There is a well-known quote by the famous jurist and polymath Imam al-Shāfi‘ī (d. 204/820): “I learned from the Sufis that time is like a knife. If you don’t cut it first, it will cut you.” This quote, perhaps more than any, was always a source of fascination for me. When I looked at the lives of people like Imam al-Shafī‘ī not only did they live in the pre-modern world, they seem to have accomplished more than I ever will or could. I wanted to know the secret of their accomplishments; the tools and principles they used to “cut time.” The more and more I thought about this issue, the more it became clear that the secret of mastering time and accomplishing all the things we want is that Imam al-Shāfī‘ī said he learned this from the Sufis: those experts of the spiritual and metaphysical disciplines of Islam. The more time I spent learning about Sufism and the Sufis, the more I understood that they were truly time masters.
In what follows, I will lay out a roadmap of how to conquer time and to make the best of your day, especially given our new quarantine reality throughout the pandemic of COVID-19. While putting this roadmap together is straightforward, don’t think that accomplishing this will be easy. It will require sacrifice as well as the adoption of the attitudes laid out in these paragraphs. To be able to master your time and get the most out of your days, you have to be committed to this and ready to let go of old habits. In other words, it will take discipline and practice, but it’s not impossible. If you follow this advice, you will emerge from this pandemic energized and victorious.
One of the reasons Imam al-Shafi‘ī found the answer to mastering time with the Sufis is that they are the most people within Islam that are able to live each moment to its fullest. They understand and are able to manifest the idea that each moment is the only thing we really and truly own. It’s the only thing that ultimately matters because we don’t know if we will be given another one, and another one, etc. If we can get this, and this is why I’m saying it’s not easy and requires practice, we will understand that when we focus on the moment at hand, we can muster all our resources and skills to influence this moment and the decisions we make in it, thus making the most of the here and now. To able to do this throughout the day means living a successful and fulfilled day.
One of the many hurdles to understanding this is that we live through so many “moments” every day and it’s easy to skip the current one and worry and stress over something that might come down the line. When we do this, and oh are we so good at doing this, we end up wasting the current moment for another moment that is yet to come, and often doesn’t come at all, or at least not in the way we thought it would. The idea here is to realize that every moment for us offers an opportunity to make a decision. The quality of each moment is only going to be as good as the quality of our decisions during these moments.
Another challenge is that, if you’re like me, it’s easy to get decision fatigue . Whether it’s household issues, parenting issues, or work-related issues, we have to make hundreds of decisions every day. It’s true that some days are easier than others, but when the week is over, you sometimes just want to shut down and not think at all. It’s common for us to want to “vegetate” in front of a screen, or “do nothing”; all signs that are brains are too tired to think and make decisions.
One of the things we need to ask ourselves is: are all the decisions we are making necessary? Do we have to engage in all things we typically engage in? One of the tremendous benefits of the current crises is it has shown us rather quickly how much fat and consumption there is in our lives. Yes, there is a great deal of fear and uncertainty, but if you’re reading this, it means you are alive and well, you are surviving in a whole new world, confined to your home. Yet, life goes on and will continue to go on. This is the time to reassess the extra stuff in our lives and make sure not to overburden ourselves with unnecessary things. One of the things the Sufis teach is to take only what you need for the moment, don’t clutter your life with non-essential things. So, the first step to mastering and managing our time is to cut out the fat, the non-essential, the distractions. Again, easier said than done, but of paramount importance.
When you audit your time, and you are able to parse out the essential from the non-essential you will almost instantaneously create more free time for yourself. You will create more “moments” in which to make critical decisions that will impact the quality of your life. The Prophet of Islam said, “there are two bounties most people are ignorant of until they are gone: health and free time.” (Bukhari). It’s tempting to fill this extra time with more clutter, but that’s to revert to old habits. We want to replace these old habits with newer, better ones. Habits that are grounded in Islam’s first principles and exemplified in the likes of Imam al-Shāfi‘ī.
In a recent video I offered some practical advice on what to do with the extra time due to our new quarantined life amidst COVID-19. Here I want to go a little deeper and offer permanent replacements to the new time you’ve just created:
(1) Making a Series of Awrad Out of your Daily Tasks
The Arabic word wird (sing.)/awrād (pl.) means litany. It is classically used throughout Islam’s ethical writings to refer to a daily reading of Quran, extra night prayers, or invocations said at various times throughout the day. The Sufis, however, understood that this word can have other, equally powerful and transformative usages. They sought to convert their entire lives into a series of awrād, including things like eating, resting, and even sleep. The basic idea is that you carve up your day into broad chunks of time. Let’s say for example you have 8 broad chunks of time: A-H. When you are in your A block of time, you only engage in matters related to A, nothing else. When you get to your B block of time, the same, and onwards for the remainder of the day. Unless something is critical and necessary, if you miss a certain block of time, you don’t go back to it, but rather move on to the next set of tasks, and revisit what you missed the following day at the appropriate block of time. The key here is two things: one, you need to schedule realistic chunks of time and reasonable amounts of tasks within these chunks. Don’t give yourself 1.5 hours for lunch when it only takes 10 minutes, for example. And two, follow the rule of not going back if you miss a task, unless it is necessary. The reason behind this, and as best articulated by a great Sufi himself Imam al-Sh‘arānī (d. 973/1565), is that the moment one chunk of time ends another begins and so on and so forth, meaning that you are always engaging with what is necessary at each moment, not worrying about what passed and what is to come. It forces you to live in the present moment.
