By Aziz Poonawalla
This is Day 28 of Altmuslim’s #30Days30Writers series for Ramadan 2015.
In just a few days, it’s over. We get to eat lunch again, we have the energy to tackle the “to-do” lists that have been piling up, we can reclaim our evenings and watch TV and start putting music back on rotation in our commute. We survived another Ramadan!
Really though, if that’s all Ramadan is, what was the point?
Rather than seeing Ramadan as a cycle — a period of intense effort, ramping up, which then decays quickly back to baseline until the next one — we should instead see it as a ladder. Every Ramadan, we want to aim to take a few steps up. After Ramadan, we inevitably take a step down. But the net effect should be some upwards motion, however modest.
And that motion need not be measured in rakahs of salaat (prayer) prayed or surahs of Quran recited. It can also be a very personal, spiritual journey within.
There’s been an increasing theme this year among many of the articles written about Ramadan, especially here in the #30Days30Writers series, of feeling distanced from the spiritual fulfillment of the rituals of Ramadan, of alienation from our masjids, of a general ennui against the traditionalism that suffuses ibadat during this month.
I think that is because we tend to see Ramadan as just another goalpost to reach. Our expectations from Ramadan are too high, and expectations of us during Ramadan are too high. (Or, at least the expectations of us that we perceive.) I have certainly felt it myself, especially since this Ramadan has been a time of personal transition for us (having just moved to LA from Wisconsin).
A more salient example is Samar Kaukab’s essay on Altmuslimah of her Ramadan of Discontent:
This year I’m failing Ramadan, myself, my quest for any semblance of spirituality, and God so badly that even in these first 15 days I already know that surely the mercy, forgiveness, and refuge that are otherwise there for the taking in Ramadan are completely and entirely lost to me.
What we need to remember is that Ramadan is just like salaat — fundamentally, when you take away the social layers and the obsession about food, you are left with something very personal. Ramadan is the time when we reconnect with our spiritual selves and try to discern the essentials of how we interact with our faith.
Samar comes to the same realization, reducing her Ramadan to a single element of focus:
My circumstances may be ever-changing but the consistency is that as angry as I might get, I cannot lose God. He is above me, below me, around me, and without me. He is always near, even in the distance. Perhaps attaining mercy, forgiveness, and refuge don’t need to be broken into three ten-day chunks. Instead, it might arrive in a single moment, a single moment in a blessed, blessed month
This is the key to surviving/living Ramadan and emerging from it with a net gain — to stop measuring your Ramadan against external metrics and instead use it as a time to explore what your faith means to you.
The ritualism in Ramadan itself can sometimes seem oppressive when it loses meaning – an anonymous writer at Muslimah Media Watch expressed her frustration with the ritualism of Ramadan in searingly personal terms:
This is the first Ramadan I feel I have “failed.” It was clear to me that I couldn’t do it when I woke up and I just did not see the point of not eating and not drinking. So, without planning to, I broke my fast. I remember “cheating” once or twice as a child during Ramadan and feeling incredibly guilty. This time, I didn’t feel guilty at all, because I did not see the point any more. I couldn’t convince myself it was worth doing.
This is surely not an uncommon feeling among Muslims, especially here in the West. But I think that this frustration and dissonance arises from an expectation that Ramadan is like a formula: pray, fast, recite and ding! Spiritual leveling up. As far as the ritualism in Ramadan goes, the process is itself piety, not the other way around. As I wrote earlier,
What does ibadat actually mean? The word connotes worship with submission – not just prayer, but acts of piety in which we submit ourselves to Allah. In a more technical sense, ibadat is the liturgical aspect of orthopraxy – physical actions that are prescribed by the faith. The purpose of ibadat first and foremost is to Do.
Ramadan is not an achievement to be unlocked. What we need to remember is that Ramadan is an opportunity to simplify, to focus and to immerse ourselves in the rituals of praying or reciting Quran. It is a form of mindfulness, or meditation — actions that prepare ourselves for the spiritual insight and enlightenment, but not in and of itself that insight and enlightenment.
So, this Ramadan, don’t judge yourself by what you didn’t do or what you didn’t feel. As Ramadan draws to a close, allow yourself to embrace what you did feel and to value what you did do. Next Ramadan, do more. Don’t expect it to mean something. Just submit to it and do as much as you can, and don’t worry about what other people think.
Don’t hold yourself to some high standard of spiritual awakening. Just submit to Ramadan, embrace the process and savor the ritual for its own sake. The rest will follow, in time. You’re better at this than you think you are.
Aziz Poonawalla is a member of the Dawoodi Bohra muslim community, directing the community portal website Mumineen.org. He has authored the City of Brass blog for more than a decade, blogs at Patheos Muslim, geek-blogs at Haibane.info and co-founded the annual Brass Crescent Awards for the Muslim blogsphere. He recently moved to Los Angeles, CA with his wife and children.