This first appeared in issue 25, October 2006
There is a holy season in the Christian church called Advent. It is roughly the whole month before Christmas. The theme of readings and teachings during Advent is often to prepare believers for the Second Coming of Christ, while commemorating the First Coming at Christmas. Once upon a time, Advent was a time of fasting and lasted for 40 days. It is still a time of penitence in the Church. However when you look at the ever-earlier preparations for Christmas, they are often more about office parties, presents and decorations than either the First or Second coming. And I can't remember the last time I met someone fasting in preparation for Christmas.
Why do I mention this in a Muslim lifestyle magazine in October? Well, apart from making the point about the commonality of religious practices, it's just that I rather worry sometimes that Ramadan might just become a time to enjoy super iftars, stay up all night to sleep all day, and prepare for Eid. I am the last person to be the party-pooper, the kill-joy, the Ebenezer Scrooge. Indeed, this issue of emel has much on food for iftar, making Eid cards, giving gifts (even if they are alternative ones). But, like everything in Islam, there has got to be a balance. Whilst we try and make Ramadan memorable for our children and those around us with decorations, special food and the like, we must also draw them and ourselves into the spiritual dimension of the month. We must ask them and ask ourselves to contemplate the meaning and purpose of the month or we may achieve, as the Prophet said, nothing but hunger and thirst.
So what in particular is there to remember? The Prophet said of Ramadan, "It is the month of sabr, patience, and the reward for sabr is Paradise. It is the month of kindness and charity. It is a month in which a believer's sustenance is increased. Whoever gives food to a fasting person to break his fast shall have his sins forgiven, and he will be saved from the Fire of Hell, and he shall have the same reward as the fasting person without the latter's reward being diminished at all."
Let us start with patience. No doubt my children will tell you, am not the most patient person in the world. And when I am tired and hungry I am definitely not the most patient person in the world. And here is the Prophet telling us that this month of fasting and exhaustion is the month of patience! Well, he actually said sabr, and sabr is more than patience. Sabr is patient perseverance. It is remaining steadfast and strong in the face of adversity. It is being reconciled to difficulty at the very time and midst of that difficulty, not later, once it's all over. Sabr is the overcoming of trials and tribulations and doing so in a way full of good grace and dignity. Sabr is a noble attribute that we should all try to inculcate in our personalities. It flies in the face of the modern reaction to difficulty: blame and sue; fly into a rage; berate the world and everyone in it. Ramadan is the training of the character to withstand hardship, and to know that just as there is the break of fast following the fast, so there is ease after difficulty.
It is the month of kindness and charity. To empathise and act for the poor through the experience of hunger is surely one of the lessons of Ramadan. If ever there is a time to reach out and engage with those less fortunate, then this is it. If ever there is a time to begin to understand the reality of the vast majority of people on this planet living below the bread line, then this is it. If ever there is a time to recognise the good fortune bestowed upon us living our rich Western lifestyles, then this is it. The miracle however is that God promises that our sustenance will be increased in this month, and that wealth is never diminished by giving in charity.
So what I am saying is have your special iftars, decorate your houses, prepare for Eid by buying presents and making cards. All of these things make the month special and create a positive atmosphere, but never ever forget the central realities of the month. Don't let another Ramadan go by which leaves you thinking, "That went so fast, I didn't do what I should've done." Don't mark Eid with a month of hunger and thirst; rather celebrate it with the happiness and warmth you have brought to other people. Let this Ramadan be the one which shapes you, empowers you, inspires you to action and directs you to remember God unceasingly.
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