leisure in Islam

Balancing worship with productive work

Salam Alaykum. Do you have any guide for one to be consistent to his routine, of practising night prayers & reading the quran, while still working hard on improving themselves (worldly skills like writing & other craftsmanship)? I find night prayers really pleasuring, but I also want to balance it with my studies and self-improvement like those great scholars. Thank you in advance.

Alaikumassalam wa rahmatullah,

That is a very good question and I spent many years wondering about it. The answer I have settled on is that we should do sufficient extra worship that even the smallest sin becomes unthinkable for us because of the sense of loyalty and closeness to God that develops from it. An hour or so of tahajjud and Quran reading every night seems sufficient to create such a state that lasts throughout the next day. This might be the baseline level of worship that every ambitious believer should aim for. If during the day you engage in anything that you later have to repent from, even something like being slightly rude to someone, then you know that you are not performing the necessary amount of worship.

Once that state of closeness to God has been achieved, it seems to me that we are free to spend the rest of our time doing whatever productive thing we want to do (we can also do things we enjoy doing, such as socialization, playing sports or games, Islam is not against enjoying ourselves as long as it is not taken to an extreme). God wants us to be His stewards on the earth that take care of it for His sake (a steward is someone who takes care of a farm or business in the absence of the owner). God does not want us to spend time in worship when there is other work that needs to be done, for this reason many scholars have severely criticized a minority of Sufis who used to stay at mosques to worship and who refused to work, so that they became beggars who relied on people to provide for them.

Ibn al-Jawzi (d. 1200 CE), a hadith scholar and historian, has an opinion that is similar to what I said. He says that the remembrance of God should not be done to such an amount that it prevents one from getting work done.

There is, however, a dangerous temptation in focusing on work and ignoring worship by telling ourselves that our work is meant for God anyway since we are His servants. Therefore the “sin test” is my criterion for balancing worship and work; we must perform sufficient worship to enable us to spend our days and nights completely free of sins and heedlessness (or as free as is humanly possible), then we can use whatever time remains in the ways we prefer. Of the 24 hours we have, if we spend 8 hours in sleep and one hour in extra worship, then that leaves 15 hours free for whatever we have to do throughout the day and night.

As for the question of whether it is a good thing to go beyond the baseline and for example do two hours of extra worship every day instead of one, I believe this is a matter of personal choice and depends on a person’s circumstances. If we achieve the baseline, then everything else we do can also be considered worship, so there is no clear evidence that spending 30 minutes in prayer is superior to spending 30 minutes in learning something beneficial, helping someone who needs help or doing other useful things.

So our first priority should be achieving the baseline. The amount of extra worship necessary for achieving this may differ from a person to person and from one stage of life to another. I mentioned “one hour” as an example, doing an hour and a half may be better.