Each Ramadan, I set myself a challenge. How and what can I improve this year? For Ramadan to me is about setting and overcoming challenges in an attempt to progress spiritually and become a better person, as I travel on a path towards spiritual enlightenment and happiness in an attempt to connect with the ‘All Spark’. This ‘All Spark’ enables us to understand the most difficult lesson of our journey. Our destination is perhaps best exemplified by Paulo Coelho in ‘The Alchemist’: “Go; travel the world, look for the truth and the secret of life – every road will lead you to this sense of initiation: the secret is hidden in the place from which you set out.”
This is the ultimate paradox of spiritual experience whereby the constant effort that we make to purify, to control and liberate our hearts is in the end, reconciliation with the deepest level of our being. That spark that the Creator breathed into our heart (the fitra) is the spark of humility, the awareness of fragility, the consciousness of limitation, the shoulder of responsibility.
For me Ramadan is the culmination of all worship as an attempt to reconnect with our spark. Ramadan ultimately reinforces our personal effort and commitment and invites us towards the deep horizons of introspection and meaning.
Such is the meaning of profound spirituality requiring man to acquire a force of being and doing, rather than to undergo despotic relentlessness of a life reduced to mere instinct. Within this space, we marry the purpose of our existence with the purpose of our subsistence. Close to the Quran’s light, its words and inspirations, we must comprehend the message: You are indeed what you do with yourself. You are responsible for the actions you take.
Thus Ramadan reinforces our sense of purpose and responsibility whilst nurturing the inspiration from the Qur’an that ‘God will not change anything for the good if you change nothing’!!
As the blessed month of Ramadan teaches us, we share the burdens of others (especially those less fortunate than us) and we remember our responsibilities towards them. Identifying with others in different ways is important in our role of living in society. Thus we should remember that we are much more than a label, that our plurality and diversity are not divisive elements but are a cause for celebration. However, within that celebration is an understanding of common humanity and universal principles. This is the call for unity of the Muslim community and society as a whole that is made during this blessed time.
This call for unity is founded upon a universal humanitarian principle based on the following verse from the Holy Qur’an “…If anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of all mankind…” (Q5:32).
Thus responsibility is placed upon the shoulder of the individual to take the lead in becoming a true citizen of the country and of the world, where s/he rises above the narrow confines of individualistic concerns to face the broader concerns of all humanity and to redress the contradiction of society enabling people and their communities to live in dignity, peace and independence with social justice.
The Prophet Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him) said “You shall not enter Paradise until you have faith, and you cannot have faith until you love one another. Have compassion on those you can see, and He Whom you cannot see will have compassion on you” Thus we learn our purpose of existence: to stand by justice and equity; to portray the humility and compassion of the Prophet (upon whom be peace) towards the downtrodden, the distressed and the oppressed regardless of who they are.
However this Ramadan, I face a conundrum. With the ongoing violence in the Middle East (be it Syria, Iraq or Gaza) or Africa (Central African Republic) or Asia (Myanmar, Sri Lanka), where mainly Muslims are involved, I wonder as to how we collectively as Muslims can and should respond. This is perhaps one of the most trying Ramadans that I can remember. Not only is there bloodshed across many parts of the world affecting Muslim communities, it is also involving conflict with other Muslims and those who have been neighbours.
How can I relearn the universal values of peace, compassion and justice as articulated by Islam, reinforced by Ramadan and binding in the brotherhood of humanity in the face of such aggression? How can one develop the concept of forgiveness and compassion when it is not reciprocated? Can we respond in hate to what is happening out there? What should our response be?
In asking these questions, one realizes that there are three possible answers. One is not to care and go about their daily business, which negates the purpose of Ramadan. One is to get upset and vindictive and start to hate and often to lose hope. One is to get upset and channel that into something positive. The second option again negates the purpose of Ramadan and of faith generally. We can’t afford to lose hope and faith. In the face of the greatest oppressions is the testimony for our faith and how we respond. If we truly believe that we are the inheritors of the Prophets and the conveyors of the wisdom that has been passed down to us, we cannot lose hope. However what we can do is redouble our efforts to call for peace and justice. We can also realise that there are things we are concerned about and things which we have influence over.
Whilst we have a wide range of concerns – our health, problems at work, national crises, weather, international events, etc, the fact is, we have no real control over some things that happen to us (Sphere of Concern), but there are some we can do something about (Sphere of Influence). The Sphere of Influence is what the Muslim is considered directly responsible for, whether as an individual or collective responsibility. By determining which of these we focus most of our time and energy on, we can discover much about the range we can be ‘activists’ in.
We know that God does not hold us responsible for anything other than our Sphere of Influence. “…And whatever any soul does reaps its own consequences unto itself, and no bearer of burdens shall bear the burden of another” (Surah Al-An’aam, 6:164). The best expression of faith is to one’s utmost in the enjoining of right and repelling of wrong within that sphere. However, to refuse to use one’s powers to change a wrong or to exercise some influence upon others to make the necessary change is considered a manifestation of weak faith. “Whoever sees something wrong, let him correct it by his hand (with the power vested in him), and if he can’t (do that), let him correct it by his tongue, and if he can’t (do that), let him hate it with his heart, and this is the weakest of faith (if one can do more).” (Sahih Muslim). Correcting ‘by one’s hand’ must be done with wisdom, calmness, and justice. “Do not let hatred of a thing make you swerve from doing justice.” (Sahih Al-Bukhari).
Thus in our own way we need to be speaking out against the injustices happening globally, through forging alliances with like-minded people. However, it has to be more than that. We need to use the opportunities that are given to us, like Ramadan, to develop a greater social policy that empowers people, recognizes their plurality and that searches for commonalities within this pluralism that will lead to greater respect and ultimately greater understanding.
This, ultimately, is my challenge this Ramadan: to go beyond my comfort zone to bring in allies who I can work with on a local and perhaps national scale for the common good so that our voices can shine globally.
Photo of Traditional Sudanese food used for the breaking of the fast by Vit Hassan; attribution via Flickr Commons.