When thinking about the month of Ramadan, I often recall a story I heard from a peculiar Muslim scholar. In an attempt to advise Muslims on preparation for this holy month, he spoke of an odd incident from his relatively unorthodox youth.
Traveling in the backwoods of Europe, he passed by a placid lake and was unexpectedly entranced by the emblematic youthful urge to “disturb the peace.” In a moment of inspiration, he stripped off his clothes and dove into the still, cold waters. His tall gaunt body was immediately engulfed by icy water, his entire being wrapped in a liquid mantle. Every inch of his body experienced an intense shock, triggering a rush of blood to storm into his core and invigorate his physical and spiritual being. In this extraordinary moment he felt alive and self-aware as never before.
I try to imagine, for a second, if I could welcome Ramadan with such impulsiveness, such that in stripping away my misgivings and confusion, I allow the ocean of Ramadan’s sacredness to drown me in another world, anew.
Ramadan is about the radical, the extreme. It is no shy creature, but rather an in-your-face sledgehammer against the chains of daily subjugation: an unending self-subjugation in which we ourselves play the biggest role. Our work, food and sex all serve as daily distractions from the complexities hidden deep within the crevices of our labyrinthine souls. But Ramadan comes with a tidal wave antinomy of unbound passion and peaceful solemnity to usurp the ordinary and routine and replace it with an unfamiliar feeling of hunger, thirst and most importantly, self-reflection.
Many Muslims, however, dig deep holes in the sand and dodge the waves of Ramadan’s benevolence until the sun sets on the 30th day. The Prophet (pbuh) lays out a revelatory hypothetical in this regards: “Perhaps a fasting person will gain nothing from his fast save hunger, and perhaps the one who stands to pray at night will gain nothing from his standing except sleeplessness.” I, for one, have a lifetime of experience with this inconvenient truth.
So, is there an ideal Ramadan to be had?
Last summer I spent Ramadan in the bustling metropolis of ‘Amman. I was a manic Islam-critic at the time, and my Ramadan was in no way ideal. Yet I found solace in a strange place. I’d sit out on my balcony — ironically overlooking a conservative-Sufi neighborhood — and blast 90s hip-hop jams while discussing my inner most thoughts and feelings with a dear friend; all the while a haze of apply-mint smoke plummeting my soul into a lethargic state of hibernation. The confusion of deconstructionist thoughts ate at me until nothing remained. But in that nothingness, I discovered something. God works in such strange ways.
I came to realize that Ramadan requires humility — a humility that urges me to slip out of my comfort zone and allow myself to experience something outside of the ostensibly logical, even if it harasses my modern rationalistic mind. In other words, to allow myself to be vulnerable with God.
I still struggle with an array of intellectual qualms with Islam as do many young Muslims, but amidst the confusion I recall the physical image of a warm body suddenly submerged in icy water, the bite of cold so sharp against your skin that it almost feels like you’re burning as the blood shoots from your extremities into your core, trying to insulate and keep alive your most vital organs. Maybe, while treading the glacial waters of Ramadan, on the precipice of survival, I will unearth the inherent goodness buried deep within me that I often have trouble finding.
I now know that I must give myself wholly over to the mysterious qualities of Ramadan; its unexplained ritual and all.
I meditate on the verse of the Quran: “You who believe, fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may gain taqwa.” The translation of this foundational concept in Islam varies from “God-fearing” to being “mindful of God.” I like to think of it as consciousness, awareness, mindfulness.
If I allow myself to put aside my inhibitions and reluctance, I might be able to engage in the sacred exercise of fasting to obtain this keen sense of awareness. A constant awareness of what I am doing at all times, which entails reflecting on and realizing the impact of my thoughts and actions on my soul and the world around me. Such awareness would bring me closer perhaps to realizing my full potential, and recreating the world with my share of Divine breath.
It is often said that real religion is that which pulls us in, spontaneously, like falling in love with a beautiful girl. I think of my own tragic romantic experiences, wherein I never once made an active decision to love, but instead gave myself over to love’s tempestuous breeze with no destination in sight. Despite all the emotional casualties, these amorous travels granted me a subtler and more intimate knowledge of myself and God.
This Ramadan I will try to embark on my fast in a similar vein. I will stand at this holy month’s wide shore, disrobe my cloaks of hubris and ungratefulness, and dive in stark-naked. Let myself drown in whatever is to come.
Rushain Abbasi is an American Muslim of Pakistani descent. He is pursuing his Master’s in Islamic Studies at Harvard University.
This piece is part of our ongoing series on Ramadan, featuring reflections, stories, and articles from Muslims and non-Muslims on their Ramadan experiences. Keep checking Altmuslim for new pieces throughout Ramadan.