Breaking the habit – Viewing habits and addictions through an Islamic lens


Jazib Mehmood, Student, Jamia Ahmadiyya Ghana

As lockdowns are being reinstated in many countries, compulsive and bad habits get the chance to flourish. Habits are what make us or break us. It is essential that we have control over them. When we overload our brains with pleasure by doing seemingly harmless things, like watching a movie, eating something sugary or scrolling through social media, we subconsciously tell our brains that this is the standard of pleasure it should expect now. If done excessively, they can quickly become habits and these have consequences.

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Over time, the brain grows tolerant of the pleasures it receives and requires more dopamine. Addictions such as binge-watching and binge-eating are born. It starts off as two episodes of a television series in a row, but soon, a series is finished within a week. Anything less pleasurable is classified as boring or uninteresting to accommodate the higher levels of dopamine.

Hazrat Khalifatul Masih IVrh has spoken of this in Islam’s Response to Contemporary Issues when describing today’s society and its mindless pursuit of pleasure:

“The pursuit of pleasure in every sphere of life requires change and novelty to provide a greater kick. Things, which used to satisfy in the past, no longer do now. Smoking and traditional intoxicants fail to provide the kick, which the progressively restless society requires. Drugs of all sorts begin to appear and no measure whatsoever taken to suppress the menacing trend of drug-addiction is enough. Yet, the drug addict still requires a greater kick. So a stronger, more addictive and lethal drug like crack is invented.” (Islam’s Response to Contemporary Issues, pp. 72-73)

It can get to a point where it becomes a life purpose to satiate desires and without it, life becomes empty and meaningless. Huzoorrh says:

“To find time for light entertainment is neither bad nor prohibited in Islam. But … if, instead of providing a genuine outlet for the stresses of life, entertainment becomes an objective in itself, it would be condemned as laghw (vain and wasteful) in the Quranic terminology. When entertainment begins to interfere in the daily pursuits of life or takes a toll upon one’s time, which could be better spent otherwise, it too would be classified as vain…” (Islam’s Response to Contemporary Issues, p. 111)

In the Holy Quran, believers are admonished to shun all that which is vain (Surah al-Mu‘minun, Ch.23: V.4). This is one reason why the youth of today are drifting away from the almost sacred habit of reading. Vanity disguised as entertainment is quickly turning into (if it already hasn’t) a serious problem. This also leads to an aversion to more important matters.

Again, it is one reason for the growing antipathy towards religion. The Promised Messiahas has provided the cure for such antipathies. Huzooras says:

“What could be more destructive in this world than feeling an aversion or distaste in listening to God’s teachings? What is the cure to such feelings? The cure is to seek forgiveness from Allah and to turn towards God, and pray for one’s sins to be forgiven, and then to continue in this without fail. If this remedy is employed, I can say with surety that their displeasure will turn into a pleasure and their distaste will turn into a liking. Then, the same soul that would flee from God’s presence and was averse to listening to God’s teachings, will race towards Him in the likeness of a rolling ball.” (Malfuzat [English Translation], Vol. 2, p. 118)

If one stops the excessive use of artificial stimulators, the brain is forced to reduce its standards of pleasure, hence the withdrawal symptoms addicts experience. The Promised Messiahas has stated that it is possible to leave addictive habits, albeit with withdrawal symptoms. Huzooras says:

“A person can leave a [bad] habit provided that they have faith. And there are many people in the world who have left their [bad] habits completely. It has been observed that some people who had been drinking alcohol over a long period left [this bad habit] without a second thought in their old age, even though leaving a habit [at that age] is akin to becoming sick. After a little sickness, they get better as well.” (Malfuzat, Vol. 5, p. 159)

Hazrat Khalifatul Masih Vaa has also stated that even if habits become concrete and really humiliate a person, reformation – though difficult – is still possible. Huzooraa said that where there is faith, advice helps. Allah the Almighty says that admonish the believers, for it is beneficial for them. (Friday Sermon, 20 December 2013)

In the Holy Quran, Allah the Almighty has pointed to a beautiful principle to remove bad habits and help addicts. Allah says:

إِنَّ الْحَسَنَاتِ يُذْهِبْنَ السَّيِّئَاتِ

“Surely good works drive away the evil ones.” (Surah Hud, Ch.11: V.115)

Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra has explained that this verse means that if a person desires to reform himself and get rid of an evil habit, he should begin to practise a corresponding virtue. In this way, he will soon get rid of his evil habit. (Tafsir-e-Kabir, Vol. 3, p. 268)

It is nothing short of miraculous that in this short phrase of the Holy Quran, Allah the Almighty has given Muslims the key to overcoming bad habits and addictive behaviours centuries before years of research amounted to the same conclusion.

Now, science has proven that it is next to impossible to leave a bad habit by trying to simply stop doing it. Until you find why you crave it, unless there is a replacement behaviour, it just doesn’t work. In his book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg has drawn an analogy between a habit and a path carved by running water. Even if the water stops flowing for a while, if it ever passes there again, it will pass through the already carved path. This holds through years after we leave a bad habit. Unless our brain creates new pathways to overcome old habits, they cannot be removed. The age-old maxim, no matter how clichéd, still rings true – old habits die hard.

