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Dew Point

This blog is dedicated to sharing my every-day discoveries of how the light and beauty of Islamic spirituality can be part of a modern, well-rounded way of life.

Month

August 2011

Sweet reward

 
My mom’s basbousa recipe below:)

Eid al-Fitr, the celebration that marks the end of the Islamic month of fasting, is all about consuming sweets. Well, at least that’s what I grew up believing –and I have happily upheld this tradition up to today. After a month of fasting from sunrise until sunset, which tends to constrict your appetite, pastries, sweets and cookies are served up in large quantities during the three days of Eid al-Fitr (the festival of breaking the fast). The best part is, after cutting down consumption during Ramadan, I don’t feel guilty about devouring these rich, sweet, buttery desserts.

There are so many varieties of sweets served across the Arab world during Eid. Kahk (or maamoul) is a particular favourite in Egypt and other countries: small pastries stuffed with dates, walnuts or pistachios and doused in powdered sugar. Ghorayebah biscuits, baklava and kunafeh (a Middle Eastern pastry made from a vermicelli-like pastry) are other crowd favourites.

During Eid, extended family members generally visit one another to congratulate each other on a successful Ramadan and pass along Eid greetings. These sweets, often bought at bakeries, will be served as part of the celebrations.

Apart from my sister, I haven’t any family or extended family in town this year. Hence, we have no major socialising events to attend. I suppose because of this, it slipped my mind to stock up on pastries at the end of Ramadan. I woke up this morning realising there wasn’t a traditional sweet in the house to help us celebrate.

So I pulled out my handy compilation of mom’s dessert recipes and decided to make basbousa, a sweet pastry made from semolina and coconut and drizzled in syrup. While I have had this recipe on file for years, today was the first time I tried to make it on my own.

The basbousa turned out quite well (I ate two portions before dinner). As usually occurs when I try one of my mom’s recipes, however, the basbousa wasn’t quite the same as when she makes it. This never fails. I can follow my mom’s main course or dessert recipes to a tee and yet they will always turn out a little off, as though her touch triggers a latent flavour in every dish that cannot be replicated by anyone else.

In any case, the basbousa is still yummy enough to share, so I’ve included the recipe below for those interested in indulging in some guilt-free dessert consumption this Eid.

While Ramadan is over, many Muslims will continue to fast with less frequency in Shawwal, the lunar month that follows Ramadan on the Islamic calendar. Eid is declared once the sighting of a new moon marks the start of Shawwal. There are said to be spiritual benefits for fasting six days during the month of Shawwal, following the Eid celebration. Fasting outside of Ramadan is one way to help carry the spirit of the month through the year, which I elaborated on in July in my blog entry, ‘Fasting to Feed the Soul’.

A joyous Eid to all and happy eating!

My mom’s basbousa

Ingredients

Cake

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup wheatlets (semolina)

1 cup coconut

3 teaspoons baking powder

½ cup butter or margarine, melted

¼ cup to ½ cup yogurt

Syrup

1 cup water

2 cups sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla powder

Juice from ¼ of a lemon, freshly squeezed

Directions

1) Preheat oven to 180C.

2) Prepare the syrup. Combine sugar, water and vanilla powder in a saucepan at high heat. Bring to a boil and then simmer for five minutes to form a syrup. Leave to cool.

3) Mix together flour, wheatlets, coconut and baking powder in medium bowl. Fold in butter and mix until well-combined. Add yogurt to mixture and combine until batter is smooth.

4) Spread the mixture into greased large circular or rectangular baking dish and pat down until it is evenly spread across the pan. (I used two square baking dishes this time, but would have preferred making it in one larger pan)

Take a sharp knife and slice cake into diamond or square shapes. Arrange almonds on top so that each cut slice will hold an almond.

5) Bake for about 30 minutes until golden.

6) Remove cake from oven and immediately pour the syrup over the cake while it is still in the baking dish. Allow basbousa to absorb the syrup and cool down before removing from tray and serving.

Enjoy!!

 
Remove from the oven once it is golden…
 
Then drench the cake in the prepared syrup..
 
