Living Simply: Can Too Much Devotion Cause Burnout?

Part Four: Being Extremely Moderate

By Shaykh Farid Dingle

In order to get through life with ease, the early Muslims (salaf) focused on certain key ways of living that would make it spiritually and practically easier and more fruitful. They coined a term for the variegated rules that they lived by, a term that summarized the system of living for the Hereafter. They called it zuhd: detachment from this world. For the purpose of this article series, we have found the best match in terms of meaning to be asceticism. Other terms to describe zuhd are indifference towards worldly matters or simple or minimal living. This is the fourth article from a series of articles and podcasts by SeekersGuidance scholar, Shaykh Farid Dingle.

Introduction to Asceticism (Part One)

Listening More, Talking Less (Part Two)

Entertaining Ourselves to Death (Part Three)

In striving for success in the Hereafter, one should not fall into extremism or imbalance. Rest is part of the journey. This article emphasizes the need for moderation with regards to acts of worship and being diplomatic with oneself in order to avoid burning oneself out and never reaching one’s goal.

With the outpouring of encouragement and recommendations to strive for the Hereafter, it is often easy to go to extremes, particularly if one never gives oneself a break. One can even become obsessive about the halal and the haram, become too strict towards oneself spiritually or demand excessive physical worship from oneself to remain healthy. All of these actions have been shunned by the Qur’an and Sunnah in the clearest of terms.

One of the early Muslims said, “Strive [in worship] so long as you still have an interest in it and leave off striving while you still have a taste for it. The amount of worship that you do on a regular basis should be reasonable.

These words point to a very important concept: the need to have diplomacy with oneself. Personal change takes time and skill, and pushing oneself too hard for too long often results in burnout. One should demand from oneself complete adherence to the Sacred Law while still giving oneself treats, so to speak, and incentives from that which are halal. Allow yourself some time to relax and enjoy things. 

If one tries to become a robot that just does the recommended and obligatory actions alone, one will break. It takes moderation and mercy towards oneself in order to keep going till the end of one’s life. Imam al-Busiri says in his Poem of the Cloak:

Be careful of being full (with food) and of being too hungry: How many a time has extreme hunger lead to worse things than extreme satiation?

What he means is that if you starve yourself too much of halal worldly pleasures, you may end up falling uncontrollably into all sorts of vile and haram things—things that someone who simply kept things in moderation wouldn’t ever be tested with.

Beating oneself up about past sins is also a problem. Indeed, one should be serious and genuine in one’s repentance and take the practical means not to return to them. But there is a big difference between someone who is once bitten and twice shy and someone whose past sins haunt them like shell shock. Allah, at the end of the day, is forgiving and far greater than one’s sins. Being saddened at the thought of one’s past sins is healthy. Being bogged down and depressed is being extreme.

Consistency and Moderation are Key

Thus, consistency is the key, and one cannot be consistent if one goes to extremes; rather, one would just burn oneself out. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), as Waki ibn al-Jarrah tells us, used to prefer works of worship done consistently, even if they were not much. (Ibn Majah) Mansur ibn al-Mutamir (d. 132 AH) said, “They used to prefer that one increase in worship, and they used to dislike that one decrease. They used to encourage consistency.”

Consistency was Encouraged

The practical way to find the golden mean is to start off with certain extra acts of worship, such as reciting ten minutes of Qur’an a day or praying two cycles of prayer in the mid-morning (Duha) or the like and then slowly adding to it, making sure that one can always balance it with one’s work or other commitments. 

One knows that one is going to extremes when performing these acts infringe on one’s obligations, or cannot be realistically done on a regular basis, or has negative effects on one’s health & family relations, or causes one to fret about keeping up with them. Waki quotes a hadith saying, “This religion is mighty, so stride into it with moderation.” 

Do Not Allow Yourself to Dislike Worship

Stressing yourself out due to trying to perform extra acts of worship is not healthy, and you may end up hating it. The hadith concludes saying, “Someone who is off by himself neither travels any distance nor keeps any riding mount on its legs!” That is to say that it is not something that one can maintain on a regular basis. Worship is not about competing with others or even competing with oneself—it is exactly as it reads: worship. Worship means expressing one’s love, need, fear, and hope towards the greatest being in existence and the most important thing in one’s life. When this becomes one’s impetus, the process becomes moderate automatically.

Waki quotes another hadith to the same effect: 

“Adhere to a moderate way.  No one makes things too intense for themselves in their religion save that it will overthrow them.”

And yet another, 

“Let each of you only do the amount of worship that he is actually able to do. 

Not one of you has any idea when he will die.”

Be Gentle to Yourself

Waki closes the chapter with a very interesting hadith: 

“Allah is gentle and He loves gentleness. He gives when it is applied that which He does not give when violence is applied.”

It is interesting that he mentions this hadith because one would normally associate gentleness and violence with the way in which one should or should not deal with other people. But one can actually be gentle or violent with oneself: one can proceed on the path of change with wisdom, moderation, pragmatism, and determination; or one can try to make oneself a victim by punishing oneself with guilt and unbalanced moral judgments or try to quixotically “go where no man has gone before” in terms of acts of worship and end up exhausting oneself physically and spiritually before any personal change can actually happen.

One can try to make oneself a victim by punishing oneself with guilt and unbalanced moral judgments.

To illustrate this point, let us listen to how Bakr al-Muzani (d. 108 AH) explained Abu Bakr al-Siddiq’s high spiritual state. He said, “Abu Bakr did not outdo them in fasting or prayer. Rather, it was just something that settled firmly in his heart.” So it wasn’t about what he did—it was about the way he was. This “way” naturally caused him to fulfill his religious obligations and to strive toward extra deeds, but always within the bounds of moderation and balance.

About the Author

Ustadh Farid Dingle has completed extensive years of study in the sciences of the Arabic language and the various Islamic Sciences. During his studies, he also earned a CIFE Certificate in Islamic Finance. Over the years he has developed a masterful ability to crafts lessons that help non-Arabic speakers gain a deep understanding of the language. He currently teaches courses in the Arabic Language which can be found here. 

The corresponding podcast is due for release soon.