Stephen R. Covey (Allah yerhamo) wrote "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People." He was not Muslim. To my knowledge, this business guru never wrote any advice on how to better your month of fasting and devotion. Let's, therefore, take his beneficial way of organizing our lives into healthy habits and apply them to this Pillar of Islam.
It is completely sensible to do this, since Ramadan itself is all about improving ourselves and establishing better habits. Many Muslims make resolutions to quit self-defeating behavior and adapt healthier lifestyles during the month. That dream of being a better Muslim needs a plan; it can't just stay as a lofty aspiration. Stephen R. Covey's "Seven Habits" can be a step-by-step plan for us this Ramadan.
He believed that first we have to work inwardly on three issues; without them as our base, we can't continue upward and achieve all that we want.
We plan so much of our lives, yet we resist planning our religious life. We tend to feel as if our thirsty spirit will be replenished when God intervenes; much like a waiter ready with a pitcher of ice water for the moment our glass of iman is half empty. Astragferallah. We are not helpless consumers. We need to be hopeful and active participants in our lives. We can be proactive.
Let's plan our Ramadan! Stop finding reasons why our Ramadan can't be a success. Be stronger than your excuses.
Don't tell me that Ramadan would be better if only...
I was back home.
I lived in a Muslim country.
I didn't have so many responsibilities.
I had a more supportive family.
I wasn't a new Muslim.
I was a better Muslim.
I wasn't pregnant.
I wasn't nursing.
I wasn't on that medication.
I wasn't so alone.
Those are all excuses and predetermined failures. To be highly effective, you need to envision a successful environment for your iman to take root and grow. Islam can flourish in any soul and in any country so ask Allah to make it possible in you, as you are and exactly where you are. No, you won't have 100% success. You will fall short because we all do. Will you achieve better results if you set goals and concrete steps to avoid the usual setbacks? Of course!
Look around you. What is it that clutters up your life? This could be the tangible, such as disorganized piles of papers, or intangible, such as sadness over what can't be. Be realistic right now. Admit that we reap what we sow, or in other words we need to put time and effort into the planning.
Here's an example from my own life: In Egypt, we've been having more than our fair share of power failures. I've been feeling fearful of how that's going to affect fasting this summer. It's going to make it harder. It's going to be be a even more difficult task without electricity (and water since we rely on an electric pump). We will be suffering. Those are all the negative messages I've been compounding inside me. I'm a victim of Egypt's unstable infrastructure! What can I do?
As a reader, you can see my problem from a detached distance. That's a good place to view problems and remember that for every problem there is a solution. No, I can't control electricity. I can, however, schedule my activities better so that the power cuts affect me less. I can set up systems (such as demanding Mr. Boo's floor and bed be cleared off before dinner) to lessen the impact of suddenly being without light. I can guard against being without water by having means to store it (and to keep my clothes and dishes clean a little at a time rather than waiting for some magically perfect time to do them all).
There will be problems this Ramadan. Some of those problems seem to happen every year. Those old problems are what hold us back from looking forward to a new chance of connecting to our blessings. Likewise, the new challenges we are imagining are allowing fear to stop us from moving forward. Being proactive means that you admit your Ramadan will never be perfect but you can make it the best you can by identifying issues and addressing them beforehand.
Begin with the End in Mind
Let's not talk about Ramadan. Let's talk about Eid. Who do you want to by this Eid Al-Fitr? Which Ramadan accomplishments do you want to look back on? Is there a memory you want to hold dear? Go ahead and ask yourself those questions now. You cannot know the sweetest of success on Eid without identifying how you define success before Ramadan even begins.
Stop planning the first day of Ramadan and plan the last instead. Stop assuming that there is only one way to handle the month. Stop allowing others to dictate to you what your Ramadan will be. Remember that this Habit 2 is inward. You decide who you want to be by the end of Ramadan. Don't discuss this with anyone or ask permission from anyone. You keep this private between you and Allah.
Admit to Allah that you are not where you want to be in your deen. No one is. Visualize the Muslim you want to be and who you are now. There's a gap. Use the journey of Ramadan to lessen that gap. What are the steps you'd need to get closer to your ideal self? Maybe you'll have to rethink preconceived notions of what your Ramadan is.
There isn't really one "right" Ramadan. Some years, we need to focus on family life but during others we need to focus on ourselves. Many advocate reading Quran many times over during Ramadan but there is much to be said about slowly savoring each Surah. Which way is right? It really depends on what you need to reach your goals. If you feel closed in and out of touch with the community, then this might be the year to investigate helping others. For someone who is constantly learning about Islam, maybe Ramadan can be a time to balance that knowledge with doing.
Life is often about maintaining a balance. In what way can Ramadan re-right your equilibrium? If you've been going too far in one direction, think of what would bring you back to center. The calm core of our center is where we find our peace and that is where Islam dwells within us. How can you find your peace this Ramadan?
Put First Things First
What is first in our life? As Muslims, there is no other answer but Allah. There is no god but God. We cannot do anything in Ramadan which robs us of our chance to connect to Allah. Our time is so precious and our wish is so sincere. We really need to fight against the temptation to be with the world when we can be with Our Lord.
Sometimes, we willingly walk away from God. Other times, we are pulled away. Either way, we have to remain steadfast this Ramadan that our most important relationship is with Ar-Rahman, Ar-Raheem.
The next set of habits cannot be done alone. You have to reach out and to gain from outside sources. Subhanallah, our Prophet of Islam (peace be upon him) couldn't stay alone in the Cave of Hira. We too need interactions to stay dynamic as Muslims.