And leave it until the syrup is completely absorbed. Ready to eat!
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The night of a thousand months

 

Photo courtesy of VickyTH, Flickr

(A version of this article was carried by the Huffington Post)

From seconds to years to millennia, time is a fluid concept in Islam that I often puzzle over. During the final 10 days of Ramadan falls a night that the Quran describes as being ‘better than 1,000 months’, which would translate into 83.3 years in modern time measurement. In essence, belief in the power of one evening is worth more than a well-lived lifetime.

Laylat Al Qadr, the Night of Power or Destiny, is the climax of the Islamic month of fasting, commemorating the night when Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, received his first divine revelation through the Archangel Gabriel in 610 AD. These revelations continued for more than two decades and form the Quran, meaning ‘Recitation’ in English, which is a composition of God’s message to humanity.

Many Muslims around the world will spend Laylat Al Qadr in prayer and quiet reflection, some secluding themselves in mosques in devotion to God, hoping to seek the unparalleled benefit of a night when sincere worshippers are forgiven all sins and angels descend on earth.

Last year, while visiting Cairo, I strived for the first time to participate in Laylat Al Qadr, most-widely believed to fall on the 27th night of Ramadan, although many scholars concur it could fall on one of the odd-numbered nights of the final 10 days.

Determined not to have the night to pass me by, I spent these five odd-numbered nights awake until the break of dawn, in prayer, reading passages from the Quran, offering duaa (supplications) for family and friends, and trying to grasp how one brief night could hold such immense energy and power. After all, 83.3 years is more than the average human life expectancy for citizens of most countries in the world. How could one night be greater than an entire lifetime?

To begin to comprehend this idea, I turned to the Quran, in which God continually calls on us to regard our perception of time as relative and flexible rather than linear and constant. For instance, the word for ‘day’ in Arabic is ‘youm’, which in everyday usage refers to the 24-hour period of a day. But in the Quran, the explanation of youm is much broader, referring to long periods of time, eras or epochs of indefinite lengths, rather than a single day measured by the rotation of the earth on its axis.

“A Day with your Lord is like a thousand years of your reckoning,” the Quran says in one reference to how humans would grasp the length of a day in the Hereafter. (Quran, 22:47) When God says He “created the heavens and the earth in six days” (7:54), He is referring to six stages of development, rather than six 24-hour days.

Setting aside the ideas of time we have grown comfortable with in everyday life re-arranges how we evaluate the passage of time and helps us begin to grasp the concept of eternity. We realise that while daily living on earth may seem to us to be long, in the end when we reflect back, our time here will appear momentary. Once all is said and done, people will perceive that they had stayed on earth for “a day or part of a day” (23: 112-114) or “not longer than an hour of a day” (10:45), according to the holy book.

Knowing that the journey of life is brief when compared with eternity, spiritually aware Muslims–those who live in Islam, the Arabic word meaning ‘submission’ to God –become more conscious and attentive of our actions, seeking to pray, fast, give charity and treat those around us with kindness, respect and justice.

Trying to catch Laylat Al Qadr sincerely is, I presume, about attaining a spiritual connection with God that transcends units of time. For an evening, we have a chance to traverse the world’s limitations to where time is incalculable–where the value in a moment of connection is so unfathomably rich that it surpasses the length of a person’s worldly existence.

 
Minarets by night at Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah, Saudi Arabia

According to one Hadith, a saying of the last prophet, “whoever establishes prayers on the Night of Power out of sincere faith and hoping to attain God’s rewards, then all his past sins will be forgiven”. It was on this night that Angel Gabriel asked Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) to ‘read’. Being illiterate, Muhammad responded that he could not. After repeating the request and receiving the same response, Angel Gabriel revealed to Muhammad the following verse:

Read! In the name of the Lord, who created:
Created man out of a clot [of blood].
Read! Your Lord is the Most-Bountiful One
Who taught by the pen
Taught man what he did not know.
(Quran 96: 1-5)

What I love about this verse is the emphasis God places on acquiring knowledge in order to uncover and understand His miracles. Sometimes this demands that we challenge pre-conceived notions of reality in order to become more receptive to the possibilities of living in submission.

