Conquering Sleep and Treasuring Time
Your countdown started from the moment you were conceived within the womb; each stage of development had a phase, constrained within a time frame. Your due date was allocated based on time, and you were held captive to the phenomenon before even being able to comprehend the notion!
Furthermore, your life thereafter was a predetermined and limited number of breaths – not replenishable once usurped. The moments between these two significant events – your birth and your death – require wise usage, as demonstrated by many great figures in our history.
Take ʿĀmir ibn ʿAbd Qays, for instance, who reports that a man said to him, intending to ‘kill time’: “Let us chat together.” ʿĀmir had no reply other than to say to him: “Hold the sun [i.e. stop time], and then we can chat to kill time!”
Al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī would say:
يا أبن آدم إنما أنت أيام . إذا ذهب يومك ذهب بعضك
“Son of Ādam, you are nothing but several days. Whenever a day passes, a part of you has passed.”
Taking the above into consideration, Ibn Abī al-Dunyā said: “Every day that comes and goes, a part of me passes away, and I am nothing but a few breaths.”
Despite all the recent technological advantages, such as planes that shorten journeys of days to hours, or letters – that would once take weeks to be delivered – now sent in seconds, it still feels as if time is escaping us quicker than ever. How is that possible?
Ibn al-Qayyim would emphasise: “Wasting time is worse than death, because death separates you from this world, whereas wasting time separates you from Allah.”
Similarly, al-Khalīl ibn Aḥmad Al-Farāhīdī used to complain about one of his heavy burdens, by saying:
أثقل الساعات علي: ساعة آكل فيها
“The heaviest moment I face is the moment I need to eat in.”
For sure, these quotations need to be seen in context of the whole realm of the Shariah. However, clearly an emphasis can be found in giving attendance as to how time is conceptualised and used. This was to the extent that even matters that necessitate living were calculated and accounted for by the role models of our past.
When analysing the lives of the greats from our heritage, we find that from the key reasons as to why we fail to take control of time is the inability to conquer our sleep.
Do you love your sleep?
Those who value time and realise the extreme scarcity of it have an irksome relationship with their beds.
تَتَجَافَىٰ جُنُوبُهُمْ عَنِ الْمَضَاجِعِ يَدْعُونَ رَبَّهُمْ خَوْفًا وَطَمَعًا
“Their sides forsake their beds, invoking their Lord with hope and fear.”
They feel a heavy burden when they recognise the drowsiness and pangs of sleep approaching, so much so that ʿAbd Allāh ibn Dāwūd explains:
“كان أحدهم إذا بلغ أربعين سنة، طوى فراشه”
“If one of them would reach forty years old, he would fold-up his bed.”
Knowing that what remains of their life is likely to be less than what has already passed, they would shun their beds. To them, there is no time left to waste on sleep.
Every time the sun would rise, al-Mufaḍḍal ibn Yūnus would say regrettably: “A whole night from my life has gone.” For every night that passes fruitlessly, we are handing the strength of our youth over to the weakness of senility. Abū al-Fatḥ al-Bustī would also remark: “If the reduction in my life does not lead to an increase in knowledge or action, then the cattle and I are equal.”
Even if you do not necessarily love your sleep, you may have unnoticeably handed over the control of your limbs and faculties to it. You may have allowed its arrival to end your productivity whenever it comes, and permitted it to seize you whenever it decides to. We need to regain control.
The importance of the night
Periodically, each of us finds that we may be directing a question to the self: how is your relationship with the Qur’an? Do you feel that you want to spend more time with it, yet always feel too busy?
Ibn Qudāmah says:
ويُكره أن يؤخر ختمة القرآن أكثر من أربعين يوما
“It is detested that one delay the reading of the Qur’an from cover to cover in more than forty days.”
Al-Qurṭubī followed this statement by saying:
والأربعين مدة الضعفاء وأولي الأشغال
“And forty is the number for the weak and the busy.”
How many 40s have passed by us?
