Ramadan 2012: The Early Bird Challenge 3

With just three months left until Ramadan, if you’ve participated in this series so far, your journey towards improvement should be well underway – even if it’s going very slowly (and that’s OK!). We began with salaah in part 1, then moved on to dua in part 2. While those are both very spiritual topics, this month’s challenge deals with something much more worldly – our unhealthy, time-consuming habits. It may be painful, and it may take a while to do, but if you succeed in this month’s area, insha-Allah you’ll make giant strides in bettering your own self and your relationship with Allah.



Compared to the past, today’s modern technology makes our lives easier and saves us great amounts of time. Take the simple example of laundry: 200 years ago, it was a whole day job, and now you can get it done and dried in a couple of hours – with minimal effort on your part.

With so much time freed up, shouldn’t we be happier because we have more time to do what we want? The answer is “no”.

The paradox of today’s world is that we have so many time-saving gadgets, and everything is so convenient, yet more than ever, we feel like we don’t have free time. We’re under more pressure and always seem to need more hours in the day (or night) to finish all the things we have to / want to do. Added to that is the entertainment we consume to ‘relax’ and ‘unwind’ from the stresses of life.

And then add the relatively new phenomenon of always being ‘connected’ to the world and your friends via technology. For many people, today’s life is filled with e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, mobile phone messages, and a never-ending stream of information: breaking news, alerts, updates, and other bits of information we think we need. The information flood is so rampant that many people seem to spend more time in the virtual world than they do in the real, physical world. (By the way, does anyone else see the connection to ‘The Matrix’ in this?)

Whether we pursue these things or they pursue us, it seems that many of us have become slaves to the technology and leisure-time activities we love so much.


The vessel

But we know that any extreme is unhealthy. So by consuming and being involved in this much information, communication, and entertainment, we’re bound to suffer negative consequences at some point – whether it’s mental, emotional, physical, or spiritual.

American scholar Shaykh Abdullah Adhami sums up the danger in this beautifully simple yet profound quote:

“Every vessel – every container – will only pour out what is contained in it, and that’s very obvious…Your tongue is your ability to express what lies in your spirit: television, the movies, the friends you hang out with, the music you listen to. Everything around you is environmental forces that shape how your being is and how your heart is. And when you open your mouth to speak it’s like your heart is a sponge that absorbs all of this material from around you. Essentially what you’re doing is squeezing what is in you and what comes out is going to be what has been compiled in your mind and in your memory. Obviously you can only express in your heart what has been placed in it. And so in order for the outcome and the output from the tongue to be positive, the input in that needs to be positive: in spirit, in silence, in talking…and throughout our lives.”

The quote basically means that what we take in – what we consume – is what will fill our hearts, and ultimately what will come out from us. And if we fill our time with habits that are poisonous or not beneficial, those poisons will corrupt our inner beings.

As others have pointed out, the human brain only has a limited capacity – it can only hold so much information. And if we keep filling it with things that aren’t actually important, there won’t be much space left for the things that really are important.


Kicking the habit the Early Bird way

You may already know that you have a Facebook problem. Or a Twitter addiction. Or that you obsessively check your email every few minutes. Whatever your habits, if you’ve gone to an extreme, you already know you should take some kind of action to bring back the balance. But living in the environment you live in, it’s not easy to disconnect completely and be free of your poisons.

So, as explained in previous posts, our approach in this series is to follow a five-step process to gradually solve the problem:

  1. Selection of an area: For this month, the topic is ‘Unhealthy habits’
  2. Diagnosis: Analyse what your current condition is in the area and list your weaknesses
  3. Root cause analysis: Get to the root of your weaknesses / problems
  4. Solutions: Come up with practical methods to overcome those root causes
  5. Planning and implementation: Set up a realistic plan of action to implement those solutions gradually in the coming months, then at a higher pace in Ramadan



Ask yourself:

  • What technologies and websites do I use most in my personal life?
  • How do I entertain myself? (e.g. movies, TV, music, games)
  • What communication habits fill my time? (e.g. phonecalls, text messages, BBM)
    (see worksheet 3 for further examples of all these)
  • How many times do I use it per day?
  • On average, how long do I spend on it per day?

Now for each item on your list, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Whose resources (e.g. computer, bandwidth) do I use for this? (e.g. work? school? parents?) And if it’s someone else’s, am I allowed to be using their resources for this?
  2. Why do I do it as often as I do?
  3. When I use it, why do I spend this amount of time on it?
  4. How does using it make me feel? And how long does that feeling last?
  5. Do I neglect loved ones / people that are right in front of me while I do this? Do these things cause me to spend less quality time with them?
  6. What time do I switch these things (e.g. mobile phone, computer) off for the day?
  7. For the entertainment-related items, what is the main message of the music / movies / games? And is this something admirable or meaningful?
  8. What are the benefits of this thing? (Break this up into worldly and Hereafter categories)
  9. What are the risks / dangers of this thing? (Break this up into worldly and Hereafter categories)
  10. Does this harm my ibadah and relationship with Allah? (e.g. do I delay my salaah for these things? And in salaah and other worship, do I think about these things?)