After spending most of my life sleeping through Laylat Al Qadr, last year I tried my best to witness it. In the few months prior, I had made a conscious effort to deepen my connection with God. In the process, I discovered that prayer in the early morning prior to fajr, the first of Islam’s five daily prayers that takes place before sunrise, can be particularly tranquil and comforting.

In the dark of night before the sun rises and when most people are asleep, I am able to clear my thoughts, focus and meditate more so than I can at other times of the day. My daily spiritual routine would now be incomplete if I am not awake to hear the call to fajr prayer, which ends with the simple-yet-captivating line, “prayer is better than sleep”.

On Laylat Al Qadr, this energy and nearness to God that I get a glimpse of just before fajr is magnified and stretched over an entire night of intense prayer, reflection and remembrance. That is why year after year, many Muslims will seek the night where worship carries the weight of 1,000 months. Even if we can’t fully grasp how this is possible, we have a chance to nurture a formidable spiritual connection with God.

Bustle of bees

We have a gorgeous tree in our backyard that blooms in late summer, bearing clusters of soft pink hibiscus flowers whose funnel-shaped petals are accentuated by bright-red centres. A cream-coloured pistil protrudes from the centre of each flower, attracting bees from around the neighbourhood eager to collect pollen and nectar, which forms the sugar source for honey.

The flowers began opening up last week and since then many bees have been busying themselves pollinating the flowers. Watching the bees move about the tree this lovely sunny August afternoon, I thought I would take some photographs of these extraordinary miracles of nature.

God enjoins us continually in the Quran to pause and reflect on the miracles of nature to gain certainty in His signs. It really is quite remarkable what you can witness in nature if you just pay attention.

Your Lord inspired the bee, saying, ‘Make your homes in the mountains, in the trees, and also in the structures which humans erect.

Then feed on every kind of fruit, and follow the trodden paths of your Lord.’ From its belly comes a drink with different colours which provides healing for humankind. Indeed, in this there is a sign for people who give thought. (Quran, Bees, 16: 68-69)

For another post on the miracles of nature, read my piece ‘Finding spirit in a school field’.

Passing on judgement

If you scratch the surface of any person’s life, you will find a story worth telling. This story will most definitely include chapters on the hardship and adversity this person has faced, and describe the lessons they drew from these events. Periods of dilemma will generally be followed by moments of joy, relief and comfort, with each story tailored specifically to the individual.

For many of us, the trials of our lives will lead us to build, break and restore our relationship with God, sometimes earlier in life, sometimes later and sometimes much later. Neither of these scenarios is necessarily superior to the others. The pace at which each person shapes this relationship is different and so are the ways s/he expresses it.

I have spent much of my life until recently in a superficial relationship with God. It wasn’t until I reflected on the feeble condition of that bond that I understood the value in restoring it. Observation turned into resolve and I found myself seeking to revive a sincere bond with God through Islamic methodology: dedicated prayer, fasting, patience, charity and acts remembrance. My expressions of faith went from acts that mirrored faithfulness to a way of life that embodied it.

I believe God sets each of us on a distinctive spiritual journey, fraught with its own challenges, setbacks and chances to seek forgiveness and find redemption. He informs us in the Quran that on no soul does He place a burden greater than it can bear.

By virtue of this, it is impossible to judge the depth of any person’s intimate connection with God at any given time. We especially cannot judge someone’s faith by its ‘cover’ so to speak, although this happens all of the time. We often cast judgement on people, or are ourselves judged, based on external appearance: the words we speak, our clothing choices, the rituals we perform, the frequency of our attendance at communal acts of worship. All of our external dealings, words, behaviours and choices should not be a basis of judgement of something that is by nature quiet and private.

I recently came across the story of Moses (عليه السلام) and the Shepherd, described in the work of 13th-century Muslim poet and Sufi mystic Rumi. It portrays the risks of endeavouring to cast judgement on another’s faith.

A version of this story is superbly woven into the book, The Forty Rules of Love, by Turkish author Elif Shafak, which I read this summer. Shafak’s book draws parallels between two stories, one ancient and one modern: that of Rumi’s encounter with his spiritual mentor, Shams of Tabriz, a whirling dervish; and that of a middle-aged American housewife whose life is transformed when she begins corresponding with a sufi, Aziz Zahara, whose novel she is reading for a literary agent.

