By Omer M. Mozaffar
When you look in a mirror, do you first glance at your perfections or your flaws? In public, we show not our full selves, but a few gestures. At work, we show our colleagues a glimpse of our personalities, especially when deadlines approach. Among friends, we show more. Kindnesses. Irritations. With family and closest loved ones, we reveal almost everything. Contradictions. Hopes. Broken hearts. Hypocrisies. Prejudices. Yearnings. Inconsistencies.
Still, we hide. Nobody knows what is fully in our conduct, and nobody knows what is deep in our hearts. As we close Ramadan’s first trimester, however, it all reveals itself.
We know that the beloved Prophet, may peace be upon him, taught us that Ramadan has three periods. The first is the phase of mercy. The second — forgiveness. Third — the gates of paradise open. Commentators identify this narration as weak, though they still teach it as a piece of pious wisdom from the lips of the most pious Prophet, may peace be upon him.
In this first phase, with the accursed devil’s influence waning, you get exposed — fasting or not — to your true self; that is one of its mercies. Despite his imprisonment, shaytan’s accursed footprint might remain within us, but we know that the Self is stronger (and sometimes worse) than 70 devils.
In other words, with each day further into Ramadan, we know that the behaviors we exhibit are more our own.
If you are privileged to fast through this period, then you see something much deeper. The analogy of fasting in the Qur’an is “traveling” (i.e. “sa’iha,” as found in Surah al-Tawbah 9:112). Imagine yourself in a car at the end of a 16 hour road trip. Even if you are with friends, you’re drained.
Imagine yourself after two days of 16 hour travels: You are depleted. Imagine yourself after a week and a half: The nonessentials of your personality are gone. What remains is the real you.
I also see what I’ve avoided repairing, because it resurfaces. The Prophet, may peace be upon, has also taught us (paraphrased) to believe a mountain has been moved before we believe someone has changed his/her disposition, for it is easier to move a mountain than to change disposition. So, if I did not work on my flaws last year, I can expect they will remain this year.
Meaning, Ramadan can be my month of fasting. Or, Ramadan can be my month of transformation and spirituality.
In the second phase, I turn (tawbah) back to God, seeking His forgiveness, seeking personal reform with the goals of seeking personal fulfillment and Divine favor. Having gone through this first period, I know what I need to work on. So, in these first ten days, we explore ourselves to find our Selves.
In our American culture and our Muslim American culture (because we drink from the same water, breathe the same air and travel the same streets as everyone else), the most common problems are obvious. We are a nation of affluence. When gratitude is missing, affluence breeds anger and its variants of jealousy and envy.
We are nation of education: With lack of action, manners and direction, education breeds schism. We are a nation of ideals and mythologies: With lack of service and selflessness in our work, such enchantments breed despondency. We are a nation bombarded by media, marketing and online chatter: Without established serene prostrations and sabbaticals from the world, such assaults foment a host of anxieties.
We are a nation where merit is sometimes defined by physiology: Without submission of the heart to God — valuing God’s creation — that ethos breeds the ills of tribalism, chauvinism and racism. As you finish the first term of Ramadan, you will see where you ill.
With the second phase of the month, I turn to God in repentance, seeking to recalibrate and refocus from the ground up. With the third phase, I look not only to the end of the month, but to the 11 months until the next Ramadan, hoping that if I work to resolve even just one of my issues, the next Ramadan cycle will reveal things even deeper within myself.
And, with another year of polishing, partaking of professional help when necessary, I discover issues even deeper still.
In this process of polishing I discover a spirituality different than what we commonly think of. Often, when speaking of spirituality we speak of exhilaration, or elevation, or intoxication or even academic metaphysics. Spirituality here is clarity. We remove those veils surrounding our heart, preventing our growth, and see reality for what it is.
If I can depart Ramadan with a bit more clarity, then I have not just transformed myself, but my world. Then, I can work to fix those social ills plaguing everyone around us, to guide all of us to seek and see the truest Reality, al-Haqq.
And, Allah knows best.
Omer Mozaffer is an Adjunct Professor of Theology and Modern Languages and Literatures and Muslim Chaplain at Loyola University in Chicago. He is a lifelong member of the Chicago Muslim community and a father of five.