While addictions have some effect on our brains, Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra has, from the same verse, described that the more virtue we practise, the more secure we will become from the consequences of our bad deeds. Where Allah has set in place consequences of bad deeds, He has also created good results of our virtues. But the condition is that we should not become agitated, nor should we give up. (Tafsir-e-Kabir, Vol. 3, p. 268)

Take exercise, for example. In The Power of Habit, Duhigg says that “when people start habitually exercising, even as infrequently as once a week, they start changing other, unrelated patterns in their lives, often unknowingly. Typically, people who exercise start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed.”

Here is sufficient proof that the Quran correctly prescribed good habits to counter bad ones. The Quran has also stated that prayer restrains one from indecency and manifest evil (Surah al-Ankabut, Ch.29: V.46).

Accordingly, the Promised Messiahas has also prescribed the Islamic prayer as a cure to addictive pleasures. Huzooras says:

“That prayer which has a spirit of truth in it drives away evil … Such a prayer most definitely dispels vice.” (Tafsir Hazrat Masih-e-Maudas, 2015, Vol. 4, p. 389)

Duhigg says that to change a bad habit, we must find what makes us crave it in the first place. Hazrat Ahmadas has spoken of such cravings and advises his community:

“I see that when a drunk and addict does not get pleasure, he keeps on drinking until a kind of intoxication sets in. A sensible and wise person can benefit from this; that he prays persistently and keeps on praying until he derives pleasure. And just as there is a craving in the mind of a drunk, the attaining of which is his only purpose, so should [the sensible person] focus with his mind and all his faculties, on the attainment of pleasure in prayer.” (Ibid, p. 388)

We can find greater and purer pleasure in Allah by changing our source of pleasure from the detrimental to the divine. Allah, in His eternal wisdom, has not ignored man’s need of pleasure. Instead, by putting pleasure in prayer, He has acknowledged that man requires pleasure and draws his attention to this higher pleasure in many places in the Holy Quran.

In his book, Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technologies and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, Adam Alter has reaffirmed the same Islamic principle:

“The key to overcoming addictive behaviours, then, is to replace them with something else.”

In The Power of Habit, Duhigg has also described The Golden Rule of Habit Change: “You can’t extinguish a bad habit, you can only change it.” Alter also says that “distraction works just as well if you’re trying to overcome a behavioural addiction…”

Islam has yet again given us better guidance. This perfect teaching has expected better of us and commanded:

فَإِذَا فَرَغْتَ فَانْصَبْ

“So when you are free, strive hard.” (Surah al-Inshirah, Ch.94: V.8)

The Holy Prophetsa has described a free mind as a home of Satan, so we should not remain idle. Hazrat Khalifatul Masih Vaa recently affirmed this principle as well. Commenting on the aforementioned verse, Huzooraa said:

“A person should engage in pursuits of livelihood and endeavour to be at one with God in other, free moments. Allah the Almighty has clearly stated here that once a person completes their daily business, they should engage in remembering Allah … So Islam in no way encourages idleness.” (Al Hakam, Issue 138, 6 November 2020, p. 9)

Then, Duhigg quotes a senior scientist at the Alcohol Research Group, “There’s something really powerful about groups and shared experiences. People might be sceptical about their ability to change if they’re by themselves, but a group will convince them to suspend disbelief. A community creates belief.”

In the Holy Quran, Allah the Almighty has already stated,

وَ الۡمُؤۡمِنُوۡنَ وَ الۡمُؤۡمِنٰتُ بَعۡضُہُمۡ اَوۡلِیَآءُ بَعۡضٍ ۘ یَاۡمُرُوۡنَ بِالۡمَعۡرُوۡفِ وَ یَنۡہَوۡنَ عَنِ الۡمُنۡکَرِ

“And the believers, men and women, are friends one of another. They enjoin good and forbid evil.” (Surah al-Taubah, Ch.9: V.71)

Huzooraa has similarly advised his Jamaat:

“For the development of the Jamaat, every part of the system, rather every Ahmadi, examining himself, needs to reform himself and needs to become a support for his friends and close [acquaintances] who are suffering from shortcomings so that every individual of the Jamaat becomes one who reaches the highest standards of practical reformation.” (Friday Sermon, 17 January 2014)

Sometimes, however, despite all these measures, some habits or addictions persist. In such cases, Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra has said that some spiritual ailments require a physical doctor. To elaborate, he presented the example of an adulterer. Huzoorra said that in some cases, adultery is not a moral or religious vice, but a mental illness. Some vices are a result of natural weaknesses. So such a person should seek professional help. (Irfan-e-Ilahi, Anwar-ul-Ulum, Vol. 4, p. 364)

There are rehabilitation programmes set up to help people with a wide variety of addictions. Many detox centres target new behavioural addictions like Internet and smartphone addictions. Since time immemorial, the myriad of man’s propensities have been wavering and rearranging. But a great proof of the Holy Quran’s divine origin is that it has not needed changing in the last 1,400 years. It keeps showing us new sides very much with the times. We are left to marvel at Islam when we see how it encompasses everything and leaves nothing out.

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  1. Alhamdulillah. Every time I acquire any knowledge about philosophical or psychological aspects, I tend to explore what Islam has to say about it. And Mashallah what an article it is ! It’s a great combination and comparison between the recent prominent studies/books and how these were already metaphorically mentioned in the Quran/ Hadiths. May Allah bless you with knowledge and wisdom.


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