————–

“One day Moses was walking in the mountains on his own when he saw a shepherd in the distance. The man was on his knees with his hands spread out to the sky, praying. Moses was delighted. But when he got closer, he was equally stunned to hear the shepherd’s prayer.

“Oh, my beloved God, I love Thee more than Thou can know. I will do anything for Thee, just say the word. Even if Thou asked me to slaughter the fattest sheep in my flock in Thy name, I would do so without hesitation. Thou would roast it and put its tail fat in Thy rice to make it more tasty”.

Moses inched toward the Shepherd listening attentively.

“Afterward I would wash Thy feet and clean Thine ears and pick Thy lice for Thee. That is how much I love Thee.”

Having heard enough, Moses interrupted the shepherd, yelling “Stop, you ignorant man!  What do you think you are doing? Do you think God eats rice? Do you think God has feet for you to wash?  This is not prayer. It is sheer blasphemy.”

Dazed and ashamed, the shepherd apologised repeatedly and promised to pray as decent people did.  Moses taught him several prayers that afternoon. Then he went on his way, utterly pleased with himself.

But that night Moses heard a voice. It was God’s.

“Oh Moses, what have you done? You scolded that poor shepherd and failed to realise how dear he was to Me. He might not be saying the right things in the right way, but he was sincere. His heart was pure and his intentions good. I was pleased with him. His words might have been blasphemy to your ears, but to Me they were sweet blasphemy.”

Moses immediately understood his mistake. The next day, early in the morning, he went back to the mountains to see the shepherd. He found him praying again, except this time he was praying in the way he had been instructed. In his determination to get the prayer right, he was stammering, bereft of the excitement and passion of his earlier prayer. Regretting what he had done to him, Moses patted the shepherd’s back and said, “My friend, I was wrong. Please forgive me. Keep praying in your own way. That is more precious to God’s eyes”.

The shepherd was astonished to hear this, but even deeper was his relief. Nevertheless, he did not want to go back to his old prayers. Neither did he abide by the formal prayers that Moses had taught him. He had now found a new way of communicating with God. Though satisfied and blessed in his naive devotion, he was now past that stage–beyond his sweet blasphemy.

 “So you see, don’t judge the way other people connect to God,” concluded Shams.”To each his own way and his own prayer. God does not take us at our word. He looks deep into our hearts. It is not the ceremonies or rituals that make a difference, but whether our hearts are sufficiently pure or not.”

(The Forty Rules of Love, Pg. 51-52)

——————

Casting judgement on another’s faith, intention or sincerity is exceptionally dangerous and places us in a potentially precarious position before God. One supremely sincere prayer or supplication offered by an individual who has endured tremendous struggle patiently could very well be more cherished by God than a 1,000 offered by another person who has been granted greater ease in life. We simply cannot know—and any attempt to judge another’s faith is therefore futile.

We should thus always strive to encourage each other to discover our distinct spiritual connection with God in a way that brings us comfort because this will foster sincerity in gestures of faith. This encouragement and tolerance is an extension of faith, and it is important to ardently avoid placing judgements that would risk damaging our own good intentions.

Prophet Muhammad ﷺ once conveyed the story of a person who presumed to judge another’s faith by saying: ‘By God, God will not forgive So-and-so”. “At this God the Almighty said: ‘Who is he who swears by Me that I will not forgive So-and-so? Verily, I have forgiven So-and-so and have nullified your (own good) deeds,” the prophet continued.

It is important to remember when we find ourselves casting judgement on another that sincerity is infinitely more important than any ritual or external display of faith we can put on. Since each person has very specific circumstances that shape the plot of their personal journey, it is impossible for any individual to have enough perspective and understanding to judge another’s faith fairly and accurately. The depth of our genuineness cannot be fully manifested in words, clothes or acts that may sound and look different from person to person. It can be judged by God alone.