Though I've written a lot about doing what's good for you and your iman, don't think that all others in your life are going to suffer. They don't have to. You can truly figure out compromises which take into account everyone's needs. Some days are more about you and your needs and some days are more about someone else. Though this month is about connecting you to your faith, it probably won't be a 30-day lone retreat in the wilderness. Most of us live and work with others and need to be realistic about our connections and responsibilities. Over the course of a month, though, everyone can have their time and their needs met.
Moms need to think about the ways to raise children during Ramadan which produce the best results. How can I observe the month-long fast and still be an effective mother? For me, I really need to involve Mr. Boo in the suhour, the fasting, the iftars, the memorization, the prayers and the charity. I also want to build in some scheduled days for activity (like going to the school's library once a week). If I help him, then the days will go smoother than him vegetating in front of the television. He will be weakened from a fast until asr but this will benefit him (as he prepares to be a man) and me (as I can't handle him at full strength while I'm feeling depleted). We both win. He gets attention and time from me at set times and then I get peace when I need to rest.
If I look ahead to the end of Ramadan (Habit 2), I will feel better about myself, my son, and our family if I've put in places ways to care for his needs. Ignoring what others need means that I am setting myself up for failure. There is time now to set up win-win situations so that everyone has a meaningful Ramadan.
Seek First to Understand,
Then to Be Understood
I need to understand more about Quran, Sunnah, Hadith and the history of Islam and so do you. I can say that without ever meeting you. I can say that because it's true for all of us. Knowledge during Ramadan doesn't have to be limited. You can study anything which helps you understand The Creator or the creation better. Every new realization moves you closer.
What is on your reading list? Have you ever read a biography of The Prophet of Islam (peace be upon him)? Ramadan is a great time to get closer to The Messenger. For women especially, it's good for us to learn about the early women in Islam---like the first follower of Islam, Khadija (ra) and the first martyr of Islam, Sumaya (ra).
I've been teaching about the Ummayads in Al-Andalus and I'd highly recommend learning about Abdur-Rahman Ibn Muwiaya. His grandfather Hisham had been a Caliph and he narrowly escaped to Spain in order to establish a unified nation. Subhanallah.
If the idea of "The 7 Habits" intrigues you, then consider learning more about it. I like that there's a book for teens and for school-aged children as well. The whole family could start using this model!
Where is your curiosity? That is the core of your being nudging you to learn more so follow where your curiosity leads you. Every bit of knowledge is a gain this Ramadan.
Who is on your Ramadan team? Think of the people you want around you; your dream team. How can you share and support each other during the month? They don't have to be Muslim. They simply have to love you and want the best for you.
If you're married, then think of you and your spouse can share moments together. One thing I really like is that first kiss after breaking the fast. It's sweet! It's sweet because you could have smooched earlier but you didn't because you're Muslim. Other couples like to go out for a short walk between finishing their tea and going to Taraweah prayers.
Is there someone with whom you have been out of touch? If you miss them, then consider arranging a meet up during Ramadan. Share food together and pray together.
There are some people you need to avoid. Be realistic. You can't move ahead if you have someone who pulls you back or pulls you down. It's worth mentioning that if you can't rely on that person during Ramadan, you might not want them in your life as a close ally during the other times of the year either.
Lastly, the Seventh Habit is a way to maintain the previous six.
Sharpen the Saw
There is less energy in Ramadan so you have to be careful with your reserves. How are you going to stay balanced? "Sharpening the saw," means that while you do all the work towards success, you cannot get depleted to nothingness. You have to maintain yourself and sense of self.
One example from my life is how I couldn't listen to Quran non-stop. I couldn't! Years ago, I made the commitment to not listen to music during Ramadan. That feels better to me to cut out all songs during the day. However, I found myself needing something so I turned to nasheeds. RadioIslam has some great programs I would listen to. Another person would say that's wrong but I knew that it improved my mood and kept me going through the month.
We know what we need better than someone else. Don't let anyone "should" on you. A month is a long time to pretend so don't pretend that you don't have needs that aren't being met.
Another example might be the revert who doesn't feel connected to Ramadan the way she used to with Christmas time. She decides to do some baking and share it with others. Some Muslims feel that baking cookies during Ramadan is mimicking the Christians and therefore is wrong. That's fine for them to think so for themselves, but it might actually save a new Muslim from leaving Islam. To each his or her own. All of us need to get through Ramadan our own way.
By the same token, we need to be kind about how others are getting through their days and nights. It's not our job to judge how our brothers and sisters handle their Ramadan. I can't tell you the number of times a sister has been made fun of because she wore hijab during the month, though she doesn't normally. Whatever! Leave her alone! She is doing her life the best she can. Be gracious. Be loving. Love and accept others the way that you hope God will love and accept you and your fasting.
As I write this, I'm hearing Quran being recited from down the street. An elderly neighborhood man passed away today. It was just last week he sat with my husband; they talked and laughed together. He was a friend of the father-in-law I never met. From Allah we come, and to Allah we return. Men die. People die. We all die.
This Ramadan could be our last. Let's be sober enough to realize how finite life is. Ramadan is a chance to purify ourselves and our lives. It's a beautiful chance; it's a gift from God. Don't waste it. Don't have regrets. Use it to get closer to The Truth and to understand deeper how you can serve Allah. Find a way to join with others in this purpose and to remain hopeful that one month can make a difference. Yes, this Ramadan could be our last but it could also be the first in a glorious fresh start.