And if an evil whisper from Satan tries to turn you away (O Muhammad) (from doing good, etc.), then seek refuge in Allah. Verily, He is the All-Hearer, the All-Knower. Sûrat Fuṣṣilat, 41:36
IMAGINE YOURSELF IN the kitchen on a Saturday morning getting ready to make an omelet for yourself and your family. You take out enough eggs from the fridge and set them on the counter, and only turn for a second to get the rest of the ingredients when one of the eggs decides to go for a roll. As that egg makes its way off the edge of the counter, you suddenly reach for it hoping to catch it before it makes a mess out of your beautiful morning.
After thoroughly enjoying your delicious omelet, you take your child for his swimming practice as he is preparing for his big meet that week. The swim coach puts the kids through their usual warm up routine prior to having them do some practice starts, simulating the actual meet. All of the swimmers are lined up and set when the air gun is fired. The kids jump into the pool as soon as each of them hears the pop. Whoever gets in first has the shortest reaction time compared to the others. Keep this vivid image in mind.
The State of Our Own Reaction Time
Let us look at our own reaction times. How long does it take us to regain our calm after getting angry at our spouse or children? How long does it take us to stop looking at something we should not be looking at? How long does it take us to put some ṣadaqah into the hands of a needy person or charitable organization?
Mr. Moore from Alabama—not a Muslim—read on the internet that a Muslim family in India was in need of $1,000 for some medical treatment and basic daily requirements. He immediately sent the money, thinking that it would be a one time act of kindness and not even thinking that it was a possible scam. What allowed him to react so quickly before the Devil could talk him out of it? Many of us attend fundraisers, with good intentions to donate a good sum of money—only to start considering the upcoming marriage of our child, or vacation, etc before we allow Satan to talk us into making a much smaller donation than what we had intended. Our reaction time to catch ourselves from not making—or from reducing–the donation is worth reviewing.
Iblîs was commanded to prostrate to Adam as is mentioned in Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:34:
And when We said unto the angels: Prostrate yourselves before Adam, they fell prostrate, all save Iblîs. He demurred through pride, and so became a disbeliever. Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:34
And after refusing, Iblîs didn’t seek forgiveness but instead his arrogance led him to eternal damnation. Adam, in contrast, reacted to his disobedience in regards to the tree by seeking the forgiveness of Allah:
Then Adam received from his Lord words (of Revelation), and He relented toward him. Lo! He is the relenting, the Merciful. Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:37
Though we do not know each of their reaction times, we do know that their reactions were totally opposite and thus their eventual result is the difference between success and failure.
In Sûrat Ṣâd, âyah 24, Allah describes a situation in the chamber of prophet Dâwûd when two brothers came to present a case for judgment:
[David] said: He has wronged you in demanding your ewe in addition to his ewes. And, verily, many partners oppress one another, except those who believe and do righteous good deeds, and they are few. And David guessed that We had tried him, and he sought forgiveness of his Lord, and he bowed himself and fell down prostrate and repented. Sûrat Ṣâd, 38:24
Immediately after realizing that this had been a test for his own personal life, prophet Dâwûd made sujûd and asked for the forgiveness of Allah in regard to his own, previous, unjust act in a similar situation.
My Fascination with the Subject
I became fascinated with this subject in its relation to our daily lives as Muslims. When we stand in prayer, we are all trying to earnestly have khushûʿ (complete devotion to Allah), but we find that we get distracted perhaps by the door opening and closing, the child crying or running around the masjid or by the person next to us who whispers Al–Fâtiḥah too loud. We may be recalling the conversation we have just had before entering Ṣalâh or recalling the winning point made in the final match. How do we recognize the stimulus that distracts us and more importantly how long does it take us to get back into our state of khushûʿ? In regards to perfecting our Ṣalâh, we know that the Prophet advised us to make wuḍû with sincere intention, seeking purification from both spiritual and material impurities. Then we approach the Prayer as if it is our last prayer, hoping that this would increase our mental presence as we “connect” with our Creator.
Reaction Time: The Research
Interestingly a lot of research has been done on reaction times since the middle of the 19th century. As you could probably imagine, experiments using visual, auditory, touch or some combination of stimuli were utilized. The amount of time it took the volunteers to respond was measured using either a simple falling meter stick or a computer. The experiments evaluated three types of reaction times. In simple reaction time, a single stimulus is presented and a single response is expected. In recognition reaction time, multiple stimuli are presented but response is only to one of the stimuli. The other stimuli are simply distracters. This is the type most of us are exposed to on a daily basis. The third type is serial reaction time in which the sequence of the stimuli are predictable such that the subject can learn the sequence and gets faster and faster as he learns the pattern.
