“O you who have faith! Why do you say what you do not do? Indeed it is very despicable in the sight of God when you say that which you do not do.”
The above quoted passage, interestingly enough, is actually a verse of the Noble Qur’an. Imagine that! In a book which has been sent as a code of guidance and which some think, raises the believers to the level of being “untouchables” and “the chosen ones of God” – rather than incessantly heaping praise on the believers, God takes the time to ‘rebuke’ those who claim to follow His way when they are caught with their “hand in the cookie jar”!
One of the human conditions which this Divinely gifted Book shares with us is that of procrastination. What the specialists of today define as a behavior which is “characterized by deferment of actions or tasks to a later time”, psychologists often cite procrastination as a mechanism for coping with the anxiety associated with starting or completing any task or decision. Researchers in psychology have three criteria they use to categorize procrastination and state that for a behavior to be classified as procrastination, it must be: counterproductive, needless, and delaying.
So, how does this discussion fit into the “Islamic” environment – one of our goals in this article?
To begin with, in the anthology of sayings, discourses and letters of Imam Ali, peace be upon him compiled by Sayyid al-Radhi known as Nahjul Balagha, there is a description of the Noble Prophet of Islam in which he is referred to as, “A doctor, who would travel around with his medicine.” In essence, the Messenger of God was a doctor who made house calls! He did not wait for the sick to come to him – rather, he was proactive in looking for the maladies which plagued the individual and society and sought to cure them with his spiritual medication – the Qur’an.
The Prophet of Islam, a man who is widely misunderstood and unknown by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, did not only teach the ways of spiritual closeness to God through prayers, fasting, pilgrimage, charity, and other acts of ‘worship’. Rather, his message also tackled social illnesses such as racism, class distinction, economic disparity and the like. If one was to study his teachings with an open mind and devoid of any preconceived notions, they would realize that statements such as “(The Prophet) Muhammad brought nothing new or good to society” is the furthest from the truth!
Within the realm of the Prophetic teachings, which are inspired by the Quran, is the lesser known area in which the Noble Messenger spoke about various psychological conditions. In one such tradition which we want to focus upon, the Prophet has been quoted as saying, “I advise you to refrain from procrastination since you need to live for today and not for tomorrow; and if there is a tomorrow (for you), then live for tomorrow as you live for today (live for the day) and if there is no tomorrow (you were to die), then at least you would not regret the procrastination which you showed today.”
While it is normal for people to procrastinate to some degree, it becomes a problem when it impedes normal functioning.
There are two main causes of procrastination:
- Psychological: Caused by anxiety, low sense of self-worth and a self-defeating mentality, those who are “dreamers and wishers” fall into this category. While it is not “wrong” to “wish” for a better future, Islam also draws a solid line between “attainable goals” and “impossible to reach desires” and countless traditions prohibit us from this trait.
If we know we can never afford that luxury car or 10,000 sq. ft mansion, then we need to align our goals with what is practical. Rather than go ‘window shopping’ when we rightfully know that we cannot and will never be able to afford those expensive electronic gadgets behind the glass, the large diamond ring or exquisite watch, we should spend our time and energy in better areas and in trying to achieve what is within our reach.
- Physiological: Damage or low activity in the part of the brain can also reduce a person’s abilities – resulting in procrastination. This area is out of the realm of things which we can personally do – rather, we need to seek professional assistance and help for physiological issues.
There are two main types of people who procrastinate:
- The Relaxed Type: People who fall into this category view their responsibilities negatively and avoid them by engaging in other tasks – such as students who abandon schoolwork but not their social lives; or those who are overwhelmed at work and leave the office for a round of golf – “hoping” that their work will mysteriously be done when they get back to their desk.
- Tense-Afraid Type: Those who feel overwhelmed with the pressures on them, are unrealistic about the time they have at their disposal and are uncertain about goals. These people will procrastinate and then find themselves in a position in which they fear that they will not be able to complete something so keep delaying it.
