The Human Capacity for Change

By Tarek Younis

When the caliph Abu Bakr, radi Allahu `anhu (may God be pleased with him), became sick and sensed his end was near, it was clear to him the subsequent choice of caliph would determine the community’s future. As such Abu Bakr (ra), whose wisdom was unmatched save for the Prophet ﷺ  himself, decided it would be less controversial if the Muslim community agreed upon the next caliph while he was still among them; the ummah (all Muslims) most assuredly would not argue upon a choice seen favorably by the greatest of the Prophet’s ﷺ companions. However the sahabah (companions), unwilling to take the position for themselves and unable to find a qualified individual in their stead, delegated the task back to Abu Bakr (ra). Accepting the task, undoubtedly having a candidate already in mind, the caliph requested some time to do his research, and invited the most prominent Muslims in the community for counsel—Uthman ibn Affan, Abdur-Rahman ibn ‘Awf, Usayd ibn Hudayr among others from the Ansar and the Muhajirun (ra).

“What is your opinion of Omar ibn al-Khattab?”

The companions of the Prophet ﷺ, astounded that such a question need even be asked, all responded harmoniously: “He is better than you think he is. There is no one else like him among us. I know that he is the best after you.”

Thus, the decision was clear, the voices unanimous—save only for the concern of one companion, Talhah ibn Ubaydullah (ra). The concern he raised to Abu Bakr (ra) was simple, and indeed comprehensible in light of what is widely known of Omar ibn Khattab’s (ra) character, even to this day:

“What will you say to your Lord when He asks you about appointing Omar over us when you have seen how harsh he is?”

The wisdom contained within Abu Bakr’s (ra) reply to this remains outstanding; wisdom delivered only to the real men and women of understanding, with Abu Bakr as their role model:

“Are you trying to make me fear Allah? [Any ruler] who does you wrong is doomed. I will say ‘O Allah, I appointed over them the best of your people.’ [Omar is so harsh and strict] because he thinks I am too soft and gentle; when he is in charge, he will change a great deal.

Abu Bakr’s (ra) wisdom entailed the appreciation of man’s capacity for change. And true to his firasa (profound insight), Omar (ra) did. Indeed, if anything, one can relate Omar’s entire life—from attempting to kill the Prophet ﷺ in his time of jahiliya (when he was naive) to his caliphate following the death of Abu Bakr (ra)—as a testament to change which, implicitly or explicitly, made him admirable to so many. People are naturally inclined to hold such stories of change with high regard, because they not only remind us of the transience of our current situations, but upon reflection, they erect large signs above our futures which say:

‘You can become much more, if you so will.’

A Contemporary Model of Profound Change

Another great example of the human capacity for change is el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, commonly known as Malcom X. Although people often reflect upon the achievements he afforded the oppressed African-American community or his ultimate acceptance of ‘real’ Islam in Mecca, let us set all labels and incidents aside and appreciate the man as a whole. Here, again, we see someone whose life testifies to change; he was an intelligent young student, turned atheist hustler and thief, turned bookish and scholarly, turned separatist leader, turned outcast then finally Muslim human rights advocate. Although one may disagree on the labels, his own words emphasize mine:

“Despite my firm convictions, I have been always a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experience and new knowledge unfolds it. I have always kept an open mind, which is necessary to the flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of intelligent search for truth.”

This was a virtue which made him so impressionable among the young Black youth around America; as a man who came from the streets, he symbolized the human ideal of developing one’s potential beyond environmental constraints. None of this is to say that all change is necessarily good. Indeed, our capacity for change encompasses both extremes of vice and virtue, and it only takes one reading of Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning or Hannah Arendt’s The Banality of Evil to reflect upon a modern-day account of how regular people (i.e. you and I) are fully capable of committing terrible injustices and atrocities. Instead, the point of this article is to reflect on our capacity to change; only then, can we will a change for the better.

