Ramadan: Reflection in Reclusion

بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمٰنِ الرَّحِيْمِ

This year, the month of Ramadan has been very different. At first, I could not really fathom what it was that made me feel so differently this time, as I started to fast. Notwithstanding the hotter weather and the longer, thirst-laden hours, or the fact that having to handle two small kids has its own added stress – mental and physical – on the body. This Ramadan, for some odd reason, I have become more averse to eating the usual “Ramadan” food during the night. I have also become more prone to reclusion and reflection.

I find this change quite disconcerting, since most of the people around me seem to consider Ramadan a time to have fun and to go on an overeating binge. Whether its showing off a new outfit in the morning dars-e-Quran, and yet another one at night at the couture-studded taraweeh congregation, or eating a wider variety of delicacies at lavish iftar-party banquets, or enjoying owl-nights with cigarette-puffing, coffee-sipping repartee at expensive cafés in the guise of Sehri, people seem to find Ramadan a month to convert their days into nights, and vice versa.

I have been pondering a lot on what effect an individual’s abstention from eating, drinking and other bodily desires could have on his or her spiritual relationship with Allah. Why does it make us feel more close to Him, if we are starved or thirsty? This requirement of Islam – fasting 30 days every year if one physically can – goes to show that there is a direct relationship between what/how we eat, and our faith in Allah or our closeness to Him.

As a child, I would find it quite unbelievable that adults went for so many hours without food and drink; I found it even more amazing that they stood for long periods in devout prayer at night behind an imam – and that, too, in voluntary, supererogatory prayer; not obligatory prayer. It’s amazing how well the human body adapts to the strict discipline enforced on it by one’s sheer will.

I had not been in the habit of fasting when Ramadan started this year. This was because I had kept no supererogatory fasts since last Ramadan, because I was nursing my son. Therefore, in this Ramadan’s first two days, I felt my body protesting, as it went into food withdrawal and a changed eating routine. I had the customary headache, swoons of sleep that felt more like fainting spells, and deadly fatigue just before iftar. However, after just two days, I was well-adjusted to the new routine. I actually began to enjoy the light-headed feeling of an empty stomach, a more alert mind, and more time during the day (by not having to worry about what to eat for lunch). That left me more time to ponder on, and recite the Quran, when the children laid down for their afternoon nap. I felt that when the body’s connection with food and drink was deliberately severed for a few hours, the mind took over with more control, disciplining the human self into remembrance of Allah. It was an entirely new feeling!

In joint family households, as iftar time draws close, the hustle and bustle in the house, the noisy chatter of children, and the din created by the clinking of plates and glasses increases. Oil sizzles loudly as dollops of chickpea dough are dropped into the wok for frying pakoras (fritters in Urdu).

The bell rings as guests arrive, or if the driver delivers some last-minute groceries or jalebis from the nearest shop. Red sherbet is prepared with tinkling ice cubes floating in its midst.

The entire family gathers around a “feast” laid out on the table, one so picture-perfect and colorful that it could be photographed for any local food magazine! As the adhaan sounds, dates are passed around. The next few minutes are spent relishing the fresh food and drink on the taste buds. Children’s demands are kept well in mind when preparing this lavish meal, as they love to have jalebi and red sherbet the most.

Until I got married, I used to follow the same iftar routine with my own family. I never questioned or protested it; and why would I? I loved the food and eating to my heart’s content before maghrib salah. However, as I mentioned above, as of late, I seem to have changed somewhat. I don’t even want to have pakoras or samosas in the last hour of the fast – the one in which hunger and thirst peak in magnitude. When the fast ends, I just want to have water, and nothing fried that could make me feel heavy and full.

I am thankful to Allah that I live in my own private space where everything is done according to my pleasure.  It is every woman’s innate passion to arrange, cook and schedule things her own way in her space, and Islam has endorsed this trait, by making her the “raa’in” (overseer) of her husband’s home. I prepare a very light iftar – and not all of it myself. My “significant other” prepares the fruit chaat for himself (as I don’t particularly like that dish), and sometimes the red sherbet too. This simple menu is laid out ten to fifteen minutes before sunset, so that the last precious minutes can be spent in making quiet and earnest du’a.

The actual iftar is, for me, a one-minute “meal” – a single date and a glass of tepid water – which I down in the state of readiness for prayer i.e with ablution done, and dupatta wrapped around my head. Within a minute, I am on my prayer mat, remembering The One for whom I spent the entire daylight time hungry, thirsty and tongue-tied (I have to restrain myself from shouting at the kids during fasting!). The other two (husband and daughter) sit and have their fruit, dates, jalebi’s and sherbet for a few more minutes, while the indignant toddler bellows for attention from his cot. After salah, I lay out the simple dinner (I cook just one thing, because after all, Ramadan is not supposed to be a month of “feasting”, is it?) which we all sample together. I say “sample”, because contrary to the pangs of hunger one feels during the day, everyone ends up eating much less than normal during Ramadan.