Let’s say that you’ve blocked out 9 am-10:30 am to work on a certain work-related project. This means for these 90 minutes you should not be on social media, taking calls, answering emails, or running to grab your 5th snack of the day. It means for 90 minutes you are fully engaged in this specific task, the tools needed to move this task forward, and nothing else. This is your wird, and using this specific word adds an air of importance and spirituality to the task. You are not simply wasting time or doing something unimportant. Rather, everything that has been mapped out is of the highest importance to achieve specific goals that matter to you. Even when it comes to eating, relaxing, working out, or sleeping, these awrād are necessary.
To be able to do this throughout the day takes practice, especially when you commit to a certain task and realize that you actually can’t concentrate for 90 minutes and therefore need to recalibrate your wird chunks. Don’t give up, but commit to doing this!
(2) Daily Istikhara
As I mentioned above, I suffer from decision fatigue. One of the tools I picked up years ago was to make a daily istikhara prayer every morning. I read that the great Sufi Ibn ‘Arabī (d. 638/1240) used to do this every day and rather than mention a specific decision he was asking the Almighty for guidance on, he offered up all the actions of the day to come and asked God to guide him accordingly. I found it very compelling to start my day asking God to guide me in all my decisions. After years of doing this practice, there are two core effects on me: one, it helps me focus on what is truly important since you ask God in the supplication after the two units of prayer to help you decide what is “good for your worldly life and hereafter.” It reminds me that there are two aspects to every decision, not just dunya. And two, it relieves a lot of my fatigue throughout the day as I know that insha’Allah my decisions are guided. This doesn’t mean that I check out and go with the flow. Rather, I engage activity in assessing decisions I need to make, but am confident that I have asked God to guide me and therefore take comfort that what I choose at the end is correct. I am able to make my decisions swiftly and with determination. This has been transformative for me on so many levels.
(3) Gratitude Exercise
God states in the Quran, “If you try to enumerate the blessings of God upon you, you cannot.” (Quran 16:18). The Prophet of Islam said, “Strange is the affair of the believer for it is always good.” (Muslim). In reality, we have too much to be grateful for and very little to complain about. However, if we don’t agree with this statement, then we need to work on expressing more gratitude. To do this, and in line with the wird concept, we should spend a little bit of time in the morning and the evening (try 5 minutes for each to begin) thinking of a few things that we are blessed to have. It could be matters related to health, or family, or our job, etc, and the more specific the better. The point is to state it to yourself and say “alhamdulilah” for it. Acknowledge that you have been given a gift from God and that He alone has bestowed it upon you. This in itself is an act of worship. It is the ultimate statement of a believer to thank the source of their grace and bounty. God says in the Quran, “if you are thankful, I will give more.” (Quran 14:7). From this perspective, Islam is a path of gratitude and by engaging in this exercise daily you will truly feel overwhelmed by the blessings you have. It will turn you into an optimist and a person who is content with themselves and what they have.
(4) Remembering the Destroyer of Pleasures
The Prophet said, “make frequent remembrance of the destroyer of pleasures” (Tirmidhi) a phrase he used frequently for death. Many of the salaf took this concept so seriously that they would literately dig their own graves and sit in them daily for various lengths of time contemplating their own mortality and the life to come. Sometimes people hear this and think this is morbid. However, to be honest this is the wisest and most liberating practice of all time. Take for example how Steve Jobs once referred to the motivating power of reflecting on his own mortality. He did not let the thought that he would die stop him from accomplishing great things. Rather, he used that to trim out unnecessary projects and helped him focus on what was important and necessary. In the pre-Islamic ancient world, Stoic philosophers helped popularize the Latin phrase momento mori — literally “remember you will die.” Edward Gibbons wrote in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire how the various Caesars would have people walk behind them to remind them that “you are only mortal and will die.” I use these examples to underscore that contemplation of death is supposed to be a catalyst to live, since you only have one chance at it. Great people throughout history who led fulfilled lives understood this and therefore used this practice to keep them grounded.
Think of the contemplation of death coupled with another hadith of the Prophet, “If the Final Hour is upon you and in your hand is a seed, plant it.” (Ahmad). Why on earth would you plant something if life itself is about to end? The answer is because it’s the right thing to do. Focusing on your own mortality reminds you that you have limited time to do the right thing, so don’t waste your days, don’t waste the many moments you have been given worrying about what others think, or what might or might not come. Rather, live each moment to its fullest, be grateful for it, and make a difference.
The way I make this a practice is to pray a daily absence funeral prayer (janāza prayer) before I sleep. I ask forgiveness for all those who died but had no one to pray over them (hence it being an absent funeral prayer), then in the last motion of prayer I contemplate my own death and how this surely will come. I imagine myself shrouded in the grave with only my actions and decisions to accompany me. Nothing will wake you up and shake you to your core like this! It puts your life in clear focus, and, like the other two recommendations above, helps cut out unnecessary concern and wasted time.
As I said in the beginning, this is a roadmap to ensure you can master your time, make the most of your days, and emerge from this quarantine victorious over your fate. It’s not going to be easy, but nothing worth having in life is. Take the time to think about how you can implement these things in your life and execute. God bless!