Others may ask the self: do you not wish to gain more knowledge? But where do I find the time? Do you have many other projects you wish you could do but just cannot seem to be able to juggle them all?
The secret is in the night.
Al-Khaṭīb al-Baghdādī used to contemplate:
“وأفضل المذاكرة مذاكرة الليل، وكان جماعة من السلف يبدؤون في المذاكرة من العشاء فربما لم يقوموا حتى يسمعوا أذان الصبح”
“The best study is the study of the night, and a group of the righteous predecessors would begin to study from the ʿIshā’ prayer, and would not get up until they would hear the call for Fajr prayer.”
Realising the preciousness of the hours of dark, Muhammad ibn al-Ḥasan al-Shaybānī used to not sleep during the night. Instead, he would place cold water nearby him so that he may throw it on his face to chase away sleep. Others used to expose their backs to the cold air of the night to deter sleep.
Similarly, Imam al-Nawawī recalls the beginning of his travel to knowledge in Syria, saying: “I remained two years never lying my side down for sleep.” On a similar note, Fāṭimah, the daughter of Imam al-Shāfiʿī, recalled many of the fruitful nights with her father by saying: “I would sometimes turn on the gas-lamp for my father 70 times in one night.”
We must realise that this life existed long before us, and will continue to remain after we depart. This extremely limited period each of us is given should be taken care of with the utmost respect and attention.
Do you notice a common denominator between all the individuals mentioned? They have all achieved something great to present as their project for the Hereafter.
Is it not odd that they all seem to agree, across the different ages and centuries, that conquering sleep is an essential ingredient that plays a pivotal role in achieving one’s true potential? Amongst our wise predecessors, a beautiful biography is considered as: the striving of the soul to achieving its maximum potential in knowledge and action.
Allah عز و جل has prepared in Paradise that which no eye has ever seen, that which no ear has ever heard, and that which no heart could ever imagine. Reaching these high statuses requires that we pay its dowry. One of these sacrifices is undoubtedly going to be hard work and tiring of the limbs.
Take this golden principle from Yaḥyā ibn Abī Kathīr:
“لا يدرك العلم براحة الجسم”
“Knowledge is not attained by resting the body.”
This could be applied towards the achievement of any lofty goal, for as Imam Ibn al-Qayyim summarises:
“قد أجمع عقلاء كل أمة على أن النعيم لا يُدرك بالنعيم ، وأن من آثر الراحة فاتته الراحة”
“The wise from every nation have agreed that bliss (of the Hereafter) is not achieved through the bliss (of this world), and whosoever prefers resting (in this world), then they have truly missed out on the real resting (of the next world).”
There is no better praise than that given by Allah عز و جل to those who are up in the late hours, remembering Him:
وَبِالْأَسْحَارِ هُمْ يَسْتَغْفِرُونَ
“And in the hours before dawn they would ask forgiveness.”
24 hours not enough?
We have all used conversational expressions like “there are not enough hours in the day”, or “there are too many things to do and not enough time”. These expressions are often used to describe a common sentiment: that if we had more time, we would all be more productive. However, the usual culprit for this feeling is not always a lack of time, but rather a mentality that either stifles productivity or leads to a misconception.
Once we delve deeper, we realise that every successful person who has achieved great heights had the same 24 hours in the day. Only a few things may have been different, such as the following:
1) Time passing more quickly now
The Prophet ﷺ said:
“The Hour will not be established until…time passes by quickly.”
And in another hadith, he ﷺ said:
“The Hour shall not be established until time is constricted, and the year is like a month, a month is like the week, and the week is like the day, and the day is like the hour, and the hour is like the flare of the fire.”
The blessing in time itself, which can be increased by other means such as taqwā (God-consciousness), abstaining from sin, or keeping ties of kinship.
