In university and throughout my 20s, my drive to improve in faith, taqwa, ibadah and ilm was fueled by raw ambition for the hereafter and Allah’s company. That zeal & energy took me abroad to study and battle through countless difficulties in my quest to become a better Muslim. But at the age of around 29-30 I felt a sudden change in myself that caught me off guard.
Although my goals and aspirations with regards to the hereafter did not change, I felt a sudden loss of inner urgency. I had always associated my zeal and deep urgency to do acts of worship as a sign of strong faith, so this change in my inner self left me in a deep and prolonged spiritual crisis. To make things worse, this occurred simultaneously to other major changes in where I was living and how many kids I had. I thought that something had gone terribly wrong. Perhaps there was a deep, cancerous sin affecting my heart or a corruption in my knowledge that had begun to affect my faith? I even thought that my mental health issues were a factor, but as I sought treatment for them and my symptoms improved, nothing in my inner zeal seemed to change.
It was a confusing time. I was doing a lot of research in Islamic theology so my certainty in Islam being true had never been stronger. I was teaching Islamic Studies full time. I had a lot to be thankful for. For around 3 years after, I tried many different strategies. I tried fasting more, reading more Qur’an, trying to have more khushu, doing more istighfar etc. Although they were fulfilling, they did not seem to erase this gnawing feeling in my self that my zeal for the hereafter was spiralling away into oblivion. Family and work began to occupy more of my time, and I began to feel a slight sense of despair – no doubt from Shaytan – that perhaps I was destined for hypocrisy and turning away from Islam like so many other Muslims did in their middle age.
But the Covid lockdown was a blessing. Just before it I had embarked on a research and writing project, but would often work at Starbucks, where I found myself most productive. When the lockdown occurred, all my productivity seemed to shut down. I began to realize that this loss of ambition and zeal was not just affecting my faith, it was affecting my intended proclivities for the dunya as well. I no longer felt driven to be more productive except out of guilt or the understanding that it was not a positive thing to be an existentialist with no purpose.
I have always been a fan of psychology, so I sensed that maybe something else was going on that was not connected to my faith. I started looking up podcasts, lectures, articles, and books on psychological development in middle age and it slowly dawned on me what had changed.
The Age of Youthful Zeal
I had read Imam al-Haddad’s Lives of Man a long time ago, but when I returned to it I realized that I needed much more detail. A few months ago, I stumbled across this podcast, and read the author’s book (Check out this link too and if you’re a male, the rest of the website). Although he offered little in the way of solutions, I realized I was on the right track. Something was different about the psychological self in the 30s that required an approach beyond raw zeal and urgency. I spoke to my Muslim psychiatrist who thankfully takes a very keen interest in the traditional Islamic sciences and Sufism and he offered his own profound insight into the issue. I also read (or rather listened to) this book, and I began to understand what approach was needed to understand faith and its role in my life during my 30s (and beyond). I met up with friends of the same age this past summer who seemed to allude to a similar experience of change.
In our late teens and 20s we are driven by a psychological impulse to meet or exceed the standards set by those around us. Those standards are often set by our parents, our teachers, our friends, our communities, and popular social trends. We usually don’t understand our own selves well enough to set our own standards. At this age we are seeking to form our personal identity and make sense of our own place in the world, and our boundless energy at this age gives us fuel to fulfill this quest.
For many ‘religious’ Muslims in their 20s, including myself, part of this quest is our journey to the Creator (whether in this life through building a relationship with Him, or in the next by achieving everlasting success with our deeds). But we often make the mistake of confusing our youthful zeal & energy and the journey of self-recognition and coming-into-being in our 20s with true faith. When that zeal begins to deteriorate, we may feel that it is our Iman that is being affected. But that is not necessarily true.
What is true Iman (faith)? It is as described by our scholars. It is our conviction in Allah, His Prophet ﷺ, and Islam and our actions based upon our conviction. It is not raw energy, ambition, and the feeling of ‘soaring’ towards Allah. It is not a feeling or khushu either. This is true regardless of which interpretation you choose from the Sunni ikhtilaf on the nature of faith.
Middle Age and True Faith
By our late 20s we start to fill out our sense of self. We finally come to terms with who we are and our place in this world. Although some can get stuck in this phase of trying to meet the standards of others, never growing up and understanding they have changed in our 30s. They might persist that way into their 40s or even until retirement. We may be so busy in trying to maintain the attitude of our 20s that we never fully realized that our psychological and spiritual needs changed a long time ago. This happens often when we are busy with our careers or family.
As for faith in middle-age, this is where we come to terms with Allah ﷻ in correspondence to our levels of conviction and efforts. This can be for better or for worse. The zeal of youth dies off and the reality of true Iman (faith) sets in. Here we are faced with the reality of how strong our convictions are, and which actions we can or should perform consistently rather than sporadically.
