Ramadhan is the lunar month in which Muslims abstain from food and drink between daylight hours, offer extended night prayers, and generally aim to make the most of the blessings we believe God has placed in this special month.
Majority of Muslims will begin fasting this May, and subsequently the influx of Facebook posts, Tweets, and WhatsApp messages will begin to circulate, spreading goodwill and expressing joy at welcoming in the month. I also like to post in a similar spirit; wishing my friends and family a spiritually uplifting month. Mainstream media also tends to report on the arrival of the special month for Muslims, and with the expected exception of the bigot that is Katie Hopkins, it tends to be an overwhelmingly positive coverage. Many articles will be shared dispelling myths of starvation and Ramadan being a harsh month all about abstaining from food. There is, in fact, a recurrent theme amongst these messages; the reminder that Ramadan is about self-control, mastering one’s carnal desires and ego, allowing sincere empathy for those less unfortunate than ourselves, and ‘emptying the stomach to feed the soul’, and become closer to God.
Despite the deeper meaning and purpose of Ramadhan, it cannot be disputed that the majority emphasis is placed on hunger and abstention from food. Fasting is the most commonly associated verb with this month. No doubt, with the month of Ramadhan fast approaching, millions of Muslims worldwide will begin their preparations by preparing copious amounts of savouries to be deep-fried…you know, to aid with sustenance throughout fasting, of course. So, quite naturally, or so it may seem, one of the most asked questions during the month is ‘how is fasting going?’
As a Type 1 diabetic for whom it is dangerous and physically near-impossible to observe the long summer fasts, my reaction to this question has led to deeper thinking. To many, I don’t disclose that I am not fasting. For a week or so, they will automatically put it down to my menstrual cycle but beyond that, I cannot bear the usual look of sympathy if I tell them the delicate reason why. And believe me, to this day, it is a delicate reason, especially in the closed knit community within which I live, where it is viewed as a shame that a young woman like myself cannot fast. Unfortunately for myself, and the no doubt countless other seemingly able looking young Muslims, any invisible illness is viewed as something to be hidden away. On a brighter note, I do believe over time this mindset will change, and that I have a role to play myself in being more vocal and accepting of my life-long condition.
And so I find myself asking, am I experiencing a lesser version of this blessed month because I eat regular meals? Or are we subtracting from the true purpose of Ramadan when the one thing we ask about is another person’s hunger? Perhaps the reality is closer to a mixture of both, but I truly believe in a Just and Merciful God who wouldn’t have given me this chronic illness, if in it He didn’t see a way of allowing me to become closer to Him. I also believe in a God who loves me more than I could ever love myself, and has placed a special emphasis on looking after one’s self. I believe that self-care is a Divine responsibility, and whilst I am nowhere near the stage of accepting this as a rule for governing my life, I am trying my best to get there.
So, when we ask ‘how is your fast going?’ as our point of enquiry about the welfare of others during Ramadan, surely a more apt question would be ‘how is Ramadan going for you?’ Surely, we are at risk of neglecting, or not allowing ourselves to realise the true essence of this month when we place emphasis purely on the abstention from food and drink.
For me, the most fulfilling part of Ramadan involves Taraweeh, the extended night prayers. There is inexplicable beauty in congregational prayer; bowing in unison and experiencing the emotive power of recitation of the Qur’an. Congregational prayer reminds me of the importance of my religion; how we are all equal when we all bow on the same floor, and all say Ameen to the same prayers. It brings me closer to both my fellow Muslims, and it brings me closer to God.
Ramadan is also the month in which Muslims believe the Qur’an was revealed, and therefore, it is often referred to the ‘Month of the Qur’an’. If Muslims spend the 30 days concentrating on abstaining from food and drink, but do not make an attempt to build a connection with the Word of God, are we truly doing justice to this month?
A renowned Islamic teacher very eloquently articulated the following reminder on social media last Ramadhan which I feel is pertinent to all, and especially relevant to my situation when I cannot fast:
‘The purpose of fasting and the purpose of Ramadan are different. The purpose of fasting is to develop Taqwa (God-consciousness). The purpose of Ramadan is to get closer to the Qur’an. The spirit of Ramadan is lost…if you don’t come out of Ramadan more in love with the Quran than you were before.’
This is a beautiful statement and profoundly important. There are many avenues to become closer to God and more aware and in love with his Mercy and his Wisdom. For those who cannot fast during this month, the avenues to explore and deepen your faith are immense. But this is also the case for those who can fast, and it is the overall experience of Ramadan (not just the hunger and perhaps the few pounds lost) that is supposed to mould you to come out of the other end the better version of yourself. Isn’t that the point of it all?