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A Season of Self-conquest

By Muqtedar Khan, August 20, 2009

There's hidden sweetness in the stomach's emptiness.
We are lutes, no more, no less. If the soundbox
is stuffed full of anything, no music.
If the brain and belly are burning clean
with fasting, every moment a new song comes out of the fire.  Jalaluddin Rumi on fasting in Ramadan.
On Friday this week, hundreds of millions of Muslims will start fasting for a month. They will abstain from eating or drinking from dawn to dusk. They will stand for hours in prayers each night to remember their Lord and express their gratitude to Him, seek His forgiveness and aspire to come closer to Him.
Imagine a vast crowd of hundreds of millions of Muslims – sorry didn’t mean to frighten anybody – rushing headlong for a month in the same direction, seeking the pleasure of their Lord and you will begin to get some idea of the Worlds longest and biggest spiritual festival.
Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam. The Quran instructs that it’s purpose is to teach Muslims self-restraint.  The ritual involves systematic abstinence of things normal to body, mind and spirit. From dawn to dusk the limits are clear; no eating, no drinking, no sex, no fighting, no backbiting, no lying, no anger, no arrogance, no pride, no despair. This is the ultimate boot camp.
The point of the exercise for adult Muslims who are healthy and able, is to develop a regimen of self-restraint and to inculcate a capacity to, borrowing a term from Plato, control one’s appetites. The hope is that this mandatory regimen will become a habit and Muslims will spend the rest of the year in a state of high spiritual alert.
The easy part of the month of Ramadan is the physical part. After a week the body and the mind adjust and one rarely feels hungry or thirsty for most of the day. The last couple of hours are always tough, especially in the US where the days are long and the fasts last from fifteen to sixteen hours.
The more difficult parts are the one’s that demand spiritual discipline. The struggle to control one’s Id, to master one’s anger and pride, to learn humility and to recognize the insignificance of the self in comparison to the awesome majesty of God, are qualities very difficult to master. It is not easy to become one with God in one month.
Ramadan is also the month in which most of the Muslim holy book –The Quran – was revealed.  To celebrate the revelation of the Quran, Muslims devote special prayers and try to find time to reread it and to recommit to its teaching and its commandments.  After fasting all day, many men and women spend two to three hours every night reciting the chapters of the Quran in either congregational or individual prayers.
Muslims believe that Ramadan is a blessed month and the rewards for any good action is multiplied many times over. Therefore much of the annual obligatory and optional charity giving happens in Ramadan. This is a good time to do fund-raising if Muslim donors are your target. Islam mandates obligatory giving of 2.5% of accumulated or surplus wealth called Zakat, and many Muslims give it in the month of Ramadan.
But nonetheless those who fast with genuine dedication, those who struggle to conquer the self, those who fight to control their bodies, those who give charity and those who exercise humility experience a feeling of cleansing, of purification, which is difficult to describe, but profoundly palpable.
At the end of Ramadan, Muslims celebrate the festival called Eid. We break our fast early in the morning, wear our best clothes, give as much charity as we can and go to the mosque to offer special prayers. As one enters the mosque one experiences a complex emotion of happiness and apprehension. Happiness out of gratitude for being blessed with one more Ramadan and apprehension because one is always wondering if what one offered God was enough, was it accepted, was it worthy of one who is the Most Merciful and Most Compassionate.
Sometimes, there is a feeling of lightness, as if the weight of impurities that one had been carrying and accumulating all the yearlong has been lifted. Sometimes there is heaviness in the heart and one prays for one more chance to maybe get it right the next time.
Muqtedar Khan is Director of Islamic Studies at the University of Delaware and a Fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.

Dr. M. A. Muqtedar Khan
Associate Professor
Director of Islamic Studies
University of Delaware
Tel: 302-831-1939





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