In our 30s we move on from finding and discovering our own selves with regards to the standards set by those around us, to becoming who we want to be based on what we have spent our 20s learning about. You can still have lofty goals and ambitions, but they need to be more realistic, and they need to habit-forming. There needs to be an active effort to define and construct oneself based on knowledge and daily routine rather than relying on the jet-propulsion of raw ambition. This is not just the case for our faith and taqwa, but for our entire sense of self, of which our Islam and the reality of Allah & His Messenger ﷺ are a part of. My psychiatrist who I mentioned earlier said that the 30s are the ‘age of moderation’, as opposed to the age of ‘ambition’ in the teens or the age of ‘differentiating truth and falsehood in the world’ in the 20s. I have tried to explain this middle-aged psychological development the best I can here. But if you still do not get it, try the links I’ve mentioned above.
How do we build a plan for maintaining faith based on this new realization? Firstly, if we have not achieved certainty and strength in our conviction and beliefs this might be the last chance to do it (unless Allah wills otherwise of course). If you have not attained this yet, you need to study systematically with a teacher and address as many lingering doubts as you need to. You will not see the need to define yourself according to Islam and to actively build the habit of being consistent in your actions if you are not convinced of the truth of Islam. You also need to catch up with your understanding of fiqh and ensure that your actions are being performed correctly and that sins are not bringing you down without you knowing. This knowledge can be attained gradually and does not have to be intensive. It is about what you need, not about becoming a scholar or super-Muslim.
Secondly, we need practical spiritual guidance. Feel-good spiritual lectures and one-time boosts may still be helpful, but long-term practical guidance is the most important. For many people this requires mentorship, for others who have more knowledge it can come from books on tasawwuf or tazkiyyah. Prioritization is of critical importance, ensuring that our obligations and 5 prayers are first on the list and form the basis of our spiritual habits. Obligations are not just the 5 pillars, but are spread out among other things too, like having mercy and love in our hearts towards our fellow believers, seeking knowledge, doing tawbah, making up missed actions, and avoiding sins. Avoiding sins by itself may require a strategical approach as opposed to the brute force approach of zealous youth. Mentorship can be key especially of older scholars and pious people, as we can learn from their mistakes and tips.
For example, the role of prioritizing the praying of Fajr in its time or ensuring we pray our Sunnahs for correcting our prayers is not found in any verse or hadith and might not be recognized unless we speak to someone who has had that experience – or read their book(s). We might have once relied purely on our passion for Fajr to wake us up even after a short night’s sleep.
The Shamail i.e. the characteristics of the Prophet ﷺ become more important than ever before, as they form a strong theological basis for our defining what kind of people we want to be & give us clues on how to build a balanced character & personality that is able to maintain and nurture faith while still performing ‘practical’ functions in family and society. The Sirah becomes critical to learn and reflect on for a similar reason.
Besides knowledge for conviction or correcting actions, practical spirituality and perfecting Muslim personality & character, there is also the issue of health. I have found that exercise and good nutrition are crucial for having the energy to perform obligations and avoid sins. For men, our testosterone begins to decline after our 20s, and prolonged inactivity can result in less mitochondria in our cells and weaker muscles. Bad food can make us feel sluggish and heavy. All of that can sap us of much needed energy to wrestle ourselves out of bed for Fajr, pray more Sunnahs, make time for Islamic knowledge together with work and family, fast more often and be attentive when reading Qur’an etc.
I am also finding the importance of having halal goals to work towards at this age. These goals are not the dramatic, exciting, and fiery goals of our youth. Rather they are practical goals that are important to our passions and feelings of self-worth and can be broken up to form daily or weekly habits, routines, and mini goals. These give us a feeling of accomplishment and fulfillment which can help us get out of monotony of ‘dry’ routines set by our circumstances or responsibilities.
Lastly, is the importance of balance in all of this. The goal is to get to Jannah, avoid Jahannam and earn the love of Allah, and there is no point in being imbalanced as it will cause us to burn ourselves out or violate the rights of others. I was pleasantly surprised when perusing classical books of tasawwuf to find sections on managing time. At this age many of us will have work, family, kids, and parents to look after. The more responsibilities you have, the more strategic you must be in your prioritization of your duties towards Allah, your Islamic learning, your extra acts of worship etc. If you have young children, having a regular routine of the night prayer might be too difficult. If you are not financially secure, now might be the wrong time to want to become a scholar. On the other hand, there should be red lines and non-negotiables you should set for yourself during more burdensome circumstances. These are usually obligations and important recommended actions such as the five daily prayers and a daily wird of either seeking knowledge or dhikr. For the seeker of knowledge, this should include reading and research.
I am no longer surprised when I see people either leaving Islam or becoming dramatically less ‘practicing’ at this age. It is a defining moment in our lives. This has been echoed by many of our scholars of tasawwuf and other subjects. If we can maintain and continue to strengthen our faith through our 30s and 40s that is usually a good sign. But we must be warned. It is still possible for our faith to fall apart at this age, although the reasons for it happening in our 30s may be different than those in our 20s.
This is the understanding that I have arrived at. I am also working towards acting upon this renewed understanding myself, but I wanted to share what I had so that perhaps it may benefit others, or others may benefit me with their advice & suggestions. May Allah bless us with strength of faith and taqwa in our later life as He blessed us with it in the former half.