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.
When the angel Gabriel (Jibreel in Arabic) first spoke to Muhammad, he ordered him to “Recite!” Muhammad, understandably terrified at the sudden appearance of a supernatural being, replied he neither knew how to recite nor what to recite, which indeed was true. While public oral poetry was very popular and highly prized during his time, he, an illiterate man, was not known to have ever come up with as much as a single line of verse in his life.
Upon his reply, Gabriel embraced Muhammad, and squeezed him so hard Muhammad reported later he feared he would pass out from the pressure. Again, Gabriel ordered Muhammad to recite and, again, the frightened man said he couldn’t. Once more he was embraced so tightly that he said he almost could not bear it.
A third time Gabriel told him to recite, and a third time an increasingly desperate Muhammad claimed his inability. Gabriel took him and embraced him so hard Muhammad felt he was being crushed, and then Gabriel proceeded to recite to a stunned Muhammad the words that would form the first revelation of the Qur’ān and thus transform him from man to prophet.
This interaction between angel and human should be, in many ways, analogous to a Muslim’s experience of their own Ramadan. Every Ramadan, adult Muslims are to abstain from all eating, drinking, and sex during daylight hours. This intense discipline is supposed to align us more closely to God — by controlling our most basic desires and thus be more fully in submission, we can be more in touch with the divine will. Authentic Muslim traditions state that Allah said, “All the deeds of people are for them, except fasting which is for Me … People have left their food, drink and desires for My sake. The fast is for Me.”
By emptying ourselves out — physically of food and spiritually of our attachment to anything that takes us away from God — we create the necessary space for the holy. Just as you cannot add to a full vessel, a soul full of itself has no room for God. A gap must be created.
Muhammad had to be enfolded into an almost unbearable angelic clutch until he felt his very breath had left his body, as indeed it did. He needed empty lungs to fully inhale the sacred inspiration. It is no coincidence that inspiration can also be defined as the act of drawing air into the lungs. And he was taking in not only the words that would form the holy text for Muslims, but the very intent God had for his life from then on — a life of complete submission.
During the course of the month of Ramadan, we can feel as if we are being crushed, but in fact we are draining the space within — space for that which we truly need. Just as Muhammad did, we may want to proclaim our inability to do what is required. The fasting may feel too hard, the inner labour too intense. It might leave us feeling as though we are gasping for air. But as the interaction in the cave demonstrates, it is precisely in those moments of lack of belief in ourselves that the emptying out is most required. When we say, “I can’t do it, God!” we are showing we are still placing too much stock in our own selves. We need to be emptied out to make room for more of the divine. True submission and the ego-self cannot exist in the same vessel.
Ramadan marks the time of the first direct communication between the holy and the final prophet of Islam. It also was a time of self-doubt, and an emptying of self that was painful. But the reason for this — the creation of spiritual space to fill up with sacred guidance — is one for all Muslims to keep in mind during their own thirty days of emptying out. If we truly want the divine, we must create the space within for it.
Ramadan is an opportunity to tip it all out and, as the tradition says, leave it all behind. Ramadan has a crushing embrace, but it is that immense constriction that conversely creates the space our souls so desperately need.
To experience love and show grief is not weakness but an expression of mercy — God’s mercy.
Renewal: Feeding my soul
Ramadan is, therefore, a time of restraint, of withholding. But it is also a time of filling up and renewal. The moon that marks the beginning and end of this sacred month for Muslims languidly inflates and then quietly retreats, mirroring the spiritual expansion and contraction we experience in the lives of our faith. Sometimes we are full and luminous; other times, we are a barely-there thread, appearing like we may just fall out of the sky at any moment. It is reassuring that the moon has been doing this for 4.5 billion years — the moon reminds us that our spiritual life is never static.
The word “Ramadan” comes from the Arabic root meaning dryness. Muslims certainly feel the dryness in our throats and mouths, especially when fasting falls in the summer months and we go without food or water for up to eighteen hours a day. But the thirst points beyond itself, to the dry riverbed that my soul has become in the previous eleven months of the year, seemingly without my awareness. In other words, what my body endures during Ramadan shows me how my soul always feels.
When my stomach growls in hunger, I hear how my soul is always feeling because I have starved it of spiritual food. In my busy days and hectic nights of work, family, Facebook, and television, I have barely paused to reflect — truly to reflect — on anything. I have hardly stopped to think about my self, let alone my Creator, my purpose, or my direction. I haven’t done the hard work of self-purification. I have put my soul onto an unending fast, and drowned out its protestations through shopping, Twitter, and housework.
My material distractions drown out my spiritual needs in the same way that the sun obliterates the light of moon. We know the moon is always there, and if we look with a discerning eye, we can see it, but the glare of the sun makes it easy to ignore. Yet when the sun is no longer in the picture, the moon’s calm, constant light in the dark sky is more than apparent — it is perfect.
When I fast and become sleepy and cold, hungry and thirsty, I physically feel my spiritual reality. And it is confronting. When my body is weak and tired from thirst, I see how parched my soul has been for divine nourishment all this time, and yet I ignored it. Even my stale fasting breath shows me how my soul has probably stunk.
But far from being a time of self-castigation or despair, it is a period of awareness and replenishment. The fasting days of Ramadan are meant to be flavoured with an increase in the soul food of prayer, reading the Qur’ān, dhikr (litanies), charity and compassion. Hunger and thirst of our bodies is not the point of fasting in Ramadan — indeed, we are warned in our prophetic traditions against finishing Ramadan with little else. Instead, the physical fast is merely the vehicle to increased awareness and divine communion.
Granted, a month of fasting is not the only, or even the best, way we can assess our spiritual state and feed our souls, but it is arguably the fastest route and most acute diagnosis. Fasting is hard. Even for healthy adults (the only people required to fast), it can be a gruelling challenge. But it is vital. If I didn’t have this time, physically to feel my spiritual reality, I would never know my real condition. I realise that seeing myself is hard, but not seeing myself is harder.
Ramadan refills the vessel of my soul. And just like the phases of the moon, I know the time will come around again when it is empty, because our faith waxes and wanes and this is not inherently wrong. But at least for now, in this month of fasting, I feed my soul.
Susan Carland is Research Fellow in the School of Languages, Literature, Cultures and Linguistics at Monash University. She is the author of Fighting Hislam: Women, Faith and Sexism.