Both ancient wisdom and modern research demonstrate the power of habit and the manner in which our thoughts, words and actions contribute in its formation. Despite the importance of mindful decision-making, nearly half of what we do every day can be characterised as habitual. This article examines the elements of positive habits, negative habits, and addiction through the lens of Islamic and Fatimi philosophy.
Fatimi philosophy describes how Islam encourages good habits and discourages harmful ones. Repetition gives rise to disposition; any deed performed routinely becomes a character-defining habit, or an addiction or compulsion. Once ingrained, a habit is difficult to forget. The Prophet Mohammed indicates that: ‘Good is a habit, and bad is an obstinacy.’
Good practices require a certain amount of effort to be converted into lifelong habits. Conversely, the inclination to indulge in bad tendencies, or substances and behaviours that may seem gratifying but result in negative consequences, are easily acquired. Overeating is one such example; many parents today recognise the importance of moderation and encouraging healthy eating in children from an early age in order to avoid poor eating habits that may persist throughout one’s life. Similarly, studies show that preventing early use of harmful substances and behaviours can reduce the risk of addiction and lifelong neurological problems.
In his seminal text Daʿaim al-Islam, written in the 10th century, Syedna al-Qadi al-Nuʿman discusses acquiring the good habit of salat, the five daily prayers. The Fatimi imams, he states, used to encourage young children to begin praying as soon as they were old enough to understand, even though the prayers were not yet obligatory for them. Doing so habituates the children to salat so that, when they reach the age the prayers become obligatory, they will have developed a familiarity and affinity for salat and will be less likely to neglect them. The good deed, though considered difficult initially, becomes effortless when it becomes a habit.
In the ninth-century encyclopaedia Rasaʾil Ikhwan al-Safa, Imam Ahmed al-Mastur counsels his readers to persevere in doing good deeds so that they become habits and remain as part of one’s innate nature and personality. He also draws a key distinction between the concepts of habituating bad and good: The base characteristics of worldly, materialistic people are part of their nature and predisposition, while the lofty characteristics of the people of the Hereafter must be acquired with persistence—an elucidation of the prophetic statement that classifies ‘good’ as a habit which must be cultivated and ‘bad’ as an obstinacy, which may be easy to succumb to due to human nature but is difficult to overcome.
The nature of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ described in the above-mentioned prophetic statement leads one to contemplate the wisdom behind Islam’s complete prohibition of certain harmful and addictive substances and behaviours, such as khamr—which can refer to wine or any intoxicant—as well as activities involving gambling.
By prohibiting even one sip of khamr, Islamic tenets stop potential addictive behaviour before it starts. This helps protect individuals and society as a whole from the harmful effects of substance abuse and addiction, from health problems to financial and social consequences, such as loss of productivity and costs of healthcare and rehabilitation, as well as unlawful and immoral acts such as violence, theft and more.
On the other hand, the good habits enjoined by Islam, from spiritual deeds such as salat, including individual and congregational prayers, and social and philanthropic practices such as devoting one’s time and resources to feeding and helping others, serve as both prevention and cure from many negative habits and behaviours—as the Quran states, ‘Salat prohibits (keeps one away from) immorality and wrongdoing.’
The harmful effects of addiction and the negative behaviours it spurs are impediments to a harmonious society. Building a peaceful and productive society requires both individual and collective efforts to instil good character and positive habits, as elucidated in Islamic and Fatimi philosophy.
The Dawoodi Bohra Muslim community, encouraged by the guidance of their leader His Holiness Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin, adheres to the Quranic prohibition of khamr, also abstaining from intoxicants and addictive substances common today, such as smoking and vaping. It also extends efforts to assist those who may have fallen into the tribulation of substance addiction.
In Yemen, the widespread consumption of qat, a drug of abuse, had also affected the Dawoodi Bohra community. However, the guidance of Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin, as well as his predecessors, helped many Yemeni Bohras overcome their physical and economic dependence on qat consumption and cultivation by urging them to plant more productive crops, such as coffee and fruit. Instead of gathering together to chew qat, he encouraged them to join together in spiritual congregations and positive social gatherings instead.
His counsel continues to guide Dawoodi Bohras across the world, especially younger members, to invest their time in happier, more productive habits and real social interactions rather than spending too much of their time on potentially addictive behaviours such as social media and TV. He encourages physical, educational, spiritual, and social pursuits that benefit physical and mental health, such as regular exercise and exploring nature, and reciting and memorising the Holy Quran.
Demonstrating the way to ingrain good habits, His Holiness—in his Ashara Mubaraka sermons in Dubai in 2023—elaborated on the Prophet Mohammed’s statement: ‘The deed dearest to Allah is that which is the most consistent, even if it is small.’ Citing the example of salat, Syedna explained how the five daily prayers, spread throughout the day, entail small, sustainable deeds. With determination and a desire to do good, small but consistent acts accumulate over time and eventually become great deeds.
Following Syedna’s guidance, community members endeavour to habituate good practices such as physical exercise, healthy eating, balancing work and family, positive social gatherings and spiritual and educational pursuits, in order to lead fulfilling, productive lives.