One Tuesday, a couple of weeks ago, I was so busy at work: finishing off documents, printing, copying, filing, racing against the clock to get as much work done in the minutes and hours I had. Only on my way home, as the sun went down and the sky darkened, did I realize that I hadn’t eaten all day. Not since the morning at least, which was around the time of fajr salah. But I wasn’t fasting. Yet, the pangs and pricks of hunger hadn’t come to say hello.
Not so the day before, however. No, no. The day before, I was cold (it’s winter in South Africa), I was hungry, I was sleepy and I was fasting. I watched the clock and wondered how many minutes and hours still remained before the sounds of maghrib athan would touch my ears.
What was the difference between these two days, you may ask?
The answer is: my goal.
On the first day, I had deadlines to meet, I had work to complete. I had a goal. It was do or die (professionally speaking). And I didn’t want to die. I really did not want to die.
On the day I was fasting, though, I had only one goal: food, in my tummy, making me feel all warm and whole and happy again.
But Ramadan is here and we’re fasting every day now. But the looming question is: What is our goal?
Are we hungrily and anxiously watching the clock every hour? Are we fasting just to tick off from the calendar another day? Are we reciting juz’ upon juz’ simply to satisfy a sense of obligation that we have to complete the recitation of the Qur’an by the end of these 30 days? Are we standing for taraweeh just to please the community or our families?
As Ramadan after Ramadan has come and passed, we might find that our iman-o-metre has been at different levels at different times. Perhaps, by now, our acts of ‘ibadah have simply become rituals or customs we’ve come to identify Ramadan with. This is a dangerous and slippery slope because it then means that little, if any, thought goes into our movements. Going through our day at the office with an empty stomach will be just that – going through our day at the office with an empty stomach. We forget to remember Allah with every stab of hunger we feel.
We forget that:
“…fasting is prescribed (for us) so that we may gain taqwa.” [Qur’an: Chapter 2, Verse 183].
Instead, with every stab of hunger, we groan inwardly and console our empty bellies with thoughts of all the treats we will have for iftar. Hence, our fasting is useless.
It is also interesting to note here that taqwa in the ayat about fasting can be translated as ‘God-consciousness’. Hmm… interesting. So Allah has mandated fasting so that we may be more conscious of Him, yet all I could do a couple of days ago was be conscious of the clock.
As we perform taraweeh mindlessly, standing in qiyam while the words of Qur’an that we don’t understand wash over us, yet not touching us at all, moving from qiyam to ruku’ to sajdah to jalsah to sajdah to qiyam to ruku’… we will have performed a lovely, rejuvenating exercise routine, granted that we remembered to tighten our core muscles. But what have we gained spiritually? Even intellectually, if we don’t bother to understand the words on the pages of the mushaf (printed copy of the Qur’an) that wait for us, year after year?
This Ramadan, let us focus on the goal. Let us become absorbed by the task of working for Allah’s pleasure that we no longer watch the clock and wonder when it will be time for that samosa to touch our lips. Rather, let us feel our hunger consciously; consciously aware of Allah , aware of each word we say, of each thought that crosses our mind, or enters our heart. Let us rather scramble to meet as many deadlines for our akhirah in the little time we have in each day of this month.
To help us towards a more conscious Ramadan, In sha Allah, here are a few tips to consider:
- Focus your mind. Just focus. Bring yourself to the present moment and truly experience it all. When you wake up for suhoor, don’t do it heavily, dragging your weight about while groggily shoving food down to sustain you for the day. Instead, do it with purpose. Plan to wake up simply because it is a sunnah of our Prophet , and because you know there are blessings in it, as he has told us this: “Take suhoor as there is a blessing in it.” [Al-Bukhari]
Be strict about your bedtime in the evening. Set a bedtime alarm for yourself to remind yourself to go to sleep early so that you wake up rested and refreshed, ready for all the rewards you’ll be collecting throughout the next day, in sha Allah, starting with suhoor. And remember, your sleep is an ‘ibadah too.