Remembering to remember

The other day I was chatting with a friend about Ramadan, and he asked me how I would characterise zikr, a term that comes up frequently in the Quran which expresses the idea of ‘remembrance of God’. We need not be sitting in a dark, quiet room in a meditative state, to be mindful of and remember God, my friend quite rightly stated.

At the time, I was sitting with my mom in the family room in our family home. As I browsed the web, she was intently watching an Oprah show re-run, which she likes to do for afternoon breaks on weekdays. A few minutes later without warning, my mom kissed the palm of her right hand and then clenched her fist lightly to kiss the tops of her fingers curled into her palm, her eyes still fixed on the television screen. She did the same with her left hand and then mumbled a short phrase of gratitude to God under her breath for something.

My mom has periodically performed the same gesture during the day throughout my life, usually when something she sees on TV or in her surroundings causes her to realise and appreciate the blessings in her life. She’ll stop momentarily to give thanks for the home she owns, the food in the fridge, her health, the peacefulness of her surroundings and the peace of mind this has afforded her. While taking in a daily dose of talk shows, my mom’s very honest act of remembrance displays how easy it is to be mindful and conscious of God at any time.

Whether we are watching television, cooking, cleaning, working, exercising, driving, shopping, or socialising, we can take a minute to ponder how at that moment, we have a great deal of blessings to be grateful for. That is how I define zikr; it is the act of being mindful of God continually throughout our days so that we attain a state of consciousness where we are continually aware of His presence.

Regardless of the uncertainties and challenges we may face at any given time – and there will always be something – zikr as a continual practice allows us to maintain enough perspective to identify the blessings we already have so that we are not overshadowed by the misgivings, doubts, problems and complex dilemmas that we will inevitably encounter.

“There is a polish for everything that takes away rust; and the polish for the heart is the remembrance of God.”

This is a Hadith among the collection of sayings of the Last Prophet, Muhammad ﷺ, which succinctly describes the power of heedful remembrance of God. When something is polished, light shines through it or reflects off of it more radiantly than when it is stained or soiled. Having consciousness of God throughout the day helps you regulate your emotions and reduce the impact of negativity which can cloud your mind and darken your heart.

I think it is relevant to note that I am writing this entry on what I would call an ‘off day’ for me. I woke up this morning with a mind consumed by apprehension due to a series of uncertainties in my life. Three weeks ago, I found out I would need to start searching for a new job because my current contract would not be renewed due to downsizing. This among other anxieties both related and unrelated began to swirl in my head.

What zikr does for me is it sieves and refines the enormity of my dilemmas so that I am not swallowed by them. Self pity is inevitable, but within the routine of remembrance my sojourn in utter discontent is far shorter. By practicing zikr, I am forced to identify at many points of the day what I am thankful for, and by virtue of this I can get right back to enjoying the blessings of this moment rather than dwelling on difficulties that are destined and unavoidable. Remembering God and being appreciative of our blessings, whether substantial or subtle, becomes part of our habit and routine.

One of the triggers for me in discovering how to live in submission to God (Islam) was hearing a sufi sheikh say, “Don’t try to fit God into your life. Make your life revolve around God.” I was attending the sheikh’s weekly sermon for the first time, on invitation of a friend. I don’t typically enjoy sitting through religious sermons, but his simple words struck me, and I made a note of them on my BlackBerry.

The phrase lingered in my mind for days, waking me up to the fact that I was so far from doing that; God rarely crossed my mind. Many of us are accustomed to thinking about God when things in our lives get rough or we’re faced with a moment of desperation that compels us to reflect. Once circumstances ease, however, thoughts of God often return to the backburner of our minds. Zikr involves carrying that remembrance we are so good at when we are suffering to times when things are going well.

The point of zikr is to draw our attention back to God throughout the day so that we don’t get too caught up in the facade that daily life proves to be, in good times and in bad.

It can be spoken or silently expressed in the heart. You may hear a Muslim say or repeat “la illa ha il Allah”, meaning “there is no God but God”, which flows smoothly off the tongue and is designed to draw one’s attention back to the Divine so that we can reflect and be grateful.

‘Subhan’Allah’, which means ‘Glorious is God’, we will say or repeat when we witness a miracle of nature or are reacting to a turn of events that shows the inherent destiny of things.

