Oh you who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that you may learn piety and righteousness (Qur’an, 2:183)
Ramadan is a special month for Muslims, a precious one for each of us. For a month, we fast. From sunrise to sunset, we abstain from eating, drinking, and having sexual intercourse. I do not believe it is to empathise with the poor and indigent as they too fast. Instead, as mentioned in the verse above we fast to learn piety and righteousness. It is difficult to explain how sweet the first sip of tap water can taste after 19 hours of fast. After a month of denying ourselves for long hours essential means of subsistence, we see more than ever before the Mercy of God and the generosity of His blessings. By abstaining from even licit pleasures of this life, we strengthen our resilience and will power. We restate our submission to God. When we are left alone in the intimacy of our home, away from the eyes of others and their judgement, we choose to wait although thirsty and hungry. We choose to show patience, simply because God commanded us to and God is All-Seeing. Ramadan is also an opportunity to reconnect with the Qur’an and ponder on its meanings. It is the custom to complete the holy book by the end of the month. Many prepare their own reading schedules, go to lectures, and line up every night in crowded mosques for taraweeh (supererogatory prayers which follow the evening prayer during Ramadan and extend for about an hour and a half). Finally, Ramadan is a month where Muslims are called to be most charitable. We give to those in need and cleanse our hearts from attachment to all that is material. To give you an idea, Muslims in the UK donate more than £100 million every Ramadan. Beyond the spiritual uplift, which constitutes the core purpose of this month, Ramadan brings together the community.
I grew up in Casablanca, Morocco. My family is close, but that is the norm in our country. We never spent Ramadan alone. Every iftar (meal with which we break our fast) was spent with family. One day at my mom’s parents, the other at my dad’s, occasional invitations at relatives’. We would break our fast with delicacies we saw only once a year and sit down around tea. The evening prayers followed. On the way back home, we would see cafés abounding with people, the lights of the shops which opened long into the night, and often I would ask my mom to drop me at her parents’. When I started fasting, Ramadan fell around the end of August. And until last year, my maternal cousins and I would always be on summer break at that time. We all gathered at my very patient grandparents’ house and kept each other company. There were some years where my uncles would move in as well. The children would sleep in the living room and the adults in the bedrooms. Occasionally, my granddad would call us to the terrace to eat watermelon while we still could and we would play cards until 1am. Ramadan was a month full of love and despite the fatigue which built up over time and the palpable tension which weighed down people in its last days, we would bid it farewell with much nostalgia.
But this year I’m alone. Alone with no family and no friends. Alone where the echo of the call to prayer does not reach. Alone in a world where the mosques have closed their doors. And yet Ramadan came with the same air of quietude. When I heard that Morocco closed its borders in mid-March, I did not know what to think. My first thought was a strange “good”. I did not know how long I would have to bear with virtually no human contact. But “Alhamdoulilah” (Praise be to God). I didn’t have to make the difficult decision of either staying alone or going back home and risking infecting my mom whose immune system is compromised. I tried to fill my head with positive thoughts, go on walks on the beach, and remind myself of the luxury I had. I am young and healthy, financially secure, lodged, and live in gorgeous and quiet St Andrews. As Ramadan approached. I started making and receiving the customary calls from my family. “Is everything ok?”, “the days are long up in Scotland. Will you be fine with fasting?”, “Do you have all you need?”, “We’re sad not to have you with us”, “We love you”. Yet I felt oddly confident. I responded with “humans are an adaptive species” or “everything passes. We’ll see each other soon”. I didn’t really think much about what Ramadan could have been like, should be like. There was no point in occupying myself with fantasy and negative thoughts. Besides, people have been observing Ramadan for fourteen centuries, in war and deprivation, through the plague and innumerable diseases, under persecution and colonisation. While I did not have the community aspect of it this year, the core purpose of Ramadan remained, and I had control over what I was going to make of my time.
The first week was difficult, I was making the last changes to my dissertation and it was challenging on an empty stomach. I did not have much time to read scripture, but I watched lectures while cooking. My parents called very often… every day. The first iftar, my parents couldn’t reach me. I was showering while it was already time to break the fast for them. When I finally picked up and asked my mom what they had eaten, she told me my dad had not touched his food. He could not bring himself to eat all the good food while I was alone. I comforted him. “Don’t worry about me. None of this is as dramatic as you think”. Then the days passed, and they grew calmer. Humans are adaptive. After submitting my dissertation and the many assignments that all fell on two consecutive days, I had more time to devout to worship, though I did much less than I should have. I caught up on my readings, watched lectures, reflected. Time quite literally flew by. I found that the daily readings I set up for myself gave me a purpose, a goal. It was also very comforting to see that the communities which were physically separated were virtually gathering on social media platforms, not to gossip or hurt each other, but to call each other to good. A friend of mine and president of the St Andrews Muslim Students’ Association was so eager to preserve the remnants of the community spirit we all usually share during Ramadan, that she drove every week from Dundee and delivered halal meat and a weekly iftar for the Muslim students who still remained on campus. More than the beautiful people which supported me mentally (some of which came back into my life this month), it was the certainty of not being alone which brought me most peace. Our life might be turned upside down, but the world continues its course.
The sun and the moon are upon a reckoning
And the stars and the trees prostrate (Qur’an: 55:5-6).
Every leaf which falls does so only by the God’s Leave, so surely I am not alone.
Now we have nine days left and Ramadan this year was not bad. I still have the same feeling I had last year: the regret of having done so little, the wish of having been sincere enough, the hope of seeing another year. I came across a beautiful verse a week ago and I think that it is most relevant in this test:
Verily in the remembrance of God do hearts find rest (13:28)