The Islamic traditions are replete with sayings from the Infallibles in this regard. Consider the following words of wisdom taken from the upcoming publication, “Fundamentals of Islamic Management”:
- “Ensure that you perform the tasks of the day on the day which they come to you (and do not delay them until the next day) since every day, you will have a sufficient amount of things to perform for that day.”
- “Know that if you indulge in the minor responsibilities, then you will be prevented from performing the important tasks; similarly, if you only perform the important tasks, then you will forget about the minor duties and due to this, these (small things) will end up turning into major issues. Therefore, begin with focusing on the important responsibilities, however do not forget to keep your attention on the smaller issues. Delegate the lesser tasks to people who will be able to execute them for you.”
The trait of procrastination can be played out on two different spheres – ones’ interaction within the temporal world and in the spiritual realms.
Consider the person who sits at his desk from 9 to 5 and is constantly preoccupied with work. If he or she begins to feel overwhelmed with the amount of work being given to him, they might begin to “tune out” and delay the work – putting it off until ‘later’; during the delay, even more work would be given which would then be added to the pile of work already pending making the person even more stressed out, and this cycle continues. As can be seen, the initial act of procrastination leads to major problems in the temporal realm.
However, procrastination can also take place in the realm of worship and the path of spiritual progression towards God. Keeping in mind the example of the paper pusher, imagine if a servant of God was to have that same trait of procrastination permeate his spiritual space. The believer may begin to delay acts of worship due to other “important things” coming up in his life, to the point that the specific act of worship is performed out of its time zone or worse, not performed at all! The person who is a procrastinator in the temporal world may begin to treat his worship in the same way and just as he puts off his daily responsibilities at the office, he may have days, weeks or months of missed prayers which would although weigh heavily upon his heart, however since he is so habituated to the act of procrastination, rather than start making them up, he would make the excuse that, “I have so many missed prayers, how will I ever pay God back for all of them? He is the Oft-Forgiving, All-Merciful and He will forgive me!” Or he may and try and justify the delay in their performance by saying, “The Month of Ramadhan is coming and I’ll be in the spiritual mood to make up the missed prayers at that time, plus on the Night of al-Qadr, I’ll be staying awake for the all-night vigil and will pray some of the Salaat at that time.” However, who knows if we will live long enough to make up the missed prayers in the Month of Ramadhan or even tomorrow or even in the next 60 minutes?
Procrastination also has serious ramifications in terms of one’s material comfort when it takes place in relation to the Hajj pilgrimage. The scholars of Islam have ruled that when a person develops the financial ability and has the physical strength to make the journey for the Hajj, that this act becomes obligatory in that actual year. If one procrastinates and makes excuses such as the fact that he ‘doesn’t want to take time off of work’, or ‘doesn’t like to be in large gatherings’ or that ‘his will miss his/her spouse’ or other such unjustifiable excuses, then he has committed a sin but more than that, if he loses either the financial ability or the physical strength to make the journey, he is still not absolved of fulfilling that rite and must, by any means necessary, ensure that it is either performed directly or through a proxy. Thus, in such a circumstance, procrastination has far-reaching consequences.
In closing, I relate a bumper sticker I remember seeing some time ago which read, “Why do today that which you can do tomorrow!” Imagine if everyone in life lived by such a grossly-inaccurate motto! Think about the construction worker building a bridge and if he decided to put off important work for ‘tomorrow’; think about if your heart-surgeon procrastinated while you were on the operation table thinking he would stitch you up ‘tomorrow’; how about if the elevator repair man who was working on a 60 story building decided to ‘come back tomorrow’ to replace that much needed part; now think deeply and seriously about the Adhaan – call to prayer – you just heard but were too busy to respond to as you had that all-important contract to close or that luncheon to attend to with an high-profile client and that on the way home from work, you never made it…
 Nahjul Balagha, Letter 53
 Bi¦¡rul Anw¡r, vol. 17, pg. 424