‘Allahu Akbar’, or ‘God is the Greatest’, is said frequently to acknowledge His Glory and the view that He has a Hand in everything that happens in our daily lives.

‘Alhamdulillah’, or ‘All praise is due to God’, is a common method of expressing gratitude for all of life’s twists and turns, knowing that they are all tests and blessings.

‘Astaghfirullah’ is an Arabic phrase meaning “I ask God forgiveness”. When something or someone agitates us and we feel we have reacted too harshly, Astaghfirullah enables us to express that we are aware of our mistakes and ask for forgiveness then and there.

The simple yet rich line that begins the Quran is also recited regularly. ‘Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem’, “In the Name of God, the Gracious, the Merciful”, is said before eating, getting out of bed, working, travelling, preparing for a public speech—anything. Sometimes I say it before turning a corner while driving.

My friend was perfectly right. You don’t need to be in a state of meditation or prayer to remember God; you can do that at any time and anywhere. Practicing zikr disciplines our thoughts and enables us to exude the positivity and peace that God intends for us.

“They are those who believe and whose hearts find comfort in the remembrance of God—surely in the remembrance of God hearts can find comfort” (13:28)

Experiencing Ramadan

Ramadan is a very unique month, uniting families, friends and strangers in an experience that is both collective and personal. It is a colourful time of the year, as people hang fawanees (lanterns) from balconies and window sills at home, and decorative tents are set up across the city to capture the festive atmosphere. Public recitations of the Quran take place each evening at neighbourhood mosques that in some cases are so congested people will assemble prayer rugs under the open night sky for long nights of quiet reflection and prayer. The ambiance of Ramadan creates a multi-sensory environment for an individual’s quiet, very personal spiritual growth.

One of the base features of Ramadan is fasting from sunrise to sunset, which is obligatory for Muslims. In addition to forgoing food and drink throughout the day, other supplementary spiritual practices can be performed by individuals that are voluntary in nature. By virtue of this, the significance of Islam’s holiest month can change throughout one’s life depending on how one perceives and practices faith. We have the freedom to take as much or as little out of Ramadan as we choose to, depending on the amount of spiritual energy we are willing to commit.

Ramadan has been my favourite time of the year for as long as I can remember, although the reasons for this have evolved over time. When I was younger, I enjoyed Ramadan mostly for the sense of togetherness it encouraged. I would find myself spending quality time with loved ones and friends more often than usual as we gathered to break our daily fasts with a meal known as iftar, served at sunset. A long day of fasting emphasises appreciation for food, making meal times more flavourful and the presence of good company more enjoyable.

For a long time, I had only vague ideas and second-hand impressions of the historical and religious significance of Ramadan, which falls on the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. It is known most prominently for being the month that Prophet Muhammad ﷺ began receiving revelations from God.

As my interest and understanding of Islam has developed, the value of Ramadan has taken on a greater significance in my spiritual routine. Extracting the fullest experience out of Ramadan can be rigorous on the body and mind. This is not so much because of fasting – your body can quite quickly adapt to reduced consumption by refining your diet to bare essentials. Rather, it is taking part in spiritual routines that can be taxing physically and mentally. These include optional prayers, devoting more time offering supplications, giving charity, reading from the Quran, and spending extra time praying in the evenings and early morning hours.

The reason we exert this effort is because of the sacred importance of the month. Muslims believe each divine revelation by God to the great and revered prophets occurred during Ramadan, beginning with Prophet Abraham, whose scriptures were revealed by the Almighty God, otherwise known as Allah in Arabic, at the start of the holy month. According to Islamic tradition, it was during Ramadan that God revealed the Torah to Prophet Moses, the Psalms to Prophet David and the Gospel to Prophet Jesus. (عليهم الصلاة والسلام)

Islam, which means ‘submission’ in English, refers to individuals who live in a state of submission to God. As a Muslim, I espouse belief in one God, and believe wholeheartedly that God has sent a Guide to living to humanity through numerous prophets, the last of whom was Muhammad ﷺ. The Last Prophet’s revelations began in Ramadan and continued for more than two decades to form the Quran, or ‘The Recitation’ in English, God’s message for all of humanity.

