The month of Ramadan
For many non-Muslims, the idea of fasting during the month of Ramadan can be hard to grasp. In most religious celebratory events, such as Christmas and Easters, people eat more, drink more, and party more. Yet, for us Muslims, in our celebratory month – Ramadan, we do exactly the opposite: we don’t eat, don’t drink, and don’t have fun. What is wrong with us?
If you are one of those who think that way, I don’t blame you. After all, even though there is frequent mention of ‘Ramadan’ in mainstream media, most of the time, this holy month is never adequately explained. Ramadan is usually reduced to the act of fasting, just as Islam is usually simplified to the image of women wearing headscarf, or men prostrating during prayer.
Fasting is no doubt a part of Ramadan. During this holy month, we Muslims are required to abstain from eating, drinking and sexual relations during the day. We are also encouraged to refrain ourselves from worldly attachments and divert our mind to the Divine Being through increase in prayer, Quran recitation and reflection. However, as God himself states clearly in the Quran, He ‘does not want To put us to difficulties’ (The Quran, 2:185), but these rules are created to align us more closely to God – which is also the true purpose of Ramadan, and of a believer.
I usually think of Ramadan as a SWOTVAC – the revision week before the exam period in most universities and schools around the world. Even though students are expected to study and revise their lessons every day in their twelve-week semester, universities and schools provide SWOTVAC out of mercy and understanding that many students don’t keep up to date with their works because of worldly distractions. SWOTVAC is therefore the week of intensive revision and studying. It is when libraries are usually packed, when lights are still on at 3 am, and when social clubs’ activities experience significance drop. This is the week where students empty themselves of worldly entertainment and attachment to invest in studying and revision. It’s the time of intense study and reflection.
Similarly, Muslims are also expected to fully submit to God in every second of our liife. This is also what we are tested on: our sincerity in our faith and submission to God. Here, it is necessary to understand that in Islam to believe in God and to submit to His will are two different things. To believe is to accept the existence of God, but to fully submit to God requires devotion, understanding and sincerity. For us Muslims, our test is not only whether or not we believe in God, but also how sincere we are in our faith, our understanding and our gratefulness to the Divine Creator.
However, the truth is that as human beings, Muslims are also vulnerable to evil’s effects and can be distracted by worldly attachments. Though our faith in the existence of God is unquestionable, our submission to His Will might be not. That’s because during the 11 months of the year, our soul, as Said Nursi writes, ‘wants to be free and independent …and does not want to admit that it is being sustained and trained through innumerable bounties’ (Said Nursi, The Letters, 459) Rather than recognising itself as a servant of God, it says: “I am myself and You are Yourself”, thereby claiming self-ownership and leaving no room for God.
Ramadan is therefore an intensive month of worship, in which we, as Susan Carland puts it, ‘empty ourselves out – physically of food and spiritually of our attachment to anything that takes us away from God’ so that we can ‘create the necessary space for the Holy’. It is the month when Muslims, like students in SWOTVAC, keep themselves away from worldly attachment to focus on learning about God (through reflection, prayer and recitation of Quran) and fully submitting one’s soul to him
Fasting is one way to increase the sincerity of submission. Abstaining from consuming food and drinking liquids, the instinctual soul experiences hunger, thirst and tiredness, which makes it realise that it is not independent, not powerful, and indeed not free. When asked: ‘Who am I and who are you’, the soul replies: ‘You are my Compassionate Sustainer and I am your impotent servant!” (Said Nursi, The Letter, 464).
See? Just one day without food and drink, we get easily tired, and can’t function as we usually do, let alone pursuing worldly goals. Just one day without food and drink, we realise the preciousness of a small piece of bread and a small cup of water. Just one day without food and drink, the arrogant soul is hit onto the face and realises the reality of its weakness and powerlessness. It becomes modest, which is the first step before it can submit to God with sincerity and intense. After all, to quote Carland, ‘true submission and the ego self cannot exist in the same vessel’.
Thus, whilst fasting is indeed a part of Ramadan, it is not everything about this holy month. Fasting is rather one of the vehicles helping Muslims to drain the space within us with what we truly need: our Divine Creator.
Benduzzaman Said Nursi, “The Second Section” of The 29th Letter in “The Letters”. This treatise is on the Month of Ramadan. An insightful interpretation and explanation of many instances of wisdoms of fasting. You can read the treatise here: http://www.erisale.com/index.jsp?locale=en#content.en.202.457
Susan Carland, The emptiness of Ramadan makes space for the Holy. http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2013/07/09/3799396.htm