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Ramadan beyond its customary practice

Abbas Di Palma proposes a different understanding of the spiritual challenges of this holy month

The month of Ramadan has been known as the month in which Muslims are required to fast from dawn to sunset. “Fasting” implies abstention from certain acts like eating, drinking, etc., with the intention of getting closer to God. It has been said in this regard that the awareness of performing our duty to God suffices for aiming at such “closeness”. Yet, an accurate analysis of the implications of this month would push a sensible soul to consider this issue beyond a mere act of “fulfilling an obligation”.

In a famous sermon, the Prophet Muhammad(s) described this month as “a month in which you have been called to the banquet of God”. Here, the presence of a banquet alludes to a context in which some sort of food must be consumed; it means that while the believer is not allowed to eat any type of physical food, he is exhorted to taste another type of ‘food’ at God’s banquet.

Commenting on the Quranic verse “So let man consider his food: (80:24), the great Imam al-Baqir(a) says: “It refers to knowledge that he acquires and its source”. We may  therefore conclude that as the body needs food, the soul also needs its own food in compliance with its nature.

Some people define fasting as an ascetic practice as it implies self-restraint and mortification of the flesh. Certainly, asceticism is a vital element in human life that at times has been ridiculed or disregarded while at times it has been over-emphasised or practised in an exaggerated way.  As a matter of fact, even the maximum enjoyment of sensory worldly pleasures necessitates periodical abstentions from bodily engagements; such equilibrium is what permits a harmonious life in every aspect of our existence. It is probably for this reason that many traditions emphasise not eating, sleeping and talking too much. However, a balanced life should not be the mere reason for fasting; in fact, as has been confirmed by the pious and wise scholars, its main purpose is to serve as a conduit to the spiritual path and spiritual satisfaction.

This aspect has been sometimes underestimated with the focus of the holy month of Ramadan falling on philanthropic causes. There is no doubt that one of the reasons for fasting is “to make the wealthy feel like the hungry ones” (as stated in a noble tradition) and that charity is one of the best ways of purifying our own souls, but the real sense of charity can only be found when it aims towards God. It follows that one of the greatest Divine mercies in the obligation of fasting is the obedience to the Divine Will to do charity as its final fruit, and this is materialised on the day of Eid al-Fitr.

Vigilance and attention during this holy month, therefore, is what has been specially endorsed apart from the most basic rules of not eating and drinking and their likes. In the traditions of our great Imams, the fasting of the tongue, hearing and sight is much emphasised. This implies not to talk, listen or look at anything forbidden or do anything that can potentially lead to sin and, if possible, abstain from anything distracting from one’s awareness of God.

As a result, the human soul becomes aware of its ‘natural environment’; while being in this world it will understand not to belong to it. In other words, the fasting person is aware of being a wayfarer in this world and that his destiny lies somewhere else. The believer may reach a stage in which he sees the world itself losing its materiality and taking on an aspect of ‘transparency’ between him and the Divine Realities.

At this point, we may affirm that in the month of Ramadan economic, social and spiritual benefits of fasting are all interrelated. Its external form regulates the individual and social life of the believer while its inner realities aim to strengthen his will and purify his intention.

It has been narrated in several traditions that one of the customs of the Prophet Muhammad(s) during the last ten days of this month was secluding himself in the mosque and detaching from worldly activities. Unfortunately, the practice of seclusion in a mosque for some days during the month of Ramadan has been forgotten amongst some Muslims while being of great spiritual benefit and highly recommended in Islamic scriptures.

It would be a very special blessing to witness the Night of Qadr [the Night of Decree) during a state of spiritual seclusion. In this night the Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad(s) and every year special benedictions are sought by believers in it through prayers, supplications and supererogatory acts.

Also, this night has been called “a blessed night” (44:3). Blessing often implies the concept of ‘getting the maximum from the minimum’. For example, living a very modest lifestyle with very few comforts and commodities but, at the same time, being extremely happy and satisfied with what has been given to us is considered a blessing. Similarly, a very modest job by which one can face the hardest challenges of this life is another type of blessing. The night of Qadr has been called ‘blessed’ because in just one night the whole Qur’an was revealed: this great ocean of knowledge enclosing the most profound secrets and mysteries of the universe was manifested during the time span of one night only.

Therefore our aspirations during the blessed month of Ramadan should ideally focus on transcendental works like the recitation of the Holy Qur’an, supererogatory prayers, special supplications and different types of spiritual retreat. Abstention from sin, giving charity, showing extra kindness to others and refinement of the soul will follow as a natural outcome of the sincerity put into our devotional efforts. As the Qur’an says, “Felicitous is he who purifies himself,” (87:14).

 

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