The first Ramadan began with a man climbing a rocky mountain and retreating into a tiny cave. He sat there, alone, for a month of fasting, meditation, reflection and prayer, as he had many times before. He was trying to distil the mysteries of the universe, compassion and the knowledge of God.
Somewhere during the last ten days of that month, the angel Gabriel – the same angel that visited Mary in the Gospels – appeared to this man in his cave and had an exchange with him that would change his life, revolutionise his society and affect the world forever.
It was also an exchange that gives us profound lessons about the nature of our physicality, and the connection between our bodies and divine inspiration – lessons that have resonated through every Ramadan since.
A TIME FOR SELF-CRITICISM
Most of the classical religious teachings regarding the month of Ramadan insist on the rules being respected as well as the deep spiritual dimension of this month of fasting, privations, worship and meditation.
While thinking about it more closely, one realises that this month marries apparently contradictory requirements which, nevertheless, together constitute the universe of faith. To ponder over these different dimensions is the responsibility of each conscience, each woman, each man and each community of faith, wherever they are. We can never emphasise enough the importance of this “return to oneself” required during this period of fast.
Ramadan is a month of abrupt changes – this is true here more than at any other time. At the heart of our consumer society, where we are used to easy access to goods and possessions and where we are driven by the marked individualism of our daily lives, this month requires from everyone that we come back to the centre and the meaning of our life.
At the centre there is God and one’s heart, as the Qur’an reminds us: “and know that [the knowledge of] God lies between the human being and his heart.” At the centre, everyone is asked to take up again a dialogue with The Most-High and The Most-Close – a dialogue of intimacy, of sincerity, of love. To fast is to seek – with lucidity, patience and confidence – justice and peace with oneself.
The month of Ramadan is the “month of meaning”: Why this life? What about God in my life? What about my mother and my father – still alive or already gone? What about my children? My family? My spiritual community? Why this universe and this humanity? What meaning have I given to my daily life? What meaning am I able to be consistent with?
Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) had warned: “Some people only gain from their fast the fact that they are hungry and thirsty.” He was speaking of those who fast as mechanically as they eat. They deprive themselves from eating with the same unawareness and the same thoughtlessness as they are used to eating and drinking. In fact, they transform it into a cultural tradition, a fashionable celebration, even a month of banquets and so-called “Ramadan nights.” A fast of extreme alienation – a fast of counter-meaning.
As this month leads us towards the deep horizons of introspection and meaning, it reminds us of the importance of detail, precision and discipline in our practices. The precise starting day of Ramadan must be rigorously sought; the precise hour before dawn upon which one must stop eating; the prayers to be performed “at determined moments” and the exact time of the end of fast.
At the very time of our profound meditation with God and with our own self, it is possible to immerse oneself into one’s feelings because this quest for meaning is so deep that it should be allowed to bypass all the details of rules and schedules. But the actual experience of Ramadan teaches us the opposite. No profound spirituality, no true quest for meaning without discipline and rigour as to the management of rules to be respected and time to be mastered.
The month of Ramadan marries the depth of meaning and precision of form. There exists an “intelligence of the fast” that arises from the very reality of this marriage between the content and the form: to fast with one’s body is a school for the exercise of the mind. The abrupt changes implied by the fast is an invitation to a transformation and a profound reform of oneself and one’s life that can only occur through a rigorous intellectual introspection (muraqaba).
To achieve the ultimate goal of the fast, our faith requires a demanding, lucid, sincere and honest mind capable of self-criticism. Everyone should be able to do that for oneself, before God, within one’s solitude as well as within one’s commitment among one’s fellow human beings. It is a question of mastering one’s emotions, to face up to oneself and to take the right decisions as to the transformation of one’s life in order to come closer to the “centre” and the “meaning.”
Muslims today need more than ever before to reconcile themselves with the school of profound spirituality along with the exercise of rigorous and critical intelligence. At a time when fear is all around, when suspicion is widespread, when Muslims are tempted by the obsession to have to defend themselves and to prove constantly their innocence, the month of Ramadan is a call upon their dignity as well as their responsibilities. It is crucial that they learn to master their emotions, go beyond their fears and doubts and come back to the essential with confidence and assurance. It is imperative too that they make it a rule for themselves to be rigorous and upright in the assessment of their conduct, individually and collectively. Self-criticism and collective introspection are of the essence at every step, to achieve a true transformation within Muslim communities and societies.
Instead of blaming “those who dominate” or “the Other” or “the West,” it is necessary to learn from the teaching of Ramadan: you are, indeed, what you do of yourself. What are we doing of ourselves today? What are our contributions within the fields of education, social justice and liberty? What are we doing to promote the dignity of women, children or to protect the rights of the poor and the marginalised people in our societies? What kind of models of profound, intelligent and active spirituality do we offer today to the people around us? What have we done with our universal message of justice and peace? What have we done with our message of individual responsibility, of human brotherhood and love?
All these questions are in our hearts and minds and there is only one response inspired by the Qur’an and nurtured by the month of Ramadan: God will change nothing for the good if we change nothing.
Tariq Ramadan is Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University.
Source ABC (reproduced with permission)