Starting the New Year

Talk on 6 January 2007 at Darus Salaam, London

by Habiba Anwar

The Light (UK), February 2007 Issue (pp. 6–7)

I am sure all of you have come across the phrase “New Year’s resolutions” before. The tradition of making New Year’s resolutions is often one that is associated with the West. By many it is even considered to be a Christian idea. But in fact, if you look at the history behind this concept, it goes all the way back to before Christ. The story goes something like this: Janus was a mythical king of the early Romans and he was placed at the head of the calendar. Allegedly, Janus had a distinctive characteristic, and that was his two faces. One was on the front of his head and one on the back. With them, Janus could look back on past events and forward to the future. Janus became the ancient symbol for resolutions and for looking and learning from the past in order to look into the future. The Romans even named the first month of the year after Janus. Hence the name January. He was their god of beginnings.

Now, thousands of years later, this tradition is still going strong. The first week of January sees millions of pounds spent on advertising for slimming products, nicotine patches, detox kits and other such things. You will find articles galore on the best diets to try. Even more amusing than the actual resolutions being made is the knowledge by the people making them that they won’t stick to them for long. It is almost like an annual custom that everyone adheres to superficially, but hardly anyone actually takes it seriously. This is obvious from the resolutions themselves. They tend to involve some sort of material gain. You will hardly hear of resolutions that delve into the realm of spirituality. It is all about losing weight and feeling great. It is about temporarily giving up alcohol to reenergize your organs, and be capable of handling even more when the next party rolls around. Yes, this indeed is the Western concept of new year’s resolutions.

But where people are wrong is when they assume that Islam doesn’t offer us any equivalent, or something better in the shape of reforming ourselves in the new year. Let us take a look at modern religion and its take on the future. When you enroll in an institution, or belong to a particular profession, you will almost certainly have a code of conduct in place that you have to abide by. Universities have one. Lawyers, doctors and other professionals have to adhere to one, and you risk losing your license to practice if you don’t. Parallel to that, religious systems and philosophical systems, whether they are conceived or revealed, all claim a code of conduct for human beings too. But the interesting thing to note is that apart from the Islamic code of conduct, no other religion actually encourages you to plan ahead, and think about your future. Every religion, including Islam, tells you that the future is in God’s hands. But Islam also tells us that we ourselves have a large role to play in planning our future. Divine assistance from Allah only comes through our sincere and true efforts, and only when we take the necessary steps in order to achieve our goals. And that’s when our future becomes placed in his hands.

Changing and re-evaluating ourselves is something that is very much a part of Islam. And the best thing is Islam has never limited this to a particular time of year. We should be making resolutions all the time. On the 1st of January, people look back on the year that has passed and think of what they would like to do better in the year ahead. An Islamic way of life encourages you to do that every morning; to look over what you did yesterday, and what you are going to change and do better today.

This constant revaluation of ourselves, and constant desire to become better individuals, is what makes Muslims different from others. Muslims are hopeful people. When you have no goals and no aspirations to do anything with your life, you are a person living in a hopeless state. And what happens to people who live like that? Well we have hundreds and thousands of people suffering the consequences of living hopelessly in the West today. A deep-rooted sense of depression takes over and it is something that is very difficult to recover from. And being hopeful is not just something that separates us from people of other religions. It is also what separates us from animals. Animals act purely on instinct and without any patience. Humans, on the other hand, plan and aim towards their goal, and have something fundamental that animals do not: hope.

These days, however, it is difficult to say how much hope is left even in us Muslims. There seems to be a pessimistic attitude surrounding the Muslim world. We have lost hope. We have lost the confidence in ourselves to bring about change. And the most unfortunate thing is that we do have the power to change the world. The world has never been in such a desperate state of instability as it is right now. And this is not something that’s negative. In fact it is an advantage to us because when we live in an already stable system, that’s when it is truly difficult to change things. Ask yourself what effect one person’s actions can have on a large, stable society. The answer is no effect. But where there is instability, great change can be bought about from even one individual’s small actions. Unstable societies need change, they are looking for change. And such instability comes from no one else but Allah. He is the one who moves and unsettles things. And creates opportunities for us to change things. But like I said, we have lost the confidence in ourselves and in our faith to grab these opportunities. Instead we are moving alongside the instability and becoming unstable ourselves.

This year why don’t we make real resolutions, not just about our appearances and not just resolutions that will give us a temporary gain for ourselves, but let us think on a wider scale, let us look at the bigger picture. I am sure you will be familiar with a famous quote that says

“aim for the stars and maybe you will reach the sky”.

Maybe our first new year’s resolution this year should be to instil confidence in ourselves and our faith to aim higher, and to open our eyes and really see that we can do so much to make improvements around us. All we have to do is try.