Assalamu alaikum, peace be with you all.
بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم و الصلاة و السلام علا سيدنا محمد خاتم النبين و إمام المتقين
As we draw ever nearer to entering the beautiful month of Ramadan, the month of the Quran (O Allah, grant us life to live another Ramadan!), we must prepare ourselves, as we always do, to reap its rich rewards and partake fully in its magnanimous bounties.
All Muslims look forward to Ramadan. To many non-Muslims, this is inexplicable - why look forward to a whole month of self-deprivation, hunger, thirst and hardship? Yet, those of us who have experienced Ramadan almost chuckle at this notion, cherishing our collective secret - that those diminished external comforts result in such fabulous internal rewards - rewards of the heart. And as all matters of the heart, they cannot be put into words, rather they are felt. And the one who feels them, knows.
However, to many around the world this Ramadan will be different to what they are used to. The unprecedented global circumstance that has befallen the world has radically shifted our understanding of what is normal.
Normal now means social distancing and extensive disinfection, of careful preparation before venturing outside, and picking one's trips judiciously and then carrying them out purposefully, of interacting virtually and not physically.
These situations to the believer though strange, and uncomfortable, are not wholly unwelcome. They are a reminder to us that our life on this earth is precarious, and that we are not the ones in control of when our time here will end nor how. Concepts the practitioner of Islam knows and understands well.
Also a precious opportunity to heal the environment and slow down our hectic lives. And mostly a chance to take stock of how we have been living our lives thus far, assess our priorities and an opportunity where there is need, to rectify what has been neglected, and mend what has been broken.
Nevertheless, what will be different, difficult, and by no means welcome – is that many of us will face this Ramadan without being able to gather for the special nightly prayers (salat al Taraweeh) and to break our fast together at a communal ‘iftar’ meal. We will miss this greatly. Many mosques will be closed. A reality that we could have not imagined a year ago, but will soon face.
Let me however take this opportunity to remind us all, that Ramadan is not primarily about communal prayers nor communal meals. Ramadan is about self-purification, about self-discipline and about training the body and mind in order to benefit the heart and soul.
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا كُتِبَ عَلَيْكُمُ الصِّيَامُ كَمَا كُتِبَ عَلَى الَّذِينَ مِن قَبْلِكُمْ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَتَّقُونَ
O you have attained belief, written upon you is the fasting, as it was written upon those who were before you, in order that you may become those of ‘taqwa’ (God consciousness)
The above verse is succinct, and lays out clearly and unequivocally the purpose of fasting. It is to attain ‘taqwa’. Taqwa is a word that loses much in translation. It comes from the root word t-q-y or t-q, (-و-ق-ي , or ت-ق ) which has a sphere of meaning that encompasses ‘guarding, protecting, shielding, being wary of, being careful in behaviour toward/handling of’ etc. Applied to the form ‘taqwa’, the meaning can be summarized as ‘being cognizant of and respectful toward God’, or to coin a phrase perhaps more relatable nowadays, to be ‘mindful of God’.
Thus, as in all Islamic practices, fasting also has a purpose. The reason why we have been commanded to fast (as Allah ﷻ has made it obligatory, ‘written upon you’) is so that we may attain a state of being always ‘mindful of God’. The state of one in taqwa, or a muttaqi. And this state is beloved to Allah ﷻ
It is one of the seven states (or characteristics) a human being may achieve that ensure for him or her the unconditional love of Allah ﷻ ! No small statement and no small state indeed.
بَلَىٰ مَنْ أَوْفَىٰ بِعَهْدِهِ وَاتَّقَىٰ فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ يُحِبُّ الْمُتَّقِينَ
Nay indeed, those who keep their pledges and who safeguard, verily Allah loves the ones mindful of God (al-muttaqoon, ‘those in taqwa’)
Surah A’li Imran:76
We first see the phrase ‘Allah loves the ones mindful of God’, in Surah Ali Imran, in the context of keeping a promise. It comes twice in Surah Tawbah (ayat 4 and 7) – in both contexts also about keeping one’s promises. And indeed we promised Allah ﷻ, when we in the celestial realm, before being sent to earth, that we would not forget Him ﷻ [please see sections in Quran, Surah 7, ayah 172 for this incident, which it behooves us to remember]
There are only seven characteristics that are qualified by the definitive phrase ‘verily Allah loves….’ We call these the seven words and we say you must try before you die to achieve at least one of them, if not more than one, or all. Indeed, striving to attain even one will be a life-long quest and a worthy ambition to devote all your lifetime to. For what can equal being someone about whom Allah ﷻ says, ‘verily I love so and so’. The seven words are; taqwa, tahara, tawba, tawakkul, ihsan, sabr and qist, roughly translated as ‘mindful of God’, ‘Pure’, ‘turned to God’, ‘trusting in God’, ‘excellent and beautiful conduct’, ‘steadfast and patient’, ‘being upright/having integrity’.
