So it begins. The month long fast. The month which Muslims look forward to and worry about in equal measure.
Today starts a month whereby Muslims will refrain from eating and drinking, and generally all round sinning or satisfying the appetites, from dawn til sunset. Each day about an hour before dawn begins we will wake and eat our morning meal, imbibe as much caffeine as we possibly can before making the verbal intention to fast for the sake of the pleasure of the One God. After that is said, no thing shall pass our lips, neither inwards nor outwards, that would consistute as ‘forbidden’; no nourishment for the body, no sin from the depths of our soul, and we stand guard, vigilant over ourselves, like soldiers ready to puncture any wrong doing before it takes hold of our body and soul. And we pray. More than usual. In fact, we put ourselves through spiritual rehab – reforming, training, breaking bad habits and getting our souls into shape, to behave the way we ought to be behaving all the time.
To those outside the believing fraternity this all sounds like a month of sheer obscure hell, the result of an extremism of fervour, misguided blind faith or some subconscious desire to punish ourselves. In truth, for those who practise fasting in the prescribed manner, it is actually the exact opposite, like being washed from the inside-out, like a stone, previously unperceived, has been lifted from our hearts and backs and something altogether more subtle and precious is allowed to breathe.
For most (all) of the time we satisfy our animal appetites without question; we eat when we are hungry, drink when we are thirsty and spend our life chasing one desire after another, like monkies swinging from tree to tree following the fruit, without any time to stop, reflect, refrain, and become master of our own selves. We are led like cattle by the nose by our own animal appetites, and insofar as we are led by them we remain defined by them :: we are no more than the animal we succomb to.
But there is something else; that small quiet voice that is all but drowned out by our wordly affairs, that yearns and belongs to another realm altogether. The spirit. The soul. The true self. That spark of intuitive knowledge, the Knowing Self which recognises truth, that glimmer of light that pulls us out of the dumb world of beasts and into the divine world of knowledge and creation. That precious element of our being gets a chance to shine and breathe and grow in this month, for it is said that when the body is weak the soul is strong; when the animal appetites have been brought under a reign the true self, unshackled at last, can soar.
I remember my first ever Ramadan. I wasn’t a Muslim, I was very much a Christian, and I have no idea why I fasted, but I did. It was then that I realised that religion is not a set of beliefs, not a dogma to agree to and sign up to, but it was a tool to purify the self, to raise oneself in dignified living so that we could approach the One God as purified and dignified as we could – to somehow polish the dirty mirror that we usually are so that we reflect the Divine Light into the world. Whatever polemic existed then for me, fasting made it all irrelevant, as irrelevant as trying to find the sun using a lamp. Truth stands clear from error.
It was an intensely spiritual time for me, being at university and having no more to do than whatever it is that took my fancy. I fasted the whole month of Ramadan and, not wanting it to end, fasted Lent too (which fell a week later) – the whole forty days. In fact, that whole year I spent fasting one and off. You would think that I would be glad to shake off the restrictions and spend the rest of the year making up for lost time, but far from it.
This is a month that cannot be replaced, so for those of you who are fasting, don’t waste a second of it. Feed the soul and purify yourself. As we know, this world is no more than a test, a fleeting illusion, a bridge from one realm to the next. Pass over it quickly and remember your true destination.
From God we come, and to God we return, and we take nothing with us except our deeds.
Set the soul free.
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