I’m ashamed of letting procrastination get the better of me again. Leading up to Ramadan, I already had this entry in mind: specifically to share a video and a comment, and additionally to pepper the content with a few words of my own. However, with the backlog of posts and life generally passing me by, the garnishing has remained solidly in my head, and Ramadan is nearing its end. To be precise, it’s the 27th night, and so we could say that it’s on its last and most impressive legs. I’m sorry for my delays. Fortunately for me, among the things I have learned this month is that a well-intentioned effort can never come too late.
Every Ramadan is slightly different, but growing up in Malaysia, there are some general familiarities I could fall back on. For a start, Ramadan was a universal fact and I would be fasting alongside a nation. There was the somewhat counterintuitive tradition of paying a little more attention to food than usual after daylight hours, due to the celebratory atmosphere that descended upon families at dusk; the sense of achievement and heightened giving mood meant that moms and dads often went to great lengths to produce or procure a yummy treat to be shared around the table when the call of adhan rose in the air. Later, happy-bellied and cloaked in flowing white garments, we would shuffle up the uneven steps of the mosque and file into the prayer hall for tarawikh, holding hands with friends and pressing cheeks with strangers. Ramadan at home was as sweet and can be, and I have never encountered such a fulfilling experience anywhere else in the world.
I have, in fact, spent many Ramadans fasting away from home. Sometimes it meant sharing a different culture’s Ramadan, and gaining a new family along the way. Often, though, it can be a solitary affair, and involved excusing myself from coffees and lunches and laying out a mat at home for tarawikh, rather than standing shoulder to shoulder in the masjid. Sometimes with work, it passes by almost without ceremony. Even so, with our new relocation, this year brought with it a whole new set of novelties.
It is my first time fasting in Northern Hemisphere summer. The idea of fasting for so long in the day worried me at the start. How do people fast, I was asked, at extreme latitudes where it was day or night for months at a time? I found out that there was a fatwa which decreed that in those circumstances, a day’s fast should last for a maximum of 16 hours. Our fajr in Cleveland started around 4.30am, and maghrib was at 9pm. Had I been any further north, I might have had to make use of this fatwa. As it stood, I was willing to give it a go. Afterall, sacrifice was an important lesson for a person to learn, and giving up food and drink til later in the day may very well be the gentlest way to learn it.
Subhanallah, I was spared the difficulties of keeping to my fast, and got to the end of everyday standing on my feet. I could not have asked for a greater blessing. Maybe it helped that we had acclimatized ourselves somehow in the first few days of exploring Cleveland, walking for hours from place to place, stopping to eat only later in the day. Also, we had started making a habit of having only one real meal a day, and not three. With fasting came the added benefit of being rid of my addiction to coffee. For a long time, I would get rebound headaches without a cup of coffee in the morning. Not to mention the bad psychological habit of needing it get going, refusing to otherwise get started with my day. Eliminating this prolonged unessential period of sitting in my jammies for as long as humanly possible cradling a hot mug before getting on with the agenda showed me that I could, if I wanted, get from my bed to the door with simply a shower in between.
Aside from the physiological aspects of things, I also had to deal with a whole bunch of time that was truly my own. Now we might have alluded to the fact that I can be pretty good at squandering time. With S at work and me to hold down the fort, I found that the hours brought with it a restless, tempestuous mind.
In the first few days, my go to strategy was to read. “Iqra’“ – was the divine message, many many many Ramadans ago. In the written word, I hoped, I would find the knowledge to conquer my fears, and in doing it also, I was offered a bit of solace. I signed up for the magnificent local library, which not only have treats on its shelves, but a dizzying array of books for the picking online. On my first day, I came away with 5 books, and in my zeal, I read each one in the five consecutive days.
In line with the mood of introspection that Ramadan tends to bring about, my selection included some soul food. My reading and resting and wrestling mind were perfused with words from a few ordinary mortals who identified with the pain that all mortals share, and took the time to understand what to do with it. When my heart was at its rockiest, its haemodynamics stretched it so ragged that my chest felt its struggle, and I recalled Yasmin Mogahed‘s words in “Reclaim Your Heart”:
Allah sends the test, but with it He sends the sabr (patience), and even the rida (contentment) to withstand it.
It’s never easy to stand when the storm hits. And that’s exactly the point. By sending the wind, He brings us to our knees: the perfect position to pray.
On sun dappled days, cycling through tree-lined short cuts, or sitting under the purple hibiscus tree, I focused as I remembered Thich Nhat Hanh‘s advise about washing the dishes to wash the dishes in “The Miracle Of Mindfulness”:
While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes.
Stay with me here … I swear to you that this changed my life.
At first glance, that might seem a little silly: why put so much stress on a simple thing? But that’s the point. The fact that I am standing there washing these bowls is a wondrous reality. I’m being completely myself, following my breath, conscious of my presence, and conscious of my thoughts and actions. There’s no way I can be tossed around mindlessly like a bottle slapped here and there on the waves.