Using this month’s worksheet, think through each question and record your answers. Be honest with yourself – and do this either completely in private, without sharing it with anyone (if you prefer it that way), or with someone else (if you think that’s more beneficial).



First, consider your answers then identify and list your weaknesses or problems you feel you need to address.

Next, write down each issue’s outward symptoms that you notice, and try to find the root causes of the issue by interrogating it. Look at the issue or the symptoms and ask yourself “why?”. Keep asking “why?” of each answer until you get to the root cause.



With the problems diagnosed, the symptoms identified, and root causes found, now think of practical ways to solve those problems from the root. Brainstorm and list practical ways to solve the issues from the root. While doing this, consider the following questions to help you come up with solutions:

  1. If I give up / reduce my usage, what benefits could I gain?
  2. What would I like to achieve in life that I haven’t / haven’t tried – because I feel I don’t have the time?
  3. What small steps could I take towards fulfilling those ambitions, if I were to have more free time?
  4. What safety mechanisms and physical steps can I take to cut down on these things?
  5. Can I arrange my time to be more self-disciplined in these habits?
  6. Can I use any technology applications to block my usage of websites I’d like to leave?
  7. Can I set aside a day or two per month to live completely without these things?

For example, in question 4 (safety mechanisms / physical steps), when you need to do something important, you could move your computer / other distractions to somewhere not so accessible. And in step 5 (time management), you could set specific times in the day when you’ll check email – and stick to it. Or set times each day where you ban yourself from using the Internet / the medium of distraction.


Planning and implementation:

With solutions identified, now analyse what your life is like at this moment, and come up with a realistic plan of how you can implement the solutions over a period of time. Remember to plan this is ways that are realistic – achievable – for you, even if it means you’ll be taking tiny steps over a long period of time. Doing things gradually – in small and consistent steps – is the best way to achieve sustainable, permanent solutions.

Also include, in your plan, the ways you’d like to intensify your efforts when Ramadan comes.

If, after a while, you find that you’ve incorrectly estimated your ability to follow the plan, simply make adjustments as needed. The goal for this month, and the four that follow, is to implement steps that are realistic for you – what you can manage, and not what will overburden you.



To help with this month’s exercise, you can download and use the following document: RamadanEarlyBird worksheet (3rd edition).



To help you with this month’s focus, check out the following:

  • Article: From Facebook to God’s book
  • Technology blockers: To block sites you want to avoid, use LeechBlock for FireFox; StayFocusd for Google Chrome; or in Internet Explorer just add the in your blocking-settings.
  • Your contribution: If you know of any good Islamic resources (e.g. lectures, applications) that are freely available online, please suggest them in the comments section.

And remember that the most important resources of all are the right intentions, sincere dua asking for success in this venture, and then consistent effort to do your best.

All the best with this step in Ramadan prep; and feel free to share your feedback or progress in the Comments section.

Other parts in this 5-part series are posted here.


Timeless Lessons for Humanity

“And Pharaoh send heralds until all cities, [bidding them to call out his troops and to proclaim:] “Behold, these [children of Israel] are but a contemptible band*; but they are indeed filled with hatred of us seeing that we are, verily, a nation united, fully prepared against danger…”

(Quran; Chapter 26 – “The Poets”, verse 53 to 56; translation of meaning by Muhammad Asad)

This passage struck me because of the commentary Asad gives at the the *:

“Thus the Quran illustrates the psychological truth that, as a rule, a dominant nation is unable really to understand the desire for liberty on the part of the group or groups which it oppresses, and therefore attributes their rebelliousness to no more than unreasonable hatred and blind envy of the strong.”

What came to mind – while reading – is the phrase that former U.S. president George W. Bush would use to justify his ‘war on terror’:

They hate us. They hate our freedoms and our way of life.

And in this hate, they carry out acts of terrorism against the target of their hate.

Looking at other cases in history – and even in the present day, I am certain we could find examples where the media and government demonise an oppressed people’s efforts for freedom as ‘hate’ and ‘unreasonable’. Because if an oppressed people don’t go along and humbly, silently accept and submit to the ill-treatment handed out to them by the oppressive rulers / ruling class or race, they are labelled as troublemakers and hate-mongers.

I’m not saying that all minorities or fighters are in the right all of the time – because they do sometimes go beyond the limits of acceptability – for example, killing innocents can never be justified or acceptable (even as ‘collateral damage’).

