By: Sheikh Mirza Abbas Raza
Sheikh Mirza Abbas Raza holds an MA in Theology from the University of Birmingham. He is currently working on his Phd on Islamic Mysticism (irfan) at the University of Exeter. He also lectures at the Hawza Ilmiyya of England and Islamic College of Advanced Studies in London.
We are probably all familiar with sayings "opportunity only knocks once" and "if opportunity does not knock built a door". For Muslims the month of Ramadhan is a great opportunity to tap into the meta-physical realities and hidden secrets. The Divine Mercy not only builds a door for us but also knocks it many times over and says "do not lose hope in the Mercy of God".
For Muslims, Ramadhan is known as the month of God and this has been mentioned in a sermon delivered by the Prophet in Sha'ban, the month proceeding the holy month of Ramadhan. In another narration the 8th Shi'a Imam al Ridha(a) mentions that "Do not say Ramadhan arrived and Ramadhan went but rather say the month of Ramadhan arrived and the month of Ramadhan is gone, because Ramadhan is one of the names of God". When the month of Ramadhan is the month of God and also one of the names of God then what it contains within will be Godly as well. This month will contain within it a source of "return" (ruj'u) towards God. I would like to point out few facets of this divine month. As we mentioned earlier it is primarily an opportunity.
Ramadhan as an opportunity to perform takhliya (making oneself empty / detachment)
The month of Ramadhan is the month of takhliya, known as detachment and also 'making empty' in the lexical sense and once this 'making empty' takes place then the nuzool (descent) in the true sense will take place. An echo of this can be seen in the far eastern Taoist philosophy which asserts, "it is the empty space of the wheel which makes the wheel". The goal is to empty oneself of desire for food, sex, lust, passion, ego and most human conditions, so that the word of God can fill this void as it descends on the night of qadr (power).
The principle of change
According to this supplication the world is constantly undergoing change and profound transformation. The great philosopher Sadra al Mut'alliheen, asserted that the substance of existence is permanently in motion, change and transformation. This change and transformation is so embracing that it encompasses the outside world as well as the interior world and the soul. In reality, the very continuance of the world depends upon this change and transformation.
The detachment from ego, worldly desires or world (dunnya) must happen first for one to get attached to the spiritual, heavenly qualities or the hereafter (akhira). Not eating & drinking is very symbolic of the fact that you are emptying yourself that you are detaching yourself from the human condition to aspire and to acquire angelic qualities because angels do not eat or drink but rather are filled with the remembrance of the Divine. No wonder the Prophet of Islam in the last sermon of Sha'ban is reported to have said: "The breath of a person who fasts is remembrance (dhikr) and their sleep is worship (ibadah)".
Ramadhan an opportunity to perform khalwa (spiritual retreat)
Truth is self-evident and it does not require a profound explanation. Man has completely realised that occasional withdrawal from full life not only tends to provide appreciation of life but also to provide a better means to treat and utilise it. This withdrawal can be considered ascetic in the spiritual terminology. Ramadhan becomes the vehicle through which man performs a khalwa while not eating and drinking (fasting), appreciating that food and drink are blessings and gifts of God and that He is the fa'il (Actor) and the provider of this blessing. This contemplation is made possible by khalwa, where the fasting person yearns for food and realises in the first instance the command of God that he or she is fasting and on a deeper level yearns to receive the reward of the fast through God Himself.
As the Prophet of Islam has said: "God says, 'Fasting is for me and I am the one to give the reward'." The usage of 'I' is considered quite unique by 16th century scholar Muhammad Taqi Majlisi in the sense that: "God did not just say fast is for Me but rather He says 'I' will reward. He use the term 'I' which is in the first person pronoun. The reason for this unique portrayal of the importance of fasting is because God usually speaks either in the third person pronoun such as "He is the one who sent down...", "He is the one who sent the revelation" or He speaks with the connotation of Majestic 'We', for instance, "We revealed on the Night of qadr".
However in this narration He has used the first person pronoun. Furthermore this narration can also be translated as, "I am the reward" and this makes it more mysterious and spiritual that the reward of fast is God Himself. God being the reward can be understood, when one reaches the level where one sees the Nourisher (Razzaq) Himself when he realises he or she needs nourishment in the same way as a person yearning for food or drink. This is what we mean when we say seeing the fa'il (Actor) Himself. Regardless, in both cases the performer of the fast will have the opportunity to meet God in order to take the reward or be graced by being allowed in the presence of God if the reward is God Himself.
The month of Ramadhan an opportunity to freedom
The most precious and valuable phenomenon for humans is 'freedom'. God is free and He wants us to be free as well. When man achieves his freedom then he is a true khalifatullah (vicegerent) of God. There is no other value greater than the value of freedom. The month of Ramadhan provides an opportunity to free ourselves as the Prophet of Islam has reportedly said: "O people you are not free but imprisoned and you do not even realise that you are in one. The sins that you have committed have imprisoned you, in the month of Ramadhan with istaghfaar (seeking forgiveness) free yourself".
As the first Shi'a Imam 'Ali(a) says, the way to freedom is by "cleaning what has remained in our teeth", which is explained as one must leave the previous leftover thoughts, his positions or designated status, heritage, wealth, lineage etc. If man divests himself of all these which means he pays no attention to and he does not desire them then he is free. As the Qur'an says; "...every man is hostage to what he has earned" (52.21). In another chapter it asserts the same with an exception, "Every soul is held in pledge what it earns. Except the people of the right hand" (74:38-39). The people of the right hand are those who have freed themselves from all the ills and norms that society dictates. The methodology provided is seeking forgiveness while fasting in order to free ourselves from the idols or ideals that imprison us.
Originally published in islam today magazine UK, issue 36, vol. 4 | June 2016. It has been republished here with permission.