While all seven characteristics are an equal means of attaining nearness to The Beloved. Taqwa is a quality that may be considered foundational, and certainly it is one of the most often mentioned attributes in the Quran.
Noteworthy to Ramadan, is that Allah ﷻ explains and emphasizes that the reason He ﷻ wrote upon the Muslims the obligation to fast is so that they may attain the state of taqwa. Therefore, it is clear to us that what we must focus on this Ramadan, is that we finish the month closer to attaining to or having attained the state of being one mindful of God – a ‘muttaqi’.
Take heart from this, that though for many of us, we will not enjoy all the communal activities we look forward to during this month, it will not take away at all from the purpose of why we fast. Rather, conversely, these strange times and difficult situations may indeed propel us to attain the purpose of the precious month of the Quran more easily.
Our master and guide, the beloved of Allah, Muhammed ﷺ, as his habit would spend the last 10 days of Ramadan practicing ‘i’tikaf’ – ‘staying in the mosque’ – engaged in worship and revising the Quran. Many Muslims undertake the same practice as a sunnah.
There are differences of opinion as to the specifics of how to make ‘i’tikaf, such as which mosques qualify, the rules pertaining to i’tikaf for men and women etc. Without going into these details, in general though, women have been allowed to perform i’tikaf at home (as a mercy, so they need not deal with the difficulties of living in the mosque…though many women prefer the atmosphere of the mosque over their home), choosing a room in it where they can be undisturbed and be devoted to worship. This year COVID-19 lockdowns will mean that women may continue to experience the blessing of i’tikaf at home, so this is one silver lining indeed for my sisters.
However, regardless of the specifics of the practice of i’tikaf, the spirit of this practice is that one removes oneself from one’s normal daily routine, contact with family etc., so that one may devote one’s attention to worship. Doing so in the last ten days of Ramadan is especially beneficial as we know laylat al Qadr (the night of power) falls within any one of those days. Being in i’tikaf then means we will meet laylat al Qadr devoted to our Lord and we may thus derive the maximum benefit from it.
The prophet ﷺ would say as the last ten days approached, that it is time to tighten one’s belt (that is to stop the hunger pangs after 20 days of fasting, and to train the physique) and apply oneself anew. Going into i’tikaf is part of that re-application.
Another fundamental practice in Islamic spirituality is also based on the same principle – that of removing oneself from the familiar in order to seek the face of God – and that is the practice of 'khalwa'. Khalwa can be translated as ‘retreat’ or ‘seclusion’. Muhammed ﷺ before he became a prophet, would leave his familiar comfortable life in Mecca and retreat to the Hira cave to meditate and contemplate, seeking to know God. He was essentially practicing khalwa.
And indeed he ﷺ did find his enlightenment – when he was met by the angel Gabriel (Jibreel) who brought to him the first revelations. Brought to him nothing less than the very words of Allah ﷻ !
The first revelation was in the month of Ramadan, sealing this month forever more as ‘the month of the Quran’ – a noble title for a noble guest. Thus, retreat is emphasized on many levels in relation to this month; the first revelation came when the prophet was in khalwa, the practice of i’tikaf is a standard feature of Ramadan, and moreover the whole practice of fasting during the daytime and longer prayers at night is a retreat from our normal lifestyle.
Therefore the core concepts of Ramadan; abstinence in order to bring about self-purification and reflection, departure from ordinary comforts etc. And critically, the whole purpose of our obligatory fasting during Ramadan, which is to attain taqwa of Allah ﷻ, are not one bit diminished nor harmed by the unusual situations COVID-19 has wrought upon the globe.