3) The way our predecessors managed these hours
Which is our topic for the remaining section…
Splitting the night into thirds
Al-Rabīʿ ibn Sulaymān Murādī reports to us how his teacher Imam al-Shāfiʿī utilised the night by saying: “He used to split the night into three: the first third for authoring, the second for prayer, and the third for sleep.” Imam al-Shāfiʿī himself writes:
قدر الكـد تكسـب المعالــي*** ومن طلب العلا سهر الليـالـي
“As much as you tire, you will achieve great heights *** and whoever yearns for heights stays up at night
ومن طلـب العلـى بغيـر كد ٍ*** أضاع العمر في طلب المحالٍ
But those chasing heights without commitment *** lose their life in the pursuit of the impossible.”
This was not the affair of Imam al-Shāfiʿī alone. Rather, many of the scholars would section the night to benefit from its many secrets and gems.
Abu ʿUbayd al-Baghdādī also used to split the night into three. He would pray for a third of it, sleep a third of it, and author books in the last third. This was also reported regarding Jaʿfar al-Naysābūrı̄ by his grandchild, who said: “My grandfather used to split the night: to pray a third of it, sleep a third, and author for a third.”
This enchanting portion of the day – which compromises a third to a quarter of life – is known for its quietness and serenity. It is where the mind is free from the thoughts that occupy and shackle it during the day. They were not ready to compromise benefiting from the night or losing out.
It seems that those manifesting lofty aspirations cannot escape from sacrificing sleep to fulfil a fraction of their ambitions. As for those who are not yet bothered, the poet writes:
ﻳﺎ ﺃﻳﻬﺎ ﺍﻟﻌﺒﺪ ﺍﻟﻤﺴﻲﺀ ﺇﻟﻰ ﻣﺘﻰ *** ﺗﻔﻨﻲ ﺯﻣﺎﻧﻚ ﻓﻲ ﻋﺴﻰ ﻭﻟﺮﺑﻤﺎ
“O ungrateful slave, until when do you *** plan to waste your time on maybe and perhaps?”
There are people all over the world who are awake when everyone else in their region is fast asleep. We can also be from amongst them. Do we not have a Paradise to race to? Do we not have a Lord to please?
أأبيت سهران الدجى و تبيتـه *** نومـا و تبغي بـعد ذاك لحاقي
“I spend the darkness of nights awake whilst you spend it *** deep in sleep, and you still want to catch up with me?”
We may find ourselves asking: how did they sleep so little and still survive? At the same time, how did they maintain such high levels of productivity? Is sleep not essential for the body?
The exact same thing was posed to Al-Rabīʿ ibn Khuthaym, when it was said to him: “Do you not rest?” He quickly replied, “Rest is what I am pursuing.” This is the same great Tābiʿī whose young daughter posed to him a puzzling question by saying: “O dear father! Why is it that I see people sleeping, yet you do not seem to sleep?” It was a lifestyle choice, namely one of chasing a better home in the Hereafter.
ʿAbd al-Raḥmān ibn Mahdī says:
لو قيل لحماد بن سلمة : إنك تموت غدا ، ما قدر أن يزيد في العمل شيئا
“If it were to be said to Ḥammād ibn Salamah: ‘You will die tomorrow,’ he would not be able to do any more than what he is already doing!”
Our aim through managing sleep is to become famous with Allah and His angels in their special gatherings. But how?
Enter polyphasic sleep, one of the most effective ways to cure sleep deprivation, gain extra hours of the day, and have more energy than ever.
The Prophet ﷺ said, as reported by Ibn Mājah on the authority of Ibn ʿAbbās:
استعينوا بقائلة النهار على قيام الليل
“Seek assistance from a siesta during the day, so that you may be able to pray the night prayer.”
Polyphasic sleep has fuelled great minds across our history, as demonstrated above. Many of the current scholars of Islam and the righteous are also known to sleep very little. In addition, contemporary Western polyphasic sleepers that we know of include Thomas Edison, Buckminster Fuller, and Nikola Tesla. Other businesspeople and politicians are famous for sleeping only 4 hours a day.
Polyphasic sleepers snooze in short bursts throughout the day instead of sleeping all night, like in the case of monophasic sleepers. There are many different polyphasic sleep schedules, but one of the most popular forms involves a longer “core” sleep during the night, supplemented by two or three 20-minute naps.
