1. Have a workout plan
Someone who enters the gym without a plan and randomly goes to each machine, watches various people who each have their various goals and tries to imitate them without any objective, will not achieve substantial gains in anything.
But someone who decides his/her goal is aerobic fitness, or muscular size, or muscular toning, or speed, will be able to focus his/her workout on specific areas and grow in those areas. The same applies to spiritual growth. A person cannot simply say: “I want to be a better Muslim,” and then aimlessly go for it. It is best to say: “I need to improve my prayers”, “I need to improve my relationship with Qur’an”, “I need to grow in knowledge of Sunnah”, “I need to correct my anger problems”, etc. Then, using the guidance of the Qur’an, Sunnah, and knowledgeable advisors, one can do exercises, read, do dhikr (daily remembrances), and help him/her -self gain progress in the target area.
2. Success comes with leaving harmful foods, and eating healthy ones
Anyone who has an exercise plan will tell you that eating foods filled with high transfats, cholosterol, saturated fats, high amounts of sugar, and insane amounts of sodium will constantly be an adversary to exercise. You can put all this effort into working out and get nowhere.
Someone who seeks spiritual progress cannot do so without making an effort to abstain from sins. The dhikr, tilaawah (reciting Quran), extra prayers, and fasting will all help the soul grow and purify, but unless one makes an effort to give up sins, one will find growth to be sluggish at best and non-existent, even regressive, at worst. If we want to grow, we have to give up what is bad for us, or at least make an effort.
3. Stretch and warm-up before you workout
Warming up helps to prepare the body for the strains of working out, be it lifting or running. Though you can workout without it, the workout quality is much better if you can get the blood flowing and prepare yourself mentally and physically for the task at hand.
When we are about to begin prayers, recitation, dhikr, or anything else, it is best to begin with strengthening one’s niyyah (intention), and if doing dhikr or tilaawah, to begin by praising Allah and sending salawaat (blessings) upon the Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him). This is the spiritual equivilent of warming up. If making du`a’ (supplication), it is best to also seek forgiveness after sending salawaat upon the Prophet ﷺ as it will clear the barrier of sins between your du`a’ and acceptance by Allah insha’Allah (God willing).
4. Drink lots of water
You need to keep yourself hydrated while you workout. This one I am including in the same way—really, have some water. Don’t let physical discomfort cause you to become lazy so that you don’t read as much Qur’an or pray as much as you could because your room is too hot, too cold, not enough water, etc. Get rid of any distractions, set your thermostat, and leave no excuses to not do what you’ve set out to do.
5. Do not overtrain
Overtraining is terrible for the muscles because, according to most experts, muscles grow through microtears which develop when they are placed under extreme stress. The body then heals these tears during the recovery period by overcompensating (similar to scar tissue), causing the muscle to come back a little stronger than before.
When we overtrain, we push the muscle to a point of damage where it is difficult for it to come back with added strength; or we keep training during the recovery period, never giving it the chance to recover.
Many of us become over enthusiastic about spiritual growth, assigning to ourselves daily regimens of 1 hour of Qur’an, 1 hour of morning dhikr, 1 hour of evening dhikr, all the nawaafil (non-obligatory prayers), in addition to memorization throughout the day, and reading and attending lectures. When we are starting from nothing, this is EXTRMELY destructive, as we will not be able to sustain more than a few days before giving up completely.
Tadarruj—gradualism—is the best way. Slowly adding acts of worship and increasing them in practical manners, a few minutes a day or a half hour a day is the best way to grow in our dedication. Focus on the faraaid (obligatory acts) first, getting your five prayers in, and slowly make the effort to add other things in that you CAN SUSTAIN over the long run insha’Allah.
6. Workout with a partner(s)
Most of us are simply unable to consistently workout without a workout partner who can keep us motivated, keep us on point, and remind us of our goals.