But what I am saying is that it’s so common for those in power to tell blatant lies, cover up truth, choose information selectively, and twist the story to depict the weaker side as violent and hateful – while depicting themselves as honest, noble, and just.

A lesson from this is to be wary of what you read and hear from the media and leaders of powerful nations and organisations. Remember who is giving you the information, and whose opinion is being pushed on you – whether directly or subtly. Remember the words of Brother Malcolm X:

"If you're not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing." - Malcolm X

Another reason I quoted this passage and commentary from the Quran is that I wish to highlight the timelessness of Allah’s final revelation: how this Book – and the history of our human race – can never be ‘archaic’ and ‘outdated’ – as some critics say. It’ll always be relevant, because though times and technologies change, human nature always remains the same.

And so, just as certain themes occurred in times of old, those themes repeat themselves nowadays – and will continue to repeat themselves in future.

Strangers arriving in South Africa

The MSA of the Cape has teamed up with several organisations to bring “The Strangers Tour” to South Africa. This internationally-renowned variety show boasts the talents of Muslim comedian Baba Ali (USA), award-winning poet Boonaa Mohammed (Canada), and popular scholar Navaid Aziz (Canada). The event – which takes a refreshing look at Muslim life and relationships – heads to Durban, Cape Town, and Pretoria this May.

“The Strangers Tour” has been phenomenally successful worldwide, selling out in many of the 20-plus cities it’s reached in the UK, Canada, Europe, and Australia. Strangers is a dynamic and inspirational three hour program that uses a mix of poetry, comedy, and motivation to explore the relationships Muslims have wthin themselves, with their Creator, and with the larger community.

The show brings together three inspirational personalities:

  • Navaid Aziz (Canada) is a dynamic, youthful scholar and counselor known internationally for his enlightening and heartfelt motivational talks on Islam and life.
  • Baba Ali (USA) is a wildly successful comedian, famous for his YouTube videos that have drawn many millions of views in recent years. He takes a humorous approach to aspects of Muslim life such as social conduct, prejudice, and marriage. (Material online at www.ummahfilms.com)
  • Boonaa Mohammed (Canada) – dubbed the “voice of a generation” – is an award-winning spoken word poet whose material reflects personal insights on spirituality and Islam. (More info at boonaa.com)

The show heads to Pretoria on Saturday, 5th May, Cape Town on Sunday, 6th May, and Durban on Tuesday, 8th May, and is brought to South Africa by MSA of the Cape, ILM-SA, Caring Women’s Forum, and the Willowton Group.

For ticket information, further details, and the video trailer, visit the Strangers South Africa Facebook page at facebook.com/StrangersSouthAfrica or www.msacape.org.

The Playtime Council: It’s a little crowded

One day, Chairman Pooh decided to take the council members out for a ride. Unfortunately, due to financial constraints, the council had only one vehicle. But since this is South Africa, the spirit of South Africa’s urban taxi industry kicked in, and everyone got a seat – as pictured below:

For previous adventures in the Playtime Council, check out its archive here.

Hajj Chronicles Part 4: Welcome to Madinah

Previous parts: Introduction | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Masjid an-Nabawi at sunset

First impressions

Mention the name ‘Madinah’, and the first descriptions many Muslims will use involve words like ‘peaceful’, ‘calm’, ‘tranquil’, etc. Our arrival there was anything but that – but such is to be expected when we had to deal with the chaos of Madinah’s airport at Hajj time: thousands of pilgrims arriving, long immigration queues, and a luggage collection area that was hectic, to say the least.

When we finally got out of there, we felt the air of the Holy Lands for the first time. It wasn’t suffocating, but was very hot – especially since it was after 9PM already.

If I didn’t yet feel the sanctity of the place yet, the wait on the bus would make it clear that this was no ordinary place. The radio was on, but this wasn’t the kind of radio station we get back home. In our Westernised societies (and even some Eastern), music is everywhere – from shops to waiting rooms, elevators to outdoor events, cars driving by, and even in the masjid – when people forget to turn their phones off. And of course, let’s not forget the people who blast their favourite tunes in public spaces via their cellular phones – as if they’re doing a public service by sharing their musical taste with those around them.

But this was Madinah, and what played on that radio station brought sharply into focus that we were now ‘safe’ from the perils of Western popular culture. No music, but Quran recitation instead. That, and narration after narration of hadiths. It was all in Arabic (not English), of course, but that didn’t matter. What counted was that in this sacred place, the pollution of violent, vulgar, and sexually-suggestive lyrics would no longer reach our ears. This was especially significant for me – as a former music addict; knowing that there is a place on Earth where I wouldn’t be subjected to such things anymore.

The drive to the hotel was especially emotional for much of the group, with salwaat being recited, and many tearing as we approached Masjid an-Nabawi – the main attraction of the city, and resting place of the Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. But for us, it would only be the next morning that we actually went to the masjid – being exhausted from the last two days’ travel, plus a tiring week at home before that.

