by Yusuf Abdul Rahman
Contrary to the long summer days that have defined Ramadan in the West for the last few years, my first experience of the blessed month was (mercifully) during the British winter, with the sunset prayer no later than 16:30.
As a second year university student, I was still familiarising myself with both Islam and living away from my parents, and so my Ramadan diet combined biriyani iftars in the local mosque with occasional late night trips to the nearest fried chicken shop to curtail midnight hunger pains. A Muslim friend, Barbar, would knock on my dormitory door thirty minutes before the dawn prayer, and insist I share the food he had readied (usually a reheated Pakistani dish prepared by his mother, accompanied by a few slices of bread). Another friend, Ali, perhaps inspired by my conversion, utilised the learning process I was undertaking as a chance to gain more knowledge about his faith, and would frequently come to pick me up from my dormitory in order to take me to the mosque for the Ramadan night prayers, blasting Qur’an from his speakers for the duration of the journey.
These experiences, plus the countless other invitations and gifts that reached me during my first Ramadan, left a deep impact upon my soul, and shaped an enduring impression of the blessed month as a time of community, family, and togetherness. Many years later, having left the UK for the then peaceful city of Damascus, I remember rushing to meet a friend for iftar after work. Due to my inability to successfully negotiate the rather chaotic public minibus system, I was running late, and so decided to stop at a mosque to break my fast and pray the sunset prayer, before continuing my journey.
As I awaited the call to prayer in the courtyard of the mosque, I noticed a man sitting a few yards away, who had set up what looked like a picnic blanket full of goodies to break his fast with. A small bottle of cold water, a jug of what looked like orange juice, a plastic bottle of laban (buttermilk), a number of dates, and a chocolate bar thrown in for good luck. The generous soul offered me some dates and his water with a warm smile. However, as the call to prayer rang around the courtyard, the man ignored the store of food that he had so neatly arranged in front of him, and pulled out a cigarette from his pocket, and took a deep, satisfying pull. He had struggled from dawn to dusk against his addiction.
Ramadan is not just for the super-pious, I noted. On a trip back to the UK from our home in Saudi Arabia, my family and I stopped in the noble city of Istanbul for the last few days of the holy month.
One evening, after having settled in our hotel, we took a walk through the buzzing streets of Sultanahmet, witnessing families rushing backwards and forwards and restaurants preparing to serve iftar specials. When we reached the Blue Mosque, we were astounded by the sight before us. Thousands of people mulled around in the square that joins the Hagia Sofia to the Blue Mosque, perched on benches or picnic rugs, preparing humble meals for their families and friends who had come to break their fast in the most awesome of settings. Street sellers offered watermelon and tea, gözleme and baklava, and children ran through the spaces between people, perfecting the beautiful scene.
As the distinctive, haunting Turkish-style call to prayer echoed around the city, people shared their provisions with one another and with us, mirroring the generosity I had first experienced in London all those years ago. During my first years as a Muslim, I considered the fast to be little more than a task that required completion. My attraction to the blessed month was not caused by the necessary abstinence, but rather by the communal banquets and merriment that came after dark.
As a young man, I was unable to appreciate the profound spiritual impact of forbearance and discipline, which only dawned on me many years later. Last year, while working in the UK for a short-time, I had an epiphany as I ate an apple after the end of the fast. In an age in which our tastebuds are familiar with the most exotic tastes from around the world, never had a simple apple tasted so magnificent, and never had I been so grateful for a such a familiar fruit.
Ramadan enables us to count our blessings, and to remember quite how extraordinarily fortunate we are to be blessed with unhindered access to food and drink. Furthermore, Ramadan is a reminder of how little we require to survive, and how modernity has convinced us of the need to consume far more food than we actually do.
Ramadan also induces a sense of profound humility. Some report that their minds feel fresh and clear during the fast. My experience is quite the opposite. My mind is often sluggish, tired, and foggy. Such obstacles to clear thought are another powerful blessing of the month. I am aware that I am underperforming, aware that there are limitations to my intellect, and conscious of the tiredness and hunger that define my physical state during the fast. Hence, I am a little less sure of myself, a little more reluctant to assert my opinions with certainty, and a little more gentle and hedged in my approach to the universe. I am more willing to accept the flaws of others, and more capable of appreciating the difficulties that confront my friends and family. Due to my tiredness, greater consciousness of the words that leave my mouth is required, greater awareness of my body language is a necessity, and I must be vigilant against the natural inclination to complain.
All of these constitute enhanced ‘God consciousness’ or ‘taqwa’, which Allah Almighty states is the primary function of the fast of Ramadan. For many around the world, Ramadan awakens their latent spiritual nature, and is a time to reconnect with the Creator. The sense of communal sacrifice, struggle, and commitment to Allah’s commands causes people to act in accordance with the honour of the holy month, reactivating their concern with the sacred, and putting the rest of the year in context.
Personally, as is true for all of the spiritual practices of Islam, I consider fasting to be a tool that I utilise to shift my perception of the universe, to encourage me to witness the blessings that surround me, which I am all too often oblivious of due to my lack of consciousness. Ramadan increases my sense of gratitude, and enhances my ability to trust that my provision is guaranteed by The One.
And above all, each pang of hunger, each wave of tiredness is a reminder of His Presence, a form of remembrance that encourages me to see His Decree in all events, and to subjugate my desire to eat and drink to His Command to refrain. I wish you, your families, and your loved ones a blessed and prosperous Ramadan. I humbly seek your prayers for my family and I.
Imam al Ghazali’s magnum opus, “The Revival of the Religious Sciences”, is one of the greatest classical Islamic texts of all time. Overflowing with gems of spiritual wisdom and Light, the Ihya has been singled out as the book that, after the Quran, suffices for the spiritual guidance of the Muslims today. This class focuses on Chapters 13 – 15 of the Ihya, which discuss in greater depth the keys to material and spiritual prosperity, as well as the value of companionship on the path to Allah.
Join us for this upcoming class on Imam Ghazali’s Ihya Ulumuddin, taught by Ustaz Amin Yusoff.
Register at: http://revivalofthedeen.eventbrite.sg