Further, be mindful of your actions and words throughout the day. Remind yourself constantly that you are fasting – do not let it be something that is done just ‘by the way’. Remember that our fasting is more than just staying away from food and drink, as the Prophet has said that:
“Whoever does not give up forged speech and evil actions, Allah is not in need of (i.e. will not accept) his leaving his food and drink.” [Al-Bukhari]
Whenever you feel the urge to give in to your baser self and lose focus of the purpose of your fasting, use verbal reinforcement to remind yourself and others that you are fasting from vain speech and actions, as the Prophet suggests:
“If one of you is abused by an ignorant person while fasting, then let him say: ‘Indeed I am fasting.'” [Tirmidhi]2
This is as much a reminder to yourself as it is to others. Often we need to verbally – sometimes loudly – remind ourselves of our objectives. Giving yourself a positive talk to force your mind back on track may seem crazy to some, but it’s such a regular part of my day that I begin to feel lonely if I don’t do it.
Also remember the invaluable advice of our Prophet for when we are upset:
“If one of you is angry when he is standing, let him sit down so that the anger will leave him. Otherwise let him lie down.” [Abu Dawud]
We can also apply this same rule whenever we feel tempted to do anything we shouldn’t do while fasting, or if we just want to stay away from time-wasters (TV, social media, gadgets, etc.) and bad habits. Distracting ourselves from a bad habit or bad mood, changing our position, or moving to a different room to remove ourselves from the environment are handy tips for helping our productivity during this month and keeping us focused.
- Learn the words. When you stand for your fardh salah, it has little impact when you don’t know what you’re actually saying. Imagine having a full-on conversation with someone in Russian (assuming Russian isn’t one of the languages you speak, otherwise just pick another one), except that you’re only able to have this conversation because you’ve memorized it, line by line, yet you know nothing of what you’re saying. The conversation is meaningless. This is the state of our salah if we don’t know the meanings of what we’re reciting.
Start small. Study the meanings of the various phrases said in salah as you transition from one position to another; study the meaning of Al-Fatiha if you don’t know it already. And when you know it, feel every verse. We are having a conversation with Allah right then, during that recitation. And Allah responds. Imagine that. Imagine it!
As for taraweeh, it’s not likely that one is able to learn the meaning of the words to all the chapters before the month is through. Instead, find out from your masjid how many parts of the Qur’an they will be reciting each night, then prepare these ahead of time by reading up on their translations and perhaps contextual information as well. That way, when you’re standing in salah, with the best intentions to be conscious, your mind won’t wander to what you’ve just had for supper – or what you hadn’t managed to scoff down before ‘Isha salah and can’t wait to get home to devour. You’ll be standing in salah, consciously listening to the imam’s recitation, pondering the meanings of the verses, the context in which it was revealed – imagining the Prophet receiving them.
- Talk to Allah . More than anything else, Ramadan should be about building our relationship with Allah . And it only makes sense that part of the reason we feel disconnected and unconscious in our worship is because we don’t know who we’re worshipping, or who we’re talking to. So take time this month to sit, just you and Allah , and have a very real conversation with Him. In your language, your words. Tell Him everything1! Or talk to Him throughout the day, while you’re driving, busy at work, getting dressed.
And remember that Allah says He is to us as we think of Him [Al-Bukhari]. If you make Allah your best friend and confidant, your prayer will begin to feel personal, it will be like returning to your place of comfort every time you raise your hands and say “Allahu Akbar”.
Also, Allah has 99 names! Though a lot of the time, we only call on Him by one. And even if we know some of the others, perhaps we don’t know what they mean and thus don’t know when best to use them. Can we truly know Allah if we don’t know His names, don’t know His attributes?
If we want Allah’s Mercy to be on us, we should call on Him by His name Ar-Rahman, the Most Merciful. If we want His pardon of our past sins, we use His name Al-Afuw’, the One who Pardons. By doing this, we remind ourselves over and over of who Allah is. We begin to form a relationship with Him that takes us beyond the fact that He is our Creator; He is so much more than that.
- You will stumble. You might fall. But the absolute most important thing is that you never stop trying, you never stop reaching. If you slip up one day and feel like your fast has been empty, void of all consciousness of what you were doing and why, don’t use that as the go-ahead for the rest of your month to follow in that way. Use it as a turning point and a reminder of what you should be working for.