The length of the core sleep and the number of naps varies between people. But those who customise their sleeping patterns well can spend on average 4 to 5 hours asleep in a day. This leaves them with around 20 hours of positive productivity.
Advocates of this practice say the body adapts to this schedule by entering rapid eye movement (REM) sleep more quickly, meeting the body’s need for sleep in less time.
Other extreme schedules consist only of 20-minute naps spaced throughout the day, totalling only two or three hours of shut-eye. This is certainly close to what Imam al-Nawawī would do when he did not allow his side to lie down for two years, as mentioned above. Al-Badr ibn Jamāʿah asked Imam al-Nawawī about his sleep. He replied: “If I was overwhelmed by sleep, I would lean on the books for a few short moments, and then I would regain attention.”
Following the prophetic model, we know that two short naps during the day were quite common. Most people only know of one, but doing both is a major factor in keeping us powered throughout our wake.
1) Morning siesta
ʿĀ’ishah related that: “The Messenger of Allah ﷺ used to lie on his right side after praying two units of the Fajr prayer, until the iqāmah was called.” The reason for this reclining is to rest if one is tired after performing the night prayer, so that one’s energy will be renewed.
2) Mid-day nap
Anas ibn Mālik reports that: “Umm Ḥarām told me that the Prophet ﷺ one day took a midday nap in her house. Then he woke up smiling…”
The Companions would also observe this nap. Anas ibn Mālik reports: “We used to offer the Jumuʿah prayer early and then have an afternoon nap.” In addition, Sahl ibn Saʿd said: “[On Friday] we used to not have a siesta or lunch except after the Jumuʿah prayer.”
Putting the above 2 times together with recent studies, a core sleep amount of around 3 to 4 hours and 2 short naps of around 20 minutes reaps some of the best results. The ‘Everyman Two’ is one of the more practical schedules to follow. To make this work, you really must be strict in keeping the naps sacred.
Saving: 4 hours sleep a day
Gain: 2 extra months a year!
By restricting the amount of your core sleep, you train yourself to fall asleep instantly the moment you rest your head down. Proponents say that spacing out slumber can maximise the amount of time you spend in (REM) sleep, since the body defaults to these stages when it is tired. Many polyphasic sleepers believe other phases of the sleep cycle are unnecessary, and that by eliminating them, they can spend more productive hours awake.
The Slingshot Effect
Sneaking in a quick 20-minute nap when your circadian rhythm dips to its lowest level is very doable, even for people with a regular job. The siesta method alone is a vast improvement over a monophasic schedule. This is because if you miss the afternoon nap, you miss the chance to maximise the next peak in your circadian rhythm. When you skip a nap when your cycle is at its lowest, you go on burning energy throughout the day. The only way is down and towards the end of the day, when you are exhausted.
Yes, it can be hard work, especially the first week as you adapt. But once adapted, it becomes a habit. Muhammad ibn Yūsuf narrates to us how Sufyān al-Thawrī used to wake them up at night:
يُقيمنا في اللَّيل ويقول: “قوموا يا شباب، صلُّوا ما دمتم شبابًا، إذا لم تصلُّوا اليوم، فمتى؟”
“He used to wake us up in the night and say: ‘Stand up, young men, and pray at night whilst you are still young. If you do not pray today, then when?’”
But taking advantage of a period of rest allows you to “rebound”, and it can create massive implications for your health, energy, mental prowess, and productivity. This is called the slingshot effect.
A burning desire and a lofty project
Polyphasic practitioners restrict their sleep to increase their productivity levels. The question is: is it really worth it?
Muhammad ibn al-Ḥasan was another scholar who would split the night into thirds. He would sleep for one part of the night, pray for a part of it, and study during the third part. His portion for sleep would be very little, so he would be asked, “Why do you not sleep during the night?”
He would reply:
كيف أنام و قد نامت عيون المسلمين توكلنا علينا
“How can I sleep when the eyes of the Muslims have gone to sleep relying on us?”
