes part and parcel of our personalities and identities. When a person strives to be honest by deliberately and consistently choosing to speak truly (even against self-interest), then honesty becomes a character trait. Ultimately, Allah elevates that person to the status of Siddiq (One Who is Truly Honest).
For honest people, honesty is indeed a habit. However, this does not negate the fact that speaking the truth remains an act of worship and pious devotion.
Prophet Muhammad did not separate between habituation and devotion. In fact, he did the opposite. In fact, he said:
"The most beloved of good deeds with Allah are those which are practiced with constancy over a long period of time, even if the deed is small." [Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim]
Also, `a'ishah relates that:
"When Allah's Messenger practiced a good deed, he would do so consistently." [Sahih Muslim]
Habituation becomes a problem when people begin carrying out habitual acts unthinkingly. Some habits - like the manner of combing one's hair, or moving one's hands, or biting one's nails - become so ingrained that the person ceases to be conscious of doing the habitual act. People might even deny such a habit if it is brought to their attention.
At the same time, some positive habits have a tangible good effect on a person's character and outlook on life. For instance, a person who has a habit of devoting a certain hour of every day to the remembrance of Allah or to reading the Qur'an has integrated these virtuous acts into daily life. They become, as a consequence, resulting in greater blessings and spiritual growth.
Once a man came to Prophet Muhammad and said:
"All the Islamic rites have become so many for me. Give me something I can hold fast to." The Prophet replied: "Keep your tongue moist with Allah's remembrance." Sunan al-Tirmidhi and Sunan Ibn Majah]
This is a recommendation to turn the remembrance of Allah into a good habit.
We should therefore not use the word "habit" as if it is a bad thing, like when some of us say: "Prayer is an act of worship and not a habit." Certainly prayer is an act of worship, and if it is our constant habit as well, then all the better.
It is a good thing that it is a person's habit to pray, as long as we do not mean by "habit" that the person is just going along with the crowd or is praying absentmindedly. The positive connotation of habit we intend here is that of constancy and dedication, along with presence of mind and sincerity. A habit is something a person is comfortable doing. Leaving it off is something that makes the habituated person uncomfortable. How good it is for worship to be easy and comfortable for a person so that it never feels like a burden.
Prophet Muhammad once said:
"O Bilal! Call the people to prayer. Give us our relaxation in prayer." [Sunan Abi Dawūd]
This shows us that for the Prophet and his Companions, the performance of prayer was a source of comfort and solace.
The Prophet also said: "Prayer has been made the sweetness of my eyes." [Sunan al-Nasa'i]
Devotion and piety can themselves become habits. When a person starts concentrating in prayer, it is difficult at first to keep focus. The mind is easily distracted. However, after years of persistence, devotion and presence of mind in prayer become second-nature.
Ask yourself honestly: Do you feel happy about the arrival of Ramadan? Or does it get you down? Or do you have mixed feelings?
If you have any negative feelings, then take some time to read about the virtues and blessings of Ramadan. Then think of your own life and your shortcomings. Think of how much you need Allah's mercy and forgiveness. Know that fasting in Ramadan was prescribed by the One who is Most Generous, Most Kind, and Most Forgiving. He did not prescribe fasting to punish us, but rather to purify our minds and hearts, and to make us more generous, compassionate, and healthy people. You will come away from such thinking looking forward to the arrival of Ramadan, thankful that you are able to fast.
With the same spirit, you will be motivated to perform the nightly Tarawih prayers, or at least to observe of those prayers daily what is easy for you. Think of the great number of people who are praying with you. Look for a location where the positive atmosphere sis most conducive. Find a mosque where the imam reads most beautifully. There is nothing wrong with that.
Observe the prayer as much as your heart stays engaged with it. If you find yourself growing weary, then depart. Keep in mind that Allah's mercy is descending upon the congregation and you are among them sharing in that blessing. "They are such an assembly, that one who is in their company is not bereft of blessings."
When you are prostrating, disclose your troubles and sorrows to Allah while beseeching Him to forgive you and overlook your sins. No matter how great your transgressions might be, they are nothing in comparison to Allah's generosity and mercy. Be optimistic that Allah will accept your prayers, despite the shortcomings in your devotion and presence of mind. Everything in life requires striving, and we all have our shortcomings and difficulties. We place our hopes in Allah.
Remember that Allah says:
"I am as my servant expects of Me to be." [Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim]
Ramadan will become the beginning of a change for the better. It will be an experience of faith that will bring joy, new hope and greater happiness to your life.
Make it your habit in Ramadan to spend in charity. When you are shopping to choose nice foods to break your fast with, consider those who do not have enough to eat. Think about the mothers in the world who do not have enough food to feed their starving children and whose decision is to determine which of them is presently closer to death.
Make it your habit in Ramadan to be with your family. Make the atmosphere at home one of love and kindness. Ramadan gives us many occasions to spend quality time together and to share memorable experiences with our children. We should likewise make it our Ramadan habit to cement ties with our relatives, neighbors and friends, even by making phone calls, sending an e-mail, or giving Ramadan greetings by Blackberry.
Let us not make it our Ramadan habit to overeat at night. Let us not make it the month where we eat more than at any other time of year.
Instead, make it your habit to show kindness to others, to keep your anger in check, and to forgive others their faults.
May Allah accept from us our worship during this blessed month.