Reaction Time: The Case of Sulley
On Jan 15th 2009, US Airways flight # 1549 took off from La Guardia airport and three minutes into the flight at an altitude of about 2,800 feet, a large flock of Canadian geese were sucked into both engines causing immediate loss of power. “Sulley,” as Chesley Sullenberg was known, is credited with saving the lives of 155 passengers and the crew by making the decision to ‘ditch’ the plane into the Hudson River. Sulley was a former Air Force pilot who had logged over 4,700 hours in the Airbus 320 and thus was able to react due to his experience and knowledge of distance the plane could glide. He also instinctively knew where the most effective safety rescue could be carried out; thus he directed the plane close to where ferry boats were. His reaction time was amazing.
Most of us do not have to prepare ourselves to save an airplane that has lost power in both engines but we do have reaction times that are measurable. As we know, pilots undergo rigorous simulation training, such that they learn to deal with engine loss, failure of the landing gear mechanism and many other potential disastrous situations. Thus one of the factors that could shorten reaction time would be simulation training. In Islam we, too, have simulation training: Ṣalâh, Ṣaum (ritual fasting), Zakâh and Ḥajj. Let us use these means to prepare ourselves for the tests that come to us.
Reaction Time and Cell Phones
An area that has received a lot of attention recently is the use of cell phones while driving. Many studies continue to demonstrate that reaction times are delayed when the operator of the vehicle is either texting or reading text messages. In fact, in 2011, 23% of auto accidents involved the use of cell phones. That was a total of 1.3 million accidents in the US alone! The minimal amount of time that our attention is absent is 5 seconds, and at 55 mph that is enough time to cover the length of a football field. Thus most states have banned the practice of texting and driving. Obviously, drivers need to focus their attention on driving. In an analogous situation, we are in a sense ‘driving’ through our lives; and as Muslims our sole purpose should be the worship of Allah. We know that there are many worldly distractions, such as work, school, family, money, leisure activities, etc., that can keep us from focusing on our goal of driving on the “straight path.” Just as in driving a car, our attention in life must be in following the example of the Prophet ﷺ. The Prophet ﷺ has given us many prescriptions as to how to correct our “driving” such that we not be distracted.
One of these prescriptions is the constant remembrance of Allah, i.e., keeping the tongue moist with the dhikr of Allah. Another would be the remembrance of death, as the Prophet of Allah said that “death is the destroyer of pleasures.” Praying the five daily prayers at their earlier times would also ensure our “connection” with the Creator and would keep us in the proper frame of mind.
Muslims must condition themselves to various scenarios: For example, if fatigue or hunger are factors that shorten reaction times for the worse, such as getting angry, then we should fast more in order to train ourselves not to get angry. Another way to subdue one’s base self such that we can avoid erupting inappropriately is to pray tahajjud as the Quran reminds us in Sûrat Al-Muzzammil, âyah 6:
Truly, rising by night is the most effective way to subdue [one’s base self] and to make speech more upright. Sûrat Al-Muzzammil, 73:6.
Remaining engaged in the remembrance of Allah is another means, found in the same sûrah:
And remember the name of your Lord and devote yourself to Him with exclusive devotion. Sûrat Al-Muzzammil, 73:8
Calibrate Your Reaction Time, Tests are Inevitable
So it is apparent that we are talking about increasing the reaction time of rejecting inappropriate or bad actions and increasing the reaction time of initiating correct or righteous actions. What is your reaction time in each of these settings?
We know from the aḥâdîth regarding the seven categories of people who will be in the shade of the Throne of Allah. These include a man who is sought after by a beautiful and powerful woman and he refuses her advances for the fear of Allah, thus having a very short reaction time and another category is the person who gives covert ṣadaqahs such that one hand does not know what the other hand is doing.
We will be facing death and may be tested even as was Imâm Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal, who went in and out of consciousness at the end. Shayṭân was trying to get Imâm Aḥmad to have an ounce of pride so that he would die in a state of disbelief.
I pray that we would have reaction times like the Prophet of Allah ﷺ—such that for initiating good actions, our reaction time would be short and for rejecting wrong actions that our rejection time would not be delayed.