By Santriani Bohari Jaon
When people share their Ramadan stories, it is always full of their accounts of spiritual highs. People leave Ramadan feeling closer to Allah than they had entering it. They write stories of Love, warmth, and hope.
But when I recall the Ramadan I was given the opportunity to spend in Istanbul 5 years ago, I cannot be anything more than completely honest—Ramadan that year had left me with more questions unanswered than I had had coming into the blessed month.
What does it mean to be close to Allah?
Who is closer to Him: the one who sits alone outside the mosque, too afraid to enter but with a heart crying silently for its Lord, or the one inside the mosque, filling his time with acts of worship but with a heart frustrated that it was feeling nothing at all?
Where was Allah? Was he with the one who prayed in hope of reward and fear of punishment, without knowing despair or happiness, or was He with the one who never prayed and had known darkness all his life, yet felt a visceral, primordial hunger for the reality of worship?
Who was I? Who is Allah? What was I here for? Where did this emptiness in my chest come from?
I spent most of the days of Ramadan wandering aimlessly through the streets of Istanbul, a battle raging within me at every step. Before that, I never really prayed or cared much about my faith, but when I was about 14 years old, I had made a promise to God that I would never go clubbing, partying, or drinking, and up until then, I made sure I kept that promise.
At the time, though, I was filled with resentment, anger and hurt, and I started to hit the clubs every other night, to forget it all and numb myself. It left me feeling a kind of emptiness and loneliness I’d never known, but I never really spoke about it to anyone. I would wake up every morning feeling emptier than I had the day before, and I couldn’t recognize myself. It was suffocating, but I was convinced that there was no more space for me with God, so I just kept bulldozing through my life.
I feared two things at once: not finding the answers to any of my questions, and the answers themselves. I’d come to Istanbul alone, without knowing a word of Turkish, desperate to run from my own life, but without having any idea of where I was running to.
At dusk, when the square between Haggia Sophia and the Blue Mosque was overrun with families having an outdoor iftar on the grass together, and the azan began to reverberate from these two sacred behemoths flanking the square, I stayed at the perimeter, filling my stomach with some simit (sesame bread), and filling my heart with the sight of mothers feeding their young children while they themselves ate so little.
Unconditional love. If human beings were capable of it, why did it seem as though God loved only the pious?
In the afternoons, when I sat under the vast domes of The Blue Mosque, not knowing what du’a to make, what dhikr to recite or which surah to read, I would just gaze up at the domes themselves for hours on end, mesmerized by the intricacy, detail, subtlety, and meticulousness of the architecture.
Was beauty itself sacred? In a world that had perverted physical beauty and equated it with weakness, why was it that just staring at the sacred architecture seemed to envelop my heart in a blanket of radiance and tranquility that I had never known?
At night, when the azan for Isha’ was called, and the pious hurried into the mosques, some with their families, some alone, I watched from the sidelines, wanting to join, yet never more acutely aware of my unworthiness.
Did Allah grant an audience only to the pious during Ramadan? If the luminous glow of the full moon in the night sky made itself known to anyone who looked up without exception, would Allah deprive anyone at all amongst His creation of Himself even if they only sought Him for a moment?
The Ramadan that I spent in Istanbul away from family, friends and familiarity filled me with a kind of yearning for Allah that I had never tasted before. That, in itself, was a droplet from the endless oceans of Divine Mercy that He had gifted upon me whilst I sought to quench my thirst without realizing it.
I spent most of that Ramadan bleeding and aching from the limits I’d misperceived on Allah’s Mercy and Forgiveness. There was no defining moment for me from which I moved on and left everything behind without looking back. It took time; at times I felt that I’d taken two steps forward, and other times, two steps backwards. But the resulting brokenness I felt was what kept me going. In time, I came to learn that it was that very brokenness that was the key to drawing closer to Allah. It isn’t about being perfect, it’s just about the willingness to keep moving forward and focus on Allah instead of the inherent limitations within myself.
If the reality of Ramadan is as an institution of spiritual training to prepare us for the journey towards Allah in the rest of the months of the year, then those very same unanswered questions that I started to ask were the greatest gift from Him, because they sent me on a lifelong journey to find the answers in Allah, by Allah, from Allah and to Allah. This was the gift that kept on giving, from the Giver of Gifts Himself. Alhamdulillah.
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