He continued to say: “The people are saying about me, ‘If we are not sure of a matter, we take it to him, and he gives us the answer.’ So if I sleep, it is a waste of time, and may be a waste of religion.”
He felt the weight of responsibility on his shoulders. Likewise, each of us should have a burning desire that drives us to sacrifice sleep for the greater good. A lofty aspiration that will bring goodness to the person, their family, and the Ummah should always be in sight. Polyphasic sleep is a band aid for those who are busy. And who is busier than a Muslim building their home of the Hereafter?
Al-Mutanabbī gives us a similar meaning in his powerful words:
و إذا كانت النُّفوسُ كِباراً، تَعِبَت في مُرادِها الأجسامُ
“When your aspirations are huge *** your body will tire in its pursuit.”
To keep up what may seem like a tiring sleep schedule at first, you will need a very good reason to wake up the next morning after only having 3.5 hours of night sleep. Thus, before you go to bed, you must review the day gone past and plan what you would like to do the next day. If you carry this out till it becomes a habit like the Companions used to, it will serve you well in this new endeavour.
The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said:
“إن الله يحب معالي الأمور و أشرافها و يكره سفسافها”
“Allah loves lofty and noble matters, and hates inferior matters.”
A vision is essential.
One very useful website that allows you to make your own polyphasic sleep schedule that is fully customised to your day is napchart.com. Below are a few examples.
As you schedule your nap chart, consider the following
- You may potentially never miss Fajr prayer in the mosque again! (You may need to adjust the chart with the change of the hour during the summer/winter seasons in the UK and other countries).
- You will always have your ‘protected time’ in the night to work on those things you always wanted to.
- Could you have a healthy and consistent portion of the night prayer? It is very likely you could.
- Take into consideration travel time to work and the school run if appropriate. Spend from the extra hours you gain by giving the family their due rights.
A typical 9 to 5 job schedule
6-hour Shift work
Here is another example of someone working shifts – week A and week B – and how they utilise polyphasic sleep for increased productivity.
The idea is to experiment and persevere until you reach a schedule that works for you.
You may notice:
- – That you oversleep as you experiment in the first week or so. However, regardless of whether that happens in your core sleep or in the naps, make sure to continue the schedule as it is, in order to set your biological clock.
- – Later, you will start falling asleep very quickly after resting your head.
- – Your body will quickly adapt and wake up from your nap a minute before the alarm rings.
- – You may notice that you now experience many more vivid dreams (which happens in REM sleep).
- – Try and involve your family and loved ones around you, so they may support you in this new endeavour.
Things that help
An angel to protect you as you sleep
The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said:
“If one recites āyah al-kursī before going to sleep, Allah will send an angel to look after and protect them.”
Your very own servant
With the encouragement of her husband ʿAlī, Fāṭimah, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, asked her father for a servant to help them in their increasing house chores. The Prophet ﷺ went to their house, sat between them, and said:
“Shall I tell you a thing which is better than what you asked me for? When you go to your beds, say: subḥān Allāh 33 times, alḥamdulillāh 33 times, and Allāhu akbar 34 times. This is better for you than what you have requested.”
Make use of this prophetic recipe of energy!
Abundant portion of the Qur’an
Dedicate a daily portion of the Qur’an that you do not neglect, and simply watch the blessings as they unfold.
Ibrāhīm al-Maqdisī advised his student, ʿAbbās ibn ʿAbd al-Dāyim:
أكثر من قراءة القرآن ولا تتركه ، فإنه يتيسر لك الذي تطلبه على قدر ما تقرأ
“Increase the amount of Qur’an you recite and do not abandon it! For the assistance which you will receive with regards to the matter which you strive towards depends on how much you recite.”
His student said:
فرأيت ذَلِكَ وجربته كثيرا، فكنت إِذَا قرأت كثيرا تيسر لي من سماع الْحَدِيث وكتابته الكثير، وإذا لَمْ أقرأ لَمْ يتيسر لي.
