Ramadaan: A special month in the Islamic calendar during which Muslims refrain from eating and drinking during the day and they also seek to improve their consciousness of God.
Nafs: The self
Niyyah: Means ‘intention’
Fitrah: A tax paid by Muslims at the end of Ramadaan which enables the less privileged to also partake in the celebration of Eid at the end of Ramadaan
Zakaah: An obligatory Islamic tax that is 2.5% of the annual (yearly) sum of all the money a Muslim owns. It goes to charity.
This Ramadaan should be like no other. I am a little surprised this expression has not yet become a cliché. It lends itself to the type of human characteristic that annually engages in resolution-making, where the resolution is celebrated, but its execution is neglected. That is typical human behaviour. We make grand intentions about change and improvement for the better, often with sincerity, and then routinely struggle and fail to deliver.
This is not gratuitous criticism or defeatist self-indulgence. It is a perfectly honest recognition of our humanity, the kind of recognition that should enable us to actually go back to our resolutions, examine them critically and work hard at improving ourselves.
But first, let’s be absolutely clear about something very important. We’re not dealing here with something like trying to quit smoking, lose excess fat or do long-outstanding home improvements. We are talking about Ramadaan, the divinely-ordained sacred month of fasting. Ramadaan is not a recurring fad or a fashionable annual pre-occupation that calls on you to (sigh!) repeat those rituals all over again. Dis alweer daai tyd, nê? (It’s that time again, hey?) The fast is then a drab routine whose onset is welcomed with a half-smile-half-grimace, that we just about tolerate for the better part of a month and end it with the kind of worldly hype at Eid that grossly overshadows any spiritual benefit we may have derived from our fast.
If that is the case, then Ramadaan may just as well be reduced to an opportunity to lose weight or quit smoking. Losing excess body fat and quitting smoking are good intentions in themselves, but it is sacrilege to limit the value of Ramadaan to such benefits.
That is why there should be some real deep thinking behind this notion of making this Ramadaan like no other. An excellent way to do this is to take a long-term view of Ramadaan over an entire lifetime. Ramadaan retrogresses through the solar calendar, completing a cycle every 32 years. This means a 64-year-old Muslim would have experienced Ramadaan over all four seasons twice in his or her life. Muslims are blessed with two seasonal cycles over a 64-year period in order to engage in spiritual growth.
This is what is meant by a taking long-term view of Ramadaan. It is possible to make this Ramadaan like no other. There should be conscious, goal-directed spiritual growth from one Ramadaan to the next. I must make this Ramadaan better than my previous one. Allah has blessed me with another opportunity for abundant, indeed limitless, spiritual growth.
A Ramadaan like no other is the fruit of spiritual growth over a lifetime of fasting. If my spiritual experience in Ramadaan this year is the same as that of last year, then I have experienced no spiritual growth. I have not succeeded in drawing closer to Allah. However, if I reflect on my fast of previous years and consciously build on self-improvement, then I am annually investing in a Ramadaan like no other. I am engaging in growing awareness, increasing knowledge and a constant disciplining of the nafs.
All this inner, spiritual development is manifest in actual behaviour. The cycle of repeated fasting and devotion does not simply make the worshipper more pious. Characteristics such as love, compassion, patience and humility attain to greater levels of maturity. Deeper of levels of understanding and higher levels of wisdom are applied to interpersonal relations, the treatment of others, the resolution of conflict, embracing pain and suffering, rejecting falsehood and hypocrisy, accepting the most bitter truths and rejoicing in true happiness.
After years of fasting we can actually go along with the motions of the recurring rituals of a stagnant fast, or we can consciously choose to aspire to make this a Ramadaan like no other.
For one, it means that fasting is not an involuntary act, but a voluntary one that follows from a proactive, conscious decision. Telling myself that I am doing it is designed to reinforce awareness of a choice that I am making. Secondly, choosing to fast is distinctly different from brushing my teeth or eating my cereal every morning. The latter are acts of routine. Fasting is not routine. It is a compulsory act of worship for thirty consecutive days that breaks the routine. Reciting the niyyah should raise my consciousness of fasting as an extraordinary act. I must guard against treating it as part of the ordinary and the mundane.
Here’s another way in which we introduce routine and the mundane into our fasting by means of common cliché: very often we say that Ramadaan must raise a global consciousness, an awareness of the plight of the oppressed globally. For example, our fasting must reach out to the Muslims in Palestine or in Xinjiang. Again, this kind of global consciousness is commendable in itself, but it can, and very often does, serve to detract from the more immediate and urgent response of the fasting Muslim to local issues.
At a time when our country (South Africa) is in the grip of widespread public sector unrest, when the gulf between the wealthy minority and the poor masses is widening, Muslims have a responsibility to focus their fast directly on addressing local social issues. There is a responsibility to reach beyond paying fitrah and zakaah, to physically engage progressive means to fight poverty wherever it prevails. Even if that effort is materially insignificant, it is spiritually significant. Allah knows that your Ramadaan is like no other. Therein lies the blessing in this world and in the next.
Mahmood Sanglay is a media activist residing in Cape Town, South Africa. He is a Fulbright fellow in journalism, a postgraduate researcher in Narrative Journalism and he campaigns for the interests of small, independent and grassroots media in South Africa.