Having a friend, a group of friends, a jama`ah (group) of fellow seekers, Islamic workers, or fellow classmates/student of knowledge—whose goal is to become better Muslims, who are sincere in their brotherhood/sisterhood with you and have good character—are crucial to maintaining your progress.
Suhba—companionship—was the key to the greatness of the Companions of the Prophet—and it is by this characteristic that they are named! So companionship with good people who can encourage you on your path, listen to your memorization, and hold you accountable, even join you for a night of late night prayer and reflection together can be a great asset. Even if you do not wish to share so much about your worship, being in the company of good people who inspire you can be sufficient to help you grow.
7. The Professionals have Coaches, the Olympians have Teams of Coaches
If you look at professional athletes, you will see that they are not on their own. Their training and ability is due partly to the watchful eye and guidance of their coaches. These coaches are typically experienced athletes themselves, with years of experience in practicing, watching, teaching, and training. No great athlete has reached the heights of glory without a coach. And as for Olympians, you will see them backed by entire coaching staffs, each supplementing the team’s progress in one way or another.
In the same way, it is good to have a scholar, and best to have a company of scholars you can go to for help, advice, knowledge and guidance. The scholars are the heirs of the Prophet ﷺ, and they can best provide you with guidance and help when you falter.
Almost every athlete knows that there is usually someone better in the world (perhaps with a few exceptions), and that their coach isn’t the only one whose opinions are correct. They know this because in the heat of competition, they know that other coaches have produced students that are just as good as they are.
They know that they are not in and of themselves genetically predisposed to victory without training and effort.
Allah (swt) tells us to “Hasten/race with one another in the doing of Good.” And it is in this that we differ from athletes. Athletes compete with one another for the sake of personal gain, glory, competition, thrill, personal accomplishment, or to be proud. We hasten with one another for the sake of God and God alone. But we must also remember these two points:
First, that our teacher, our sheikh, our maulana is not the only one who is always correct and we must not fight with others trying to prove his greatness as faqih ul asr or ustaadh ul asaatidha (the Teacher of teachers). Especially if we have not been exposed to all the fuqahaa (scholars), how can we make that judgement? But we must always hold a good opinion of our teachers, overlook their faults, and take benefit from them without turning them into infallible beings whose correctness we will strive to prove at every turn. We must not disrespect other teachers, but take benefit from everyone, and love all the `ulama (scholars)—but do hold your own teacher in high respect and esteem, for it is through them that Allah (swt) is blessing you with knowledge.
Imam Malik said: “Every person but the one in this grave (motioning towards the Prophet’s resting place), take some, and leave some.”
Second, we must remember that spiritual progress is not about us, or about showing off or winning medals. We will get to show off in Jannah, and our medals (if we earn them inshAllah) will be cups of silver and clothes of silk and the company of the righteous.
Every person who works out can tell you that there is no progress without consistency. One must workout on a consistent schedule in order to gain results. Consistency is the key to gains. In the same way, a person must perform acts of worship and acts to gain nearness to Allah (swt) and better one’s character with consistency.
“Allah loves the consistent action, even if it is small.” This was said by the Prophet ﷺ. So even if the act is 15 minutes of reading a day, or a half hour of attending an Islamic lecture each week. One hour a week of visiting the sick. Two hours a week of cleaning the masjid. 10 minutes a day of reading Qur’an. Whatever you can do—do it consistently and guard it.
The person who carries $20,000 in cash on the street in his chest coat pocket will guard it as if he was guarding his very life. His hand would be constantly on his pocket, on his chest, assuring himself it is there. He will walk with caution, he will be aware of anyone who comes close to him, scrutinizing every person he sees. We must be like this with our iman (faith) and with our acts of worship. They are more precious than any money and we must be consistent with them by guarding them and protecting them. If this means saying no to a hangout once a week, or saying no to your friends playing basketball, or just saying you’ll be late—that’s what you have to do.
Insha’Allah if any brothers have any more tips on this theme, please feel free to share.