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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.

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Fasting

The night of a thousand months

In the name of God, the Infinitely Compassionate, the Infinitely Merciful
We sent it (the Quran) down on the Night of Destiny
And what will make you comprehend what the Night of Destiny is?
The Night of Destiny is better than a thousand months
On that night, the angels and the Spirit come down by the permission of their Lord with His decrees for all matters
It is all peace till the break of dawn
(Quran, The Night of Destiny, Surah 97)

During Ramadan, my perceptions of time somehow become more magnified.

At the onset of the Islamic holy month, the 30 days of fasting that lie ahead look lengthy and daunting, especially now as they coincide with the Summer Solstice and many Muslims in the Northern Hemisphere refrain from food and drink for 18 hours or longer. Yet even as we endure some of longest days of fasting of our lifetimes, Ramadan has once again hurried by and I find myself embarking on the sprint through the final 10 days. As the finish line comes into view, I can’t help but wish that it was further afield to give me more time to extract spiritual benefits from the month.

laylat al qadr foto
Mosque by moonlight, (Photo courtesy of Vicky TH)

With little room to scale back my working hours, I rely on evenings and weekends to dedicate more energy to prayer and reflection, Quranic readings, Sufi remembrance and meditation, and the giving of zakat, a redistribution of 2.5 percent of my wealth to the less fortunate. Carving out the hours needed for these acts of worship means I spend less time resting my head on my pillow and more on my prayer mat. 

There is something pliable about the passage of time while fasting. Every second and minute tends to become more palpable when I’m craving a 10 a.m. caffeine fix to get me through then next wave of conference calls and news story pitches, only to look up at the clock and realize there’s another 11 hours and 24 minutes until Iftar, the meal to break the fast at sunset.
Continue reading “The night of a thousand months”

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10 Ways to Maintain Ramadan’s Spiritual Momentum

(This article was carried by the Huffington Post)

Many people identifying with the Islamic faith are aware of the unmistakable and inspiring spirit that characterises the month of Ramadan.

As we refrain from food and drink, which can become luxuries we unconsciously take for granted, greater time is spent in quiet concentration, reflection and prayer to God in an effort to de-clutter our minds and revitalise our faith. Since the entire month centres on expressions of worship, namely fasting, prayer, dispensing charity and better guiding our emotions, Ramadan offers a kind of spiritual reboot that helps us ‘force quit’ the numerous complications that muddle our minds. It invites Muslims to re-visit the source of their faith by sidelining various distractions and clearing up as much spiritual space as possible to nourish our relationship with the Almighty.

Islam is Arabic for Submission, or Complete Devotion, to God and can only be achieved through a human’s free will. It embodies a state of mind whereby consciousness of God, or Allah in Arabic, guides all of our actions. We integrate different acts of worship into everything we do, such that expressions of remembrance and gratitude to God become the goal of each activity. Submission places in a human’s grasp peace of mind. It offers a level of understanding that positions human experience within the greater design of existence; where all realities have divine input and purpose. Continue reading “10 Ways to Maintain Ramadan’s Spiritual Momentum”

Preventing spiritual flabbiness

(A version of this article was carried on Art Dubai’s Ramadan blog series)

Last year, one of my most-thoughtful readers commented on a piece I had written about the spiritual benefits of incorporating fasting into my life throughout the year, rather than solely during the holy month of Ramadan.

For the past two years, I’ve tried to fast at least one time a week on Mondays or Thursdays. This approach, which is rooted in Prophetic teachings, has helped me try to achieve equilibrium in my life. I fast exclusively for God as a symbol of my gratitude and appreciation. It is a practice that, when combined with regular prayer, giving charity and remembrance of God, nourishes my soul throughout the year.

Regular fasting also enables me to get ready for Ramadan, a rigorous month-long spiritual exercise that involves refraining from food and drink, spending more time in prayer and reflection, giving thanks, dispensing charity and being more aware of our actions, words, thoughts and deeds. Continue reading “Preventing spiritual flabbiness”

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.

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.

Fasting to feed the soul

Since Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, ended last year in September, I’ve tried to fast at least one time a week on Mondays or Thursdays. On these days, I will refrain from eating or drinking from the crack of dawn until sunset. In addition to performing regular prayers, I strive to be extra attentive of my emotions and how I react to annoyances that arise at work, in my personal life, or even while driving or shopping.

I get asked on occasion why I fast frequently outside the month of Ramadan. I usually hesitate to answer honestly to avoid sounding like an eccentric weirdo.

If I said in all honesty that I fast because it feeds my soul, a non-spiritual person is likely to be slightly discomfited, especially if I mention that my guardian angels present my good and bad deeds to God on Mondays and Thursdays so it is auspicious to fast on these days. This reasoning is particularly fazing and people are sometimes restrained in their reply, as if I am someone who still believes in Santa Claus or a childhood fantasy, and they don’t want to tell me it isn’t real.