Ramadan: the Greatest Catalyst for Change

Ramadan is an especially prominent time to meditate on our capacity to change. In fact, if you think about it, the sacred month already sets the stage to reflect upon a state of being devoid of essential pleasures, such as food and water. This, in and of itself, is already a fundamental change, even psychologically. Indeed, many people, especially non-Muslims prior to conversion, almost see it as an impossibility to go an entire day without food, let alone water. But, in time, they do—they change, not only their habits, but the very way they see themselves. It is this opportunity afforded to all of us which is, in its essence, self-revelatory: “Wow, if I can stop myself from these essential things, what else can I change in myself?” But this should only be the beginning—a taste—of your undiscovered potential, and to emphasize this, the Prophet ﷺ warned that whoever completes Ramadan with the sole intention of fasting, will only leave it hungry. And naturally, the Prophet’s ﷺ wisdom is unequaled; he understood, better than anyone, the sheer potential for change contained in Ramadan – the type of change that can mark the difference between Paradise and Hellfire in an instant. In light of all this however, the change I am focusing on here is not only limited to spirituality in the strictest sense of the term, although clearly there is no better change than to increase in taqwa (God-consciousness) and attain ihsan (the most elevated state of faith)—indeed, there are few (if any) changes that do not affect them. Rather, the change I am proposing refers to your very nature, as an individual. Let me provide an example from my own life to avoid unnecessary theorizing.

I used to play a lot video games—a lot—which began at a very early age. Many years ago, in Ramadan, I began to question my obsession with video games; was it really all for fun, or was there something else involved? I decided to use the month as an opportunity to cut back entirely from it, and so as the days passed by, lo and behold, I began to feel more and more anxious. Then suddenly it dawned on me, an extreme stroke of self-revelation which, to this day, surprises me how hidden it was in plain sight (although understandably, as we rarely reflect on habits and characteristics that are so close to us): beyond leisure, I played video games as a form of escapism. Escape from what? Many things, but among others: feelings of anxiety or humiliation; when life was not looking too good; when I was not feeling heard or respected; when I experienced some powerful emotions I did not understand. Please note however that this was my escape, and it should not be generalized to others. There are many other forms of escapism of course (a client in therapy told me about his with Facebook; a constant need to be around others; an obsession with the news or sports), and I am sure, looking back, I would ascribe music, movies and TV shows to myself as well. Now, by withholding these pleasures—these ingrained habits—from my system, things became all too clear, and I was able to reflect on the mental states which previously sparked a need to escape. For example, perhaps I give too much weight to how others see me, and so, by virtue of the impossibility to please everyone and the ensuing feelings of anxiety, I need to rethink my priorities (note: of course, rethinking is an overly simplistic description of what needs to be done; actions intended towards others rather than Allah, subhanahu wa ta’ala, (exalted is He) are more difficult to spot than an ant on a dark rock at night). Now, although far from perfect, I’m able to enjoy video games, movies, books, the company of others etc, at a much different level than before, appreciating them for what they truly are and singling out what I really like about them. It may seem like a small change, but in my opinion, no grand changes to the likes of Omar ibn al-Khattab (ra) or Malcolm X come in one fell swoop; they take years upon and years of self-development, and are only truly appreciated in retrospect. But you have to start somewhere.

Time to Make a Change

Having just provided an example, now it is your turn. What are your most dysfunctional or distressing characteristics? These are obviously the most significant characteristics demanding your immediate attention. Also, take a moment to reflect on the things in your life you rarely ever reflect on, because Ramadan is the perfect time to do so; indeed, we rarely ever think about the sustenance of water in our lives but sure enough, come Ramadan, we do so every day. As such, ask yourself questions such as “If I were to abstain from habit X in Ramadan, let’s say hitting the gym, how does that make me feel.” At that moment, you may realize just how much muscle mass really means to you, and you have an opportunity to reflect on why this is the case. Furthermore, entertain the following reflection: if you could change anything in your life, what would it be? Here, again, I am not referring to an exclusively Islamic framework of change; indeed, a small concern I have with this is that we often limit our perspective towards things that are halal (permissible) and haram (impermissible) (i.e. I need to stop smoking), or even the things that are encouraged and frowned upon, while neglecting one’s very self. Naturally, no one should ever tell you that Facebook or going to the gym or watching the news is haram or frowned upon, nor can they. Rather, I am referring to you as an individual, embodied with a potential to become an Omar ibn al-Khattab (ra) or a Malcolm X. You need to ask yourself, “What kind of personal insight must I attain to change myself to such a degree?” Read up on the great men and women who have experienced major changes in their characters. Finally, take a moment to also reflect on your positive characteristics, and ask yourself how you can improve upon them. If by each passing Ramadan we are left with just a little more self-understanding, we are well on our way to becoming much more than we are today.

If, on the other hand, we only take Ramadan at face value—a month of abstinence—we may have just forfeited the greatest opportunity for self-development available to us. When else, I ask myself, will we find another opportunity to fulfil our capacity for change?

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