Early lessons

Approaching the masjid

Making my way to the masjid the next morning – with the group – I spoke with some of the other guys in the group, with topics centering around travel and worldly things. I soon realised that I needed to politely break away from such talk – otherwise the brothers would probably remain engaged in conversation with me, wasting precious time here. You see, I wasn’t totally opposed to socialising, and I didn’t want to be rude. But on this journey – and in this place – I didn’t want conversation to take up a lot of time, especially if the topics weren’t spiritually beneficial. So if I started – on Day 1 – setting a personal standard of letting such conversations happen often, it would mean missing out on the peace, solitude, and atmosphere of this place – which, I believe, is best enjoyed alone.

For me personally, spirituality and feeling closeness to Allah is something that doesn’t come often when there are others around. And so on this first trip to the masjid, because I was in a group, I felt a bit emotionally disconnected from the experience. I did still feel that acclaimed peace that many speak of – but I couldn’t enjoy it much with the others around, having to stick with the group members and move as they moved. I suppose I knew that it would only be when I came alone that I’d get to fully immerse myself in the experience; and there would be plenty of time for that in the coming days.

Another lesson – which I think reinforced the previous one – was a piece of advice I received about the time in Madinah: from that early stage, try to imagine the time when you’ll be leaving the city. Thinking of that should help you appreciate how precious the time here is, which will help motivate you to use the time wisely. And I think that’s a general advice that can be applied to any special experience one goes through: early on, and throughout, allow yourself to think of the time when the experience will end; and this, insha-Allah, will help you to make the most of it.

After the relative disappointment of the morning visit, I went back later for my first fardh salaah in the masjid – Thuhr. Starting out, it was very special – and I felt a kind of ‘magic’ in that first rakaat. But the experience was cut short when a cellphone went off, snatching the moment away. As I was to find out, in both Madinah and Makkah, this happens a lot – so don’t be under the illusion that the sanctity of these places causes people to be extra careful about putting their phones off.

Later, I reflected on what happened and remembered great advice by a scholar who spoke of this exact thing – where your worship in these places will be interrupted by cellphones and other distractions. But if your heart is really with Allah – you’re really into your worship, and your connection is strong – it won’t bother you. So it’s important to make dua to achieve that state, and try to achieve it via sabr.

After that salaah, my turning point of the day came. With time on my side, I stayed after salaah to make dua. And it was during that dua that something in me finally clicked. The floodgates opened, and my connection to Allah suddenly emerged as strong as ever. It was this experience – even if it was just a few minutes – that changed my mood completely from the morning’s disappointment.

And I realised the importance of that very act of dua: this was actually a journey of dua. As a traveller, duas are accepted. And in this blessed place, as someone on the way to Hajj, the feeling is intensified because you’re there for Allah alone – and not on holiday or business. I had already made a comprehensive dua list before leaving home, and this was the time to start using it – taking it with me wherever I went, so that I could make all those duas while in these precious moments. And while I would usually be self-conscious about consulting a physical list like this with others around, that fear was allayed here – because the reality was that most people in Madinah (and later Makkah) didn’t speak English; so there was little chance of them reading it.

Next up, insha-Allah: Reflections on the first 24 hours in Madinah.



  • When you’re in a special situation – such as visiting Madinah – use your time wisely and beware of non-beneficial activities that can waste your precious moments.
  • In these situations, early on and throughout, imagine how it’ll be when the experience ends; and use this feeling to help you appreciate it and make the most of it.
  • Distractions will often be present while you’re trying to engage in worship. Instead of complaining about them (when you can’t change them), accept the reality and try to focus your heart on Allah instead – building a strong connection that won’t let these minor things disturb you. Make dua to achieve that state, and try to achieve it via sabr.
  • Hajj is a journey of dua and constant connection to Allah; so use your time to make all the duas you want, and strengthen your bond with Allah via acts of worship pleasing to Him. After all, back home, you’ll probably never get this kind of chance to focus 100% on such activities – so embrace and use the chances while you have them on this trip.
  • If you didn’t already make a written dua list (both for yourself and other people), do so – even while you’re travelling, or in Madinah or Makkah. That list is critical for this journey, because you probably can’t store everything in your head – so when the times come to make those duas, you don’t want to be so overwhelmed by emotion, tiredness, or other factors, that you forget all the duas you intended to make.


What happened next?

Update: The entire series (30 parts) is available at this link – post by post. Alternatively, you can download the complete series as an e-book in PDF format. Feel free to share with anyone you think may benefit.

Note: Another version of these chronicles – written for a non-Muslim audience – is here.

Image sources: First picture – unknown; second picture – taken by me.