Lockdowns and mosques being closed, the lack of communal prayers and communal meals…while all are a great sadness that causes our hearts to cry, take heart that they do not directly impact what our Lord ﷻ wants us to attain from Ramadan. On the contrary, we hope that these extraordinary times will propel us even closer to success.
If we struggled to remove ourselves from our ordinary lives and routines before, now they have been removed from us. If we found it hard to relate to the suffering of those who cannot find food to eat nor chose it as they like, many of us now face supply change shortfalls and cannot get what we want to eat, and must be content with what is given. If we could not understand what it is like to have freedom of movement curtailed and to be uprooted from our normal world as so many millions of refugees have been of recent, now we have a slight taste of how disturbing and difficult those circumstances are.
If we have strayed so that our past experiences of Ramadan were those centered around family gatherings and lavish meals to break fast together, now this is rectified and Ramadan becomes once more centered around the quest to attain taqwa, and a person’s personal journey to God-consciousness.
Thus, once we contemplate our state, we find we have more to be grateful for than to complain of. And indeed, as hardships tend so often to be, perhaps this is also a blessing in disguise.
So what are some practical steps to take to take advantage of such an unexpected and well camouflaged gift –
When you clean your home to welcome Ramadan, make somewhere in a private corner of it, a place dedicated for prayer and contemplation. If you can dedicate a room for this it is better. Remember our prophet ﷺ had his sleeping quarters as a room opening out to the masjid. In effect his whole house was the masjid. Make your house also a building that contains a dedicated praying space which is the space you are most concerned about.
Gather with your family to make the taraweeh together. Praying together is a great means of closeness among people. Spouses praying together increases their bonds of love greatly and their compassion and empathy with each other. It is good training for the children as well to be taught to pray together, and an excellent example for them if they see their parents praying together.
Consider the lockdown a situation of enforced khalwa of sorts. A time when normality is curtailed and thereby the inward journey – the journey of the heart – is easier to embark upon. Those who can make i’tikaf- capitalize on this opportunity to do so.
And finally for all those of you engaged in essential services, our frontline health care providers and first responders, the army of support staff that keep operations smooth, especially the hospital cleaning staff, the uncounted and unsung heroes who are bus-drivers, food deliverers, and provide all manner of important services, know that you are held in high esteem, and our thanks and support is with you. More importantly know that Allah ﷻ does not allow the good deeds of any one to go to waste, and He ﷻ is ‘Al-Shakir’, The appreciative. Thanks from Allah ﷻ is not like human thanks, it cannot be measured, it’s extent unimaginable. May He ﷻ generously reward you all.
So I end this post as I began the last one that addressed the onset of the pandemic, we have much indeed to be grateful for. And if we show our thanks to Allah ﷻ, He is generous in His appreciation! Glory be to Him
وَإِذْ تَأَذَّنَ رَبُّكُمْ لَئِن شَكَرْتُمْ لَأَزِيدَنَّكُمْ ۖ وَلَئِن كَفَرْتُمْ إِنَّ عَذَابِي لَشَدِيدٌ
And when your Lord proclaimed, if you are grateful, I will increase you. And if you are ungrateful, verily my punishment is strong.
Surah Ibraheem: 7
In the above verse Allah ﷻ, starts with His generosity. So first, His beauty or ‘jamal’. The verse then speaks of ingratitude and talks of His magnificence or ‘jalal’. [Note, the difference in tense when God speaks of His rewarding – it is active tense ‘I will increase you’, but when God speaks of punishment – it is not just passive, but a clausal statement rather than a verbal statement. I.e., it is ‘my punishment is strong’, and not ‘I will punish you’]. Indeed we have come upon a time, as a human species, where we are experiencing how much we may have taken for granted and been ungrateful for.
May we now onward fill our lives with gratitude, mention the graces and favours of our Lord upon ourselves abundantly. And more than ever before, look forward to a Ramadan where we pray that not just despite all the hardships, but maybe because of it, we can succeed in attaining the purpose of our fasting. Becoming a ‘muttaqi’ and thus sealing for ourselves forever the great status of being a person whom Allah ﷻ characterized as ‘one I love’.
My prayers for you all. Keep myself and all of our Irfa’a Foundation family in your du’a this Ramadan.
My God keep you safe,
Dr. Farah Zahir
28th Sha'ban 1441