It is He who sent down to thee (step by step), in truth, the Book, confirming what went before it; and He sent down the Law (of Moses) and the Gospel (of Jesus) before this, as a guide to humankind, and He sent down the criterion of judgment. (Quran 3:3)

For those who do have a sincere faith in God and varying degrees of spiritual practice, this time of year is momentous if purely for its historical significance. In the Quran, God obliges all believers to fast from the break of dawn to sunset during the sacred month, with exceptions made for those whose health prevents them from the fast. (Quran 2:185).

Ramadan is a lunar month measured by the Islamic calendar. Every year, the start of the month moves back about 11 days on the solar calendar so over the course of 33 or so years, Ramadan will fall on every day from January to December.

Spiritually, the month promises immense rewards. Year in and year out, Ramadan is the same, but the way we draw benefit from it shifts throughout our lives depending on how we approach it. God gives us a great deal of space to discover our personal relationships with Him on our own terms. Much of the benefit we can derive during Ramadan are uncovered at our own volition.

 “The month of Ramadan is the month of God in which the doors of Heaven are open, which is full of His Mercy, Blessings and Forgiveness. It is the best of months, its days are the best of days, its hours the best of hours; the month in which one’s breath counts as an act of worship, even sleep becomes a gesture of worship and, most importantly, our prayers are answered and sins are forgiven.”

This passage by the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ encapsulates why Ramadan is so important for spiritually aware Muslims. Its importance far-surpasses fasting as there are a variety of optional forms of worship drawn from the practices of the Last Prophet that can deepen one’s experience during the month.

By showing us the difficulty one faces in refraining from food and drink, fasting helps promote kindness and generosity toward the poor. Many affluent Muslims will sponsor free meals, known as Mawaed Al Rahman, each day of Ramadan hosted at mosques or make-shift restaurants in cities and towns in Islamic countries. These meals ensure less-affluent Muslims are able to get a well-rounded meal, including meat or chicken. Poor citizens of countries like Egypt and Lebanon are unable to afford protein-rich foods throughout the year.

Each night, Muslims gather for voluntary prayers known as taraweeh, during which large portions of the Quran are recited. These prayers, which last more than an hour, take place every evening after the ‘isha prayer and are typically performed in congregation. However, some Muslims will perform them individually at home as well.

During taraweeh, the Quran is divided into 30 parts, which are read one after another each night so that by the end of the month, the entire Quran has been completed. Muslims are also encouraged to read the Quran’s 114 chapters on their own during the month, and many Muslims will pay their annual zakat, a form of charity whereby we give 2.5% of our assets to those who require financial support, during Ramadan. As a result, we need to manage our time wisely to be able to balance and commit sincerely to these practices.

The last ten days of Ramadan are especially sacred because on one of these nights, the Last Prophet ﷺ received his first divine revelation through the archangel Gabriel in 610 AD.

Known as Laylat al-Qadr, or the night of power or destiny, prayers during this night carry immense weight. Laylat al-Qadr is most-widely believed to be on the 27th night of Ramadan, although it could fall on one of the odd-numbered nights of the last 10. Many Muslims spend these nights in prayer, some secluding themselves in mosques in devotion to God. Again, this is a choice.

Last year I was in Cairo for the last 10 nights of Ramadan and it was the first time I spent these nights in prayer and reflection. For hours each night, I would offer prayers and supplications on the breezy balcony of our seventh-floor, Pyramids-area apartment. It was a magical and powerful experience to spend time alone with God in silent search of a night the Quran says “is better than a thousand months”. (Quran, 97:1-5)

The call to prayer at fajr, the sunrise prayer, breaks this silence, reminding us as we sit in quiet devotion that we are part of a community. From dozens of nearby mosques, the athan (call to prayer) would resound out of sync, yet in a way that is perfectly melodious and captivating in the crisp morning air.

Our experience during Ramadan, while seemingly collective on the surface, is immensely personal. We can choose to open doors to explore new levels of our relationships with the Almighty, or we can leave them closed for another time. Uncovering the enchanting and raw components of the month of Ramadan is in entirely up to us.

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