I want to write a short reflection on Ramadan as I usually keep a daily journal during the month but this Ramadan was so hectic that I didn’t get time. Internally, however, it was hugely transformational for me – or so I pray it is, going forward. I remember a talk I heard a few years ago where there was a reminder that if you were to change one tiny thing in your life after Ramadan (e.g. read one/one more ayah of Quran a day, or give £0.50 a day to someone who needs it, or keep one fast a month, or listen to one Islamic talk a week, or memorise one ayah of Quran a week, or go to the mosque for one congregational prayer a week, or etc), after ten years of tiny changes your life would be transformed. Since then I’ve tried to incorporate one small but consistent thing into my daily life every year, and may I continue by the will of Allah – that is what I mean and hope by transformational.
I suppose the way to write this that makes most sense right now is through the themes that have been most constantly on my mind. Every Ramadan a different context or set of experiences make a different theme come out through the month-long reflection on the Quran, the self, and Allah. Feeding the soul rather than the body is a fast-track way to consider those things that the everyday needs of life and demands on time distract us from. In the order that they come to my mind, the key themes this Ramadan for me have been:
Something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this Ramadan is gratitude. I feel that for the first time in my life I have recognised the paradoxical cycle of gratitude to God. The more grateful I have found myself, the more reasons I have found to be grateful and therefore, the more grateful I have found myself. To consider gratitude at first seems obvious – “I thank God for giving me xyz” – but then it gets complicated – “I thank God for the things that wouldn’t necessarily be seen as xyz blessings but which, since I am using a measurement of “good” that doesn’t accord to secularist notions of time or value, have been means of goodness/a route to something important for me” – and then it gets layered – “I thank God for making me one who is thankful, who wants to thank, who can see the blessings in the things that don’t appear to be blessings at first, who is spending any time thanking at all”. And suddenly every moment of worship – from the “acts” of fasting, praying, etc, to the worship in our everyday interactions, communication, treatment of others, decisions to speak, what we say, etc – become not only acts of gratitude themselves (e.g. I do this thing as a sign that I acknowledge a favour I have been given from Allah by adhering to what is expected/entrusted to/asked of me for it), but a reason to be grateful too (I am thankful you have made it possible for me to show gratitude to you, oh Allah).
The latter form of gratitude really feels like the more mature version of the former. It becomes a method of entering a state of constant taqwa (God-consciousness) because of the interesting self-awareness/double-consciousness it requires. It also really humiliates any arrogance in you because at any moment when you begin to get self-congratulatory about how well your worship is going, how close to God you’re feeling, how much better than others you are at being grateful or conscious of Allah, you have to remember that none of that is happening except by Allah’s favour upon you, and so, it becomes a blessing in of itself, a thing to be grateful for, not from you at all but a means to humble yourself by.
Which brings me to the second theme
Patience/Pacing/only competing with yourself
I have had such a blessed Ramadan in the sense that I feel full, felt an opening in my heart and a real strong sense of Allah’s presence. However, there was no guarantee I would feel that way, and I do not always feel that way in Ramadan necessarily, and certainly not necessarily outside Ramadan. Linking to the theme of gratitude, feeling “the Ramadan feeling” is in of itself such a mercy. It is a blessing to experience Ramadan in a way that feels deep and sincere and good. However, feeling so good about Ramadan can often leave you with a feeling of disappointment with yourself when, a month or so after Ramadan, the feeling has faded and you’re noticing old patterns return.
This year I have thought a lot about how harsh we can be on ourselves and how much we expect our trajectory of closeness to Allah to be simple and linear. I believe, as with the gratitude cycle, that closeness can be cumulative, but the trajectory is surely bumpy. This year I want to go forward with patience for myself and a focus on pacing and constancy. I can only compete with myself. This is essential. The “peaks” on my trajectory are not moments by which to condemn the “troughs”, but reminders of what my heart is capable of. Troughs can also be means by which to reach peaks in a way that peaks may not always be the best way to reach peaks. (**And perhaps the trajectory needs rethinking for something else on my mind has been the remembering that we are actually more on a journey of “return”, than a journey “forward” in time. If we believe we come from Allah and return to Allah, then every moment is a moment closer to that return.)
I’ve also thought a lot about how one person’s trough may be another person’s peak/vice versa – and so again, being grateful for the wisdom in the troughs is also important (and remembering you can literally talk to Allah at any time… tell Allah about the trough, ask about it, reach out!). From this I take a wider lesson I hope to apply more to my work and politics:
You either win, or you win
At a time like now things often appear helpless, or hopeless, or difficult. And they are. But again, by what measure am I measuring? Is there a wisdom to the troughs? Those same things that I allude to when I say “things can often appear helpless, or hopeless, or difficult” have also, in my experience, been means of community formation, collaborating to imagine alternative futures, and reasons that give life purpose. Persecution and oppression have historically been present throughout this world, but they have always been means for their opposite, too, for protection, resistance, collaboration, etc. This Ramadan I spent a lot of time listening to the biography of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) whose life proved this very example – the times of extreme violence, persecution, expulsion, oppression and war were also means of community solidification, organising resistance, inspiring others, and allyship/collaboration.
That is what I want to think about going forward: how the conditions we find ourselves in may well themselves be a means to different conditions (not as in that they provide the tools to dismantle themselves, but that they provide the context in which dismantlement becomes even a consideration). That thought gives me so much validation and value because it reminds me that even if I do not think the world can be transformed in all the ways I want it to be, it is the trying to change it anyway that counts and gives me purpose because in this framework of Islam, it all matters. When you are on the side of justice and truth you cannot lose – you can only either attain justice in this world on its terms, or(/and) attain Allah’s pleasure in the world you will return to.
No God but God
The final theme, but the one that actually struck me most initially, was the reminder of the shahada (the profession of Islamic faith). The shahada begins with the statement, “laa illaha illa-Allah”, there is no God but God. Whilst said mainly when one wants to become a Muslim and multiple times daily by many Muslims across the world, the concept can be rushed over and not reflected on enough. Thinking about the shahada I made an intention to more mindfully worship nothing but Allah. That might sounds odd or belated considering the circumstances – but I think part of the reason for repeating the line so many times is to give us chance to think about all the other things that may have seeped into our hearts, that we may be worshipping. For me, the biggest culprit would really be myself. The worship of my own desires, status or praise. Thinking about it deeply I am sure there are times I have said the shahada without considering what my priorities are/were. It is very easy for the priority in our lives to become other than Allah but for us to not notice – it seeps into our actions though and into the way that reflects our gratitude. Am I really praying out of gratitude to Allah as my one God? Or am I praying/talking about praying to elevate my own status in the eyes of those I seek approval from? Etc.
From these themes of gratitude, pacing, an altered internal framework and more conscientious prioritisation of Allah as the only source of power and ultimate creator in my life I pray the change to my internal world can help me to change the external world. Thanks for sitting with my thoughts! x