Stagnate or Soar - The choice is yours
by: Batool Haydar

It's that time of the year again. The months that have come to be called the Season of Worship are passing us by and the last of them, Ramadhan, will soon be upon us. These 30 days are an annual focal point in our lives; we look forward to this month, speak of it fondly and refer often to the 'atmosphere' that it brings with it.

All Muslims are aware that this period is supposed to be a time of revival and refreshing oneself, of reining in material desires and putting in some extra effort to become better Muslims. We repeat traditions and quote verses that the real purpose of fasting is not to discipline the body, but rather to discipline the soul. We speak of the need to spend more time on connecting with God and forming a strong bond with Him that will carry us through the year to the next Ramadhan.

There is no doubt that every Muslim is aware of the importance of Ramadhan, of the Night of Power, of the fact that the value of one of these nights is equal to a thousand months or an average human lifetime and that sincere worship on this night can redeem us for eternity. And yet...

And yet, despite this knowledge, our preparation for this journey towards God is based more on our physical comfort than anything else. Women begin preparing menus, collecting ingredients and freezing food for men who will expect a certain culinary experience to appease their hunger. Young people begin organising weekend events that range from sports matches to fashion shows and everything in between.

In Muslim countries, shops stay open all night to cater for well-fed, happy people ready to spend money because after all, these are special days and Eid must be prepared for.

Ramadhan has slowly become a time for feasting, festivities and fun. So much so that even non-Muslims' comments about it will always include 'cuisine' and 'night life' as an integral part of the culture of fasting.

So what happens to the spiritual aspect we talk so much about? We pretend to satisfy it by reciting a section of the Qur'an every day, by listening to scholars speak for half an hour and reciting the recommended supplications, all done by rote on a daily basis as part of the tradition passed down from generation to generation.

Towards the end of Ramadhan, many of us find ourselves tired from the hectic routines and the skewed sleeping schedules. And even though we say 'Ramadhan has passed too fast' and 'we haven't managed to do enough', we mourn these things in a perfunctory manner, almost with smugness. Because what we really think is that we've done pretty okay considering how busy we were with work and cooking and cleaning up and attending weekend events.

But what if we did things differently? What if one year (perhaps this one?), we spent what is left of the months of Sha'ban preparing ourselves internally for the month-long communion ahead with our Creator.

What if in Ramadhan, we decide to eat simple fare and smaller portions? What if we immerse our bodies - already initiated by the sunnah (recommended) fasts over the previous months - into the emptiness that hunger and thirst brings with it and then in turn try to fill this emptiness with the Love of God?

We have 11 months in the year to hold our social activities, so if in this one month, we make the decision to consciously spend time doing more than just the basic ritual prayers and supplications, or perhaps even perform them with a heightened, focused sense of awareness, we may find that along with the lightening of our bellies, our minds and hearts also begin to rise.

We cannot carry the special atmosphere of Ramadhan past the day of Eid al-Fitr. We can't keep up with the same programme, the same foods or the same habits. These things end with the last day of fasting.

However, reciting the familiar supplication but this time with its translation, spending time in the dhikr (remembrance) of God, reading a book or even just setting aside time to contemplate the relationship with our Creator - such things if initiated, can become lifelong habits that one can carry beyond the days of Ramadhan. Through this system of growth, we are presented with the rare opportunity to awaken the emotional consciousness inside us and nurture our spiritual awareness.

If we manage to create a few constructive habits this year that become a part of us, the next Ramadhan will provide us with a higher starting point for our new changes. If we take one step towards God then as per His promise which never fails, He will take ten towards us, and next year we'll be that much closer to Him when we take our next step.

This is what is called a journey, where you move forward progressively from time to time. And this is the true purpose of Ramadhan - that no two years should find you in the same place spiritually. These 30 days are an energy booster-cum-catalyst that when spent correctly, create the right physical, mental and emotional circumstances to give us a jump start in our spiritual travels.

But if we keep ourselves warm, well-fed and heavy, happily distracted by social events, where will we get the motivation or energy to make this journey? If we create and play out the same routine every year, how will we even begin to move?

This is the question we must ask ourselves: Do we want to remain where we are, in our comfort-zones and slowly stagnate spiritually, or do we want to seek the sometimes harsh, but infinitely rewarding Way of the Seeker? The choice is - as it always has been - entirely ours to make.

May this Ramadhan be for all of us that first step on our Journey towards Our Beloved. Amen.

Originally published in islam today magazine UK, Vol. 1 No. 9 | July 2013. It has been republished here with permission.