“I experienced just that and tried it many times! If I recited abundantly, I would excel in my studies of hadith, but if I did not, it would become difficult.”
Constantly ask Allah to increase the barakah in your time, as you raise your hands in duʿā’ and as you prostrate on the ground.
Things that hinder
Sins are from the biggest obstacles to achieving your goals:
فَإِنْ تَوَلَّوْا فَاعْلَمْ أَنَّمَا يُرِيدُ اللَّهُ أَنْ يُصِيبَهُمْ بِبَعْضِ ذُنُوبِهِمْ
“And if they turn away – then know that Allah only intends to afflict them with some of their [own] sins.”
It is very difficult to perform bodybuilding whilst on a polyphasic schedule. The body needs the extended hours of sleep in order to repair body tissue after a difficult sports workout. Unless you are already established in a sport and have had a regular routine in it, it is not advisable to dive deeply into taxing exercise regimes. Similarly, heavy meals are not advisable, nor the frequent consumption of caffeine.
We need to change the way we think about sleep. It is not a goal in and of itself, rather it is only a means. Therefore, we should not sleep simply because society prescribed for us 8 hours of sleep a night. We may want to consider sleep as only a means of recharging, so that we would be rewarded as we snooze as well.
أَمَّنْ هُوَ قَانِتٌ آنَاءَ اللَّيْلِ سَاجِداً وَقَائِماً يَحْذَرُ الْآخِرَةَ وَيَرْجُو رَحْمَةَ رَبِّهِ قُلْ هَلْ يَسْتَوِي الَّذِينَ يَعْلَمُونَ وَالَّذِينَ لا يَعْلَمُونَ
“Is one who is devoutly obedient during periods of the night, prostrating and standing [in prayer], fearing the Hereafter and hoping for the mercy of his Lord, [like one who does not]? Say, ‘Are those who know equal to those who do not know?’”
Abū Isḥāq al-Sabīʿī used to say:
“يا معشر الشَّباب، جدُّوا واجتهدوا، وبادروا قوَّتكم، واغتنِموا شبيبتَكم قبل أن تعجزوا، فإنَّه قلَّ ما مرَّت عليَّ ليلة إلاَّ قرأت فيها بألف آية”.
“O dear youth, work and strive, take advantage of your strength, and make good use of your youth before you become unable to. For I rarely allow a night to pass, except that I read a thousand verses.”
It was ʿAbd al-Wāhid ibn Yazīd who used to encourage his family every night to build their home in the Hereafter by saying:
“يا أهلَ الدَّار، انتبهوا – أي: من نومكم – فما هذه – أي: الدنيا – دار نوم، عن قريب يأكلُكم الدود”
“O dear family! Wake up and be attentive – from your sleep – for this life is not a place for sleep. Soon we will be consumed by the worms.”
With a voice of sorrow, Imam al-Shāṭibī warns us:
فيا ضيعة الأعمار تمشي سَبَهْلَلا
“What a sad affair that our lives pass us by aimlessly…”
It is time to wake up and became wise investors in our Hereafter.
 Al-Qur’an, 32:16
 Al-Qur’an, 51:18
 Al-Bukhārī on the authority of Abū Hurayrah
 Al-Tirmidhī on the authority of Anas ibn Mālik
 Al-Bukhārī and Muslim on the authority of ʿĀ’ishah
 Al-Bukhārī on the authority of Anas ibn Mālik
 Al-Bukhārī on the authority of Anas ibn Mālik
 Al-Bukhārī on the authority of Sahl ibn Saʿd
 Al-Ṭabarānī on the authority of al-Ḥasan ibn ʿAlī
 Al-Qur’an 5:49
 Al-Qur’an, 39:9
Dr Abdelrahman Elashry (BDS) is a dentist by profession. Having graduated from Cardiff University, he is now pursuing a Masters degree (MSc) in Restorative Dentistry at UCL in London. He is currently studying Sharī’ah at the Tafsir Academy, with a special interest in Quranic studies and Tafsir.