Believing in angels and performing acts of worship for God are often perceived to be at odds with modern society rather than nurturing its balance. We are constantly persuaded to enjoy and live life through the value of ‘things’. By consuming, earning, buying, selling, indulging, owning and exchanging things we are pursuing a full life.  The concept of being rational and being spiritual are seen to be contradictory.

For me, it has only been since turning on my spiritual intuition in the past two years that I have been able to see life clearly and live a more balanced, fulfilled existence. Regular fasting, like regular prayer, has been crucial in helping me achieve equilibrium in my life.

When you’re full of food and drink, Satan sits
where your spirit should, an ugly metal statue
in place of the Kaaba
When you fast,
good habits gather like friends who want to help.
-Jalaluddin Rumi

While Ramadan is a time when all Muslims will refrain from food and drink for a month, we have the freedom individually to make fasting part of our spiritual routine throughout the year.

Fasting is about discipline and worship. It is something we can do exclusively for God as a symbol of gratitude and appreciation. It requires the development of patience, self-restraint and self-discipline. Like any art or skill, it is about practicing and refining an ability to do something well. Along with prayer, charity and good deeds, fasting allows us to feed and nourish our souls any time of the year.

“Deeds of people are presented (to God) on Mondays and Thursdays. So I like that my actions be presented while I am fasting,” the last Prophet, Muhammad ﷺ, is cited as having said.

I decided to try it out following Ramadan last year. After a number of weeks of fasting once or twice a week, it became part of my routine, like eating, exercise, socialising. My father passed away on the second day of Ramadan last August (God rest his soul/الله يرحمه), so I fast also with the hopes of benefitting his soul. I will often dedicate my fasts to him.

If a week passes and I have not fasted, I sense something essential is missing in my life. I’ve been able to fit worship into my routine; I keep a prayer outfit in my office, and plan business lunches around my fasting schedule.

When I became more conscious of my intrinsic connection with God, particularly after reading the Quran for the first time a little over a year ago, I found myself quite naturally wanting to do more to nurture my personal relationship with Him. I did not want to limit myself to remembering God only on Fridays, or being conscious of Him only during Ramadan. So I consistently began praying five times a day and fasting regularly. Each day we receive so many gifts and blessings from God, whether significant or subtle, so it is important also to give back that energy by devoting time each day to remembrance.

Ramadan begins in two weeks and I feel spiritually ready for it because I have kept my connection with God turned on every day of the past year. Ramadan is a rigorous spiritual exercise that means far more than refraining from food and drink, and gathering for meals with family and friends. That is the easy part for me. After a few days, most people are able to adjust to the fasting schedule quite well.

It is the other responsibilities that demand greater dedication. For instance, it is favourable to spend greater time in prayer, with many Muslims praying more than an hour longer than usual each day of Ramadan. Special and optional congregational prayers known as taraweeh take place each night of Ramadan and, over the month, the Quran is recited in its entirety.

We are also encouraged to read the Quran’s 114 chapters on our own during the month. Quran is an Arabic word meaning ‘The Recitation’, referring to the verses revealed by God to the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. The Last Prophet was literally asked to recite the words of God to humanity as a verification for those who deny the existence of the one Almighty God and a promise of redemption for believers.

Quranic lessons on prayer, giving ample charity, doing kind and righteous deeds, being patient, modest and humble, and remembering and being thankful for His blessings offer a beautiful, as well as encyclopaedic guide to living.

The first of these verses was revealed during the month of Ramadan, which is why the month is so important for Muslims, those who have submitted themselves to God. I am looking particularly forward to this Ramadan because I have devoted so much individual time in the past year to fasting and prayer. Ramadan is a time to share the same spiritual experience with the community.

There’s hidden sweetness in the stomach’s emptiness.
We are lutes, no more, no less. If the soundbox
is stuffed full of anything, no music.
If the brain and belly are burning clean
with fasting, every moment a new song comes out of the fire.
The fog clears, and new energy makes you
run up the steps in front of you.
Be emptier and cry like reed instruments cry.
Emptier, write secrets with the reed pen.
When you’re full of food and drink, Satan sits
where your spirit should, an ugly metal statue
in place of the Kaaba. When you fast,
good habits gather like friends who want to help.
Fasting is Solomon’s ring. Don’t give it
to some illusion and lose your power,
but even if you have, if you’ve lost all will and control,
they come back when you fast, like soldiers appearing
out of the ground, pennants flying above them.
A table descends to your tents,
Jesus’ table.
Expect to see it, when you fast, this table
spread with other food, better than the broth of cabbages

-Jalaluddin Rumi

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