Feed yourself inspiration and motivation by reading Ramadan articles or watching videos on how-to, and how-not-to, that are in abundance on the Web, Alhamdulillah. And hey look, you’re already on the right track! You’re reading this. Good going, ma sha Allah.
And again, talk to yourself. Tell yourself that you will not give up; tell yourself that this year, your Ramadan will be meaningful, this year you’ll get it right, with the help of Al-Waliy (the Friend, the Helper). Faith in yourself is vital to your success in anything – and your success in Ramadan is no exception to that. Even when you have a lousy fasting day where you feel out of touch, or you’ve spoken badly about someone even though you knew you shouldn’t have – don’t let the lingering negativity of Shaytaan tell you that you can’t do it, that you’re not worthy, that you’re not good enough. Allah does not expect you to be perfect; He only expects you to keep showing up, no matter how many times you fall.3
- Do only as much as you can handle. Don’t become overzealous, planning to do everything that gets reward during this month. Hours of lengthy Qur’an recitation cease to be meaningful when you’re reciting just to get through them but your heart is not connected. Rather take a break; do something else that will make you feel connected to Allah and that you can do with purpose.
Know yourself. Know what your daily routine is like with work, family, and other commitments; and know what you can eliminate from your day to make more room for the kinds of things that will better connect you with Allah. Setting realistic goals for yourself according to your specific circumstances and abilities will help you to remain focused and conscious of what you’re doing.
Have a checklist of your realistic goals set for each day and for the month, and keep track of your progress as you move along. But remember not to track your progress by comparing it to your friend’s. You’re in two very different places.
- Remember the reward. Our hunger means nothing when it is mindless and unconscious of Allah . To help keep us focused and to push on to do more when we feel like we cannot go a minute longer, we need to remind ourselves of our reward with Allah . Without that, everything is pointless and empty.
Think about your Jannah – what will it look like? Who do you want your neighbours to be? What kind of fruit will grow on your trees? Will you have a chocolate river or a jellytot house? Your Jannah can be anything you want it to be. If we design our Jannah in our minds, making it real, it becomes that much easier for us to work for it. Read about Jannah, what kinds of rewards Allah promises; try to picture it. Make your goal real.
Also be sure to find some quiet moments during your day to think on all the blessings you receive throughout the year, those we tend to take for granted. Allah blesses us here too. And, while you sit there in silent contemplation, and you suddenly hear the strange rumbling sounds coming from your tummy, remember those who don’t have what you’ll be having for supper this evening, those who woke for suhoor but had nothing to eat.
When you feel exhaustion and hunger overpowering you in your worship, remember these exhilarating ahadith about the incomparable rewards of fasting:
The Messenger of Allah said: “Indeed your Lord said: ‘Every good deed is rewarded with ten of the same up to seven hundred times over. Fasting is for Me, and I shall reward for it.’” [Tirmidhi]2
“Whoever fasts Ramadan out of faith and in the hope of reward, he will be forgiven his previous sins.” [Nasa’i]
It is natural for us to adapt to certain situations. If you experience the extraordinary often enough and long enough, soon it stops being extraordinary. It’s just ordinary. And Ramadan is extraordinary. It is extraordinary because of all the extra opportunities for reward it offers us, all the extra points we get for things we (should) do all year round anyway, the extra closeness with Allah , the extraordinary gift of Qur’an. But after perhaps a dozen Ramadans, we’ve adapted. Yeah, yeah, the Qur’an was revealed – very spectacular. Yep, devils chained up, Jannah is open… Wonderful. The situation has normalized; it’s become ordinary.
But with these pointers, with our focus and our consciousness, we will once again realize the enormity of this very day. Of each day within this month, in sha Allah.
We will realize that there is absolutely nothing ordinary about our relationship with Allah and the fact that he has chosen each of us – yes, you – to experience another Ramadan. And we owe it to ourselves to experience it consciously, purposefully, because the love Allah has for us is extraordinary.
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