People who exercise regularly know how important it is stick to their routine but challenge their muscles as well. Recently, a training instructor said to me: “I push you a little harder because we can all go a little more than we think we can. But I don’t want you to collapse.”
I reflected on these words and how we can apply them to our spiritual life. Just like our bodies are stronger than we think they are and can carry us a little farther than we expect them to, so can our soul. Our souls were made by the Creator for the Creator. The need of the soul is to connect to its Maker. There is always a little more we can do to strengthen that connection. Waking up for fajr (the morning prayer) is hard. On some days it may feel downright impossible: too tired, too much work, not enough time. But once we give ourselves that push, and understand that it is Shaitan (Satan) or our own doubts that are limiting us, we realize that we can do it. And that feeling we get after prayers – after connecting to God in those early hours – is indescribable.
On the other hand, we must know ourselves and know our breaking point. Once the Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him) walked into the mosque and saw a rope hanging in between its two pillars. He asked, “What is this rope?” The people said, “This rope is for Zainab who, when she feels tired, holds it [to keep standing for the prayer].” The Prophet ﷺ said, “Don’t use it. Remove the rope. You should pray as long as you feel active, and when you get tired, sit down,” (Bukhari). Zainab would pray to the point of exhaustion such that she needed a rope to keep her standing. Praying when you are tired, but are still able hold yourself together, would be commendable. But standing to pray when you are physically going to collapse, which would probably adversely affect other areas of your life as well, is not.
Aisha radi allahu `anha (may God be pleased with her) also once narrated that a woman would “not sleep at night because she is engaged in prayer.” The Prophet ﷺ said disapprovingly, “Do (good) deeds that are within your capacity, as Allah never gets tired of giving rewards until you get tired of doing good deeds,” (Bukhari). This is the same Prophet ﷺ who prayed in the night until his feet swelled. So his statement is not saying not to make an effort. The lesson is to know the difference between pushing ourselves further and breaking ourselves.
Pushing ourselves helps us to feel stronger with time and gives us energy. Just like doing extra sit-ups slowly increases your muscle capacity such that you feel better and are able to do more with time, pushing ourselves spiritually is going that extra step. It means praying when we don’t feel that high. It means making du`a’ (supplication) even if we are numb. It means setting 4 alarms for fajr even when we are tired. And consistency will enable us to feel the effect. Not only do we eventually feel spiritually stronger, we notice the barakah (blessing) of that hard work in our daily life. And the best example was the Prophet ﷺ, who was present when he was with his family, present when he was with the people, and present when he was with his Lord. One did not adversely affect the other. On the contrary, they complemented each other.
Breaking ourselves has the opposite effect. It weighs down our souls. It increases the burden. Our hearts shut down. It has a negative effect on the other responsibilities in our lives. This is not necessarily specific to ritual acts of worship, but anything that we consider a virtue. We may have heard that the righteous never complained – which is a beautiful trait to have – but our interpretation of that virtue prevents us from seeking necessary help for our situation. But Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He) gave us those means for a reason. Allah does not want to break us, but rather, to build us.
The Prophet’s ﷺ way was one of balance. Closeness to Allah (swt) brings tranquility of the heart, not anxiety. That effort in the gym may cause sore muscles the next day, but over time everything improves, and you are stronger. Similarly with our spiritual endeavors, know yourself so you can push harder, but not collapse.
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