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Habit and Its Constructive and Destructive Role

The positive and negative aspects of habit play a fundamental role in man's growth and development as well as his corruption and decadence. A study of history can reveal to one that heritage (which in essence consists of collective habits) has been an effective and important factor in determining the destinies of human societies. The spiritual power of steadfastness vis-à-vis adversities, hardships and calamities, a natural resistance to the negative aspects of events, and the capacity to overcome their effects, are results of the positive aspects of social heritage.

However, the harms ensuing from the negative aspects of heritage and habit are very extensive and their damage is irremediable. Thus in the same way as heritage plays an important role in making calamities and their negative aspects bearable, it is also a powerful factor from the viewpoint of destroying the positive and beneficial impact of indubitable truths on the human spirit.

A negative heritage and custom becomes an impediment in the way of perception of the real value of things and many principles and laws pertaining to the world of matter and spirit, as well as to the understanding of many beneficial and illuminating ideas. It does not allow man to perceive facts with a clear vision and to know their significance. In order to understand this matter, it is not necessary to cite the history of some of the subtle and profound problems of science. The majority of nature's most significant and wonderful phenomena have remained unknown for centuries on account of the habitual familiarity with the apparent character of the laws of nature. It has happened very often that a moment of reflection and attention opposed to the course of habit has been immensely rewarding in opening the path of progress and advancement for man.

It is possible that even knowledge may encounter a spiritual impediment and barrier and lose its value, becoming thereby equal to nescience form the viewpoint of effectiveness. That is because negative habit causes a distortion in character and becomes an impediment in the way of the fruitfulness of knowledge on the level of action. There are many learned persons who are so thoroughly entangled in the mysterious tentacles of habit that are rendered incapable in life of implementing their knowledge and understanding either in their character and conduct or for the betterment of others. They somehow lack sufficient power to stop a chain of events which they know for certain to be harmful and detrimental. This blindness and neglect is a result of intellectual habit which results in a resistance to reason and knowledge and stunts man's spiritual growth.

Many are specialists among physicians who possess a remarkable degree of specialised knowledge but whose accumulated knowledge fails to make any spiritual contribution and, on the level of action, is ineffective in improving their conduct. In the view of Islam, merit is not confined to knowledge. Rather knowledge is a means to understanding and one of the essential means of spiritual growth, for this passive virtue, except for introducing difference in the levels of understanding, is by itself incapable of performing an active and effective spiritual function.

The Qur'an criticises the learned who are devoid of character in these words:

O you who believe, wherefore do you say what you do not? Very hateful is it to God, that you say what you do not (61:2-3)

The emphasis of Islam on thought, intellection and contemplation in all situations, reveals the importance of thinking in avoiding the possible dangers of negative habits and in building up the power of resistance against vicious habits and opposition to them. Thought and ideation directed against the force of any kind of habit is a fruitful activity and struggle that broadens one's vision and is an important factor that strengthens will power.

The various kinds of deviations are actually a result of the failure to think soundly and logically. Basically, it is due to negligence and the absence of carefulness in thinking that many people deviate from the highway of guidance to take to deviant paths. From this we realise why Islam has singled out thinking and contemplation as the highest level of worship, preferring an hour of genuine thinking to seventy years of worship.

That is because this kind of thinking is basically responsible for the eradication of ignorance and nescience. It removes the veils that conceal truth and reality from the human spirit and gives depth and firmness to faith, and thereby does not leave any room for heresies, wrong customs and negative influences that may enter the core of man's being.

When man arrives at a veritable fact and truth as a result of thought and contemplation, he acquires a power of will that is the result of genuine thought and not something based on baseless fancies. This strengthened will enable him to control his own behaviour and conduct.

Thinking transforms inactive reason into a reason that is active with the coming to life of effective ideas and notions which can prove to be very potent.

Good and evil moral traits take roots in man's inner being as a result of repetition and exercise. Although they are acquired characteristics, their influence is as powerful and far-reaching as that of natural and innate qualities. When formed by habit into a stable quality and trait, working like instinct they induce inner reflexes that powerfully direct man's conduct.

Imam Hasan al-'Askari, the Eleventh Imam, may peace be upon him, said:

One's abandoning of a habit is something like a miracle. 17

Munn, in his work Psychology, writes:

In an earlier discussion we referred to the fact that some motives developed in relation to physiological needs appear to function without such a linkage in adult life. To quote Allport again, the bond that remains in adult life is "historical, not functional." This concept has also been applied by Allport and others to the persistence of habits even though the motives which originally led to their acquisition are no longer operative. It appears, at times, that habits have themselves acquired the status of drives. Some possible examples of functional autonomy are persistence of sexual behaviour after the menopause, when estrogens are no longer present, persistence of a vocational activity after the individual has made his fortune and achieved distinction, and living to eat instead of merely eating to live.

In most instances of apparent functional autonomy there is a possibility that new motives have supplanted the original and that the habit in question is not, in reality, operating without extraneous motivation ....

In cases of functional autonomy... the habit is freed from at least its original motivation. Force of habit, on the other hand, is persistence of a particular way of satisfying a given motive. For example, if one has regularly satisfied the hunger drive by eating foods prepared in a certain way, there is often resistance to eating foods prepared in some other way.

In other words, habit forces us "into a rut." This phenomenon is often referred to as "force of habit", as though habits once formed act somewhat as drives, impelling us to continue the accustomed ways instead of taking up new ways of satisfying our motives.

James may have exaggerated somewhat the permanency of our habitual modes of behaviour, for people often do change their prejudices and, during war or other emergencies, their ways of living. However, there is usually a very strong resistance to change. Anyone who wishes to change the behaviour of an adult must take into consideration this tendency to resist well-formed habits, even when these have become outmoded or dangerous. 18


17. Al-Majlisi, Biharal-anwar, vol. 17, p. 217.

18. Munn, Norman Leslie, Psychology: The Fundamentals of Human Ad justment.

Adapted from: "Ethics and Spiritual Growth" by: "Sayyid Mujtaba Musawi Lari"

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