When I read Deepak Chopra‘s “The Ultimate Happiness Prescription”, I learned that the common mistake we’ve all fallen for was to confuse our true self with that of the ego:
To correct this mistake, just ask yourself, “Do I recognize this feeling of being wounded? Is it old or new?” If you are being honest, you will immediately see that it’s a very old feeling. The past is reaching out to grab you. Now ask the next question: “How much good has it ever done me to remember my old hurts?” Again, if you are honest, you will see that it has done you no good whatever. If recalling old hurts prevented you from being hurt here and now, you wouldn’t feel so bad. You wouldn’t be so vulnerable to external disapproval. If your ego was on the right path, it wouldn’t have this toxic storehouse of old pain.
I laughed and cried through Mitch Albom‘s “Have A Little Faith.” Maybe that last title said it all.
And then of course, there is the ultimate book. We are advocated to spend time reciting and learning the Qur’an. Nope, not only during Ramadan, and no, not only on the eve of Fridays, either, but on every day of the year. Of course, this intention, if ever formed, gets lost in the flow of most people’s day to day lives. On Ramadan, though, there is a chance to focus and regroup. And then when you’ve found your groove, to multiply your efforts.
The holy words of the Qur’an have been with me throughout my life, and perhaps it’s my own fault that at 30 I am seeing big chunks of it anew. As a child, we knew it by rote. We learned to read from right to left, to recognize which Arabic letters can be joined and which have to stand alone. We learn the different rules and sounds we need to make, and for how many counts, where to stop and where to linger. All of this is tajweed – the lyrical rules of the Qur’an that are hardwired in my brain thanks to weekly lessons with Ustazah Mak Piah, may God bless her soul. I have the resources now to learn the tafseer, the study of the content of the Qur’an, in terms of meaning, context, language and reflection- and I realize how much of it I had thought I understood without understanding. It is beautiful. And if anyone is inclined to learn this, I direct you towards the noteworthy methods and efforts of Nouman Ali Khan‘s Bayyinah.
Which brings me to those two gems I promised at the beginning of this entry. The first is a video, which I cannot speak enough of … and so I’m embedding it here for your watching pleasure. It documents the hafeez competition held in Cairo every Ramadan, with participants from all around the world, including the 3 ten-year-old cuties who stole my heart. This film had me awestruck, made me cry uncontrollably, and set my heart afloat for these little angels. Watch and share!
The second, is a comment to a post made last Ramadan by a blogger of Arabisms I have heard lots about, read lots of, but have not had pleasure of meeting. The commenter, though, is my husband, who has stuck through yet another Ramadan. Even though he has not had as much experience as me at this ‘fasting lark’, his views and experiences enrich my own. He seems to be able to teach me a thing or two about this month-long act, and hence has unwittingly become the co-author to this blog entry.
Take it away, sayang:
S on August 23, 2012 at 2:32 pm said:
Once again a great blog…and true in a sad way.
This is the first time I fasted. It was a beautiful experience. Having never done this before, and starting as an adult, the experience was humbling and powerfully reflective.
One of the first things that struck me, was the abundance of food. How accessible it is, how we are constantly being drawn to it and how it is always in our face. I often thought about the majority of the world, who must toil or travel in order to obtain nourishment, and in most cases, even then, they have no access to it. When my rumbling stomach reminded me I had missed breakfast, the thought of being able to access food, at any point, left me feeling betrayed, that my own body should dare complain, whilst my fellow humans die of hunger each day.
Shopping had become wise. No more excess. Just enough to provide my energy. Never overeating in anticipation of what was to come and never throwing anything away. What was purchased, was consumed, and always with thanks. When one fasts, watching people around them eat, eat,eat reveals the unconscious greed we all are guilty of.
Food took on a new meaning. I do pride myself on trying to eat naturally, but after fasting, I became much more aware of what I was choosing to consume. Looking at labels on food, and seeing how much unnatural stuff there was quickly made me put things I would have normally bought, down. I exercised everyday also. Giving thanks to the gift of this machine and promising to love it and honor it.
The spiritual element of fasting is much greater however. When I first took on the conscious responsibility that I would fast, I promised myself, that I would be in full control and kindness. No ill feelings, no bad deeds, no anger. If I broke this promise to myself, I would break my fast on that day. This was my word. How enlightening the experience was, when by conquering the need for food, the Soul masters its own lowly qualities. Happy to say I made the whole month, without once getting angry or giving way to my lesser states. The humbling fasting state, causes one to become more empathic to our own fellow beings. I not only felt happier, but being kind changes, everything..for the best.
And beyond even that, prayer had a different meaning. It was no longer “Please…”, but sometimes, just “Thank you”…said with a deep bow and with enough Soul to bring forth tears, and enough humbleness to acknowledge that we can only hope to even begin to even fathom the meaning of God, once we are truly at peace with ourselves and everything around us. Quite right. One month to form habit. And that habit remains.
One of the most beautiful experiences ever. And one that will continue forth forever more. If everyone on Earth, would just try this, for one month, regardless of religion, race…but simply to find themselves…the world would be at Peace.
Ramadan, to me, is a journey, in order to reflect within and find what we are. Our journey within, forgoes external nourishment to help us find internal calm.
Truly a beautiful gift.
..it also gives you a wicked 6 pack.