I might sound like a very extremist person. But the surprising part of it is, that I did not intend to become this way; it just happened gradually since the last few years, in which I have spent two Ramadan’s in the state of breastfeeding, and one in the state of early pregnancy, spending most of the day in bed with nausea and vomiting. Eventually I could not attend the couture-studded taraweeh that I loved so much, because of the demands of motherhood made on me by my infant(s) and toddler(s). I grudgingly stayed at home, and through this “predicament”, Allah opened the door to another one of His special treasures for me: the joy of praying night-prayer (Qiyaam al-layl) alone, in the last third of the night, with extended rukoo (bowing) and sujood (prostration).

I admit I might never have tried this prayer the way I did, had I continued to attend taraweeh with congregation, because of the hadith about the person who prays taraweeh and ends his prayer with the imam,being counted as having prayed the whole night. I did pray two units of night-prayer before Sehri sometimes, but not with the deep concentration that I pray it with now, when I do not have the backup of taraweeh to depend upon.

Eventually, by having to spend Ramadan a lot by myself due to motherhood, with no daur-e-Quran in the mornings, and no taraweeh in the evenings, I had to resort to stepping up my acts of worship in seclusion, trying hard to make up for the “loss” I felt I was suffering by not being able to partake in these congregational Ramadan activities. I remember Ramadan 2004, when I suffered breathlessness during my first trimester. Because of this shortness of breath, I could not recite the Qur’an (one juz/para per day) as I did before marriage. I felt like a major loser. Therefore, I started to listen to it by playing it on a tape player, with the Qur’an open before me in my hands. That was another experience altogether, because the recitation of Sheikh Saud Al-Shuraim (one of the past imam’s of Masjid Al-Haram) was clear and fast – he completed one juz in just half an hour! He recited some ayah’s in different ways, with sincere feeling and devotion, by listening to which I felt my heart tremble and quiver with the feelings of iman.

They used to say, “Life with one child is hard; with two, it’s just impossible”. I do agree somewhat; however, my biggest concern is not being able to perform acts of worship with the relative ease with which I could before motherhood.

The lack of distractions, the serenity, the concentration in salaah, the uninterrupted night sleep – I do miss that, but I console myself by thinking that this time shall pass soon. The children will be a bit older, and then I might be able to attend taraweeh, knowing that they won’t wander off or put their fingers inside the pedestal fans, insha’Allah!

As I said, I have become a bit of a recluse during Ramadan, because of motherhood.

I stay at home for the children’s sake, and when they are asleep, I catch up on my worship – recitation, prayers, reading, and of course, writing Islamic articles. I try to listen to lectures online, but the 4-6 hour daily load-shedding has foiled those plans too!

Prophet Muhammad [صلى الله عليه و سلم] used to isolate himself from people during Ramadan, as did his Companions. Such was their focus in, and fervor for, personal, high-quality worship. The Prophet Muhammad [صلى الله عليه و سلم] also recited the entire Quran before Jibrael [علیہ السلام] once during Ramadan, and increased his worship in the last 10 days, staying in the mosque for I’tikaf and isolating himself in devotion and remembrance of Allah. If one reads up on the history of taraweeh prayer, one learns that the Prophet Muhammad [صلى الله عليه و سلم] prayed it with congregation for only three nights in early Ramadan, fearing that it might become obligatory on the ummah if he continued every night. Throughout his life, he prayed his night-prayer alone at home, in the last third of the night. However, to make it easy for Muslims, he encouraged them to pray taraweeh with the imam, and informed them that they’d be counted as praying the whole night if they did so.

This leaves room for the debate that praying at night during Ramadan, and especially for women, is a very flexible issue. Any fixed schedule of prayer should not be made incumbent on any individual; rather, each person should keep their obligatory duties and responsibilities in mind when performing acts of worship. Also, concentration and “khushoo” should be given due importance and priority. If one sleeps through daur-e-Quran or taraweeh, with their mind dwelling on their clothes being stitched for Eid, or on the designer bags, shoes and clothes on display at the gathering, then what have they achieved in reality?

For now, whenever I recall with longing my taraweeh nights in years of yore, with hours of standing in devotion listening to the Quran recitation, and the mornings spent in attending a Quran dars, I tell myself that had I still been unmarried or not a mother, I would never have experienced the joy of reflection, worship and devotion to Allah in reclusion during Ramadan, which, in reality is the actual essence of the month, as embodied by the actions of not only our Prophet Muhammad [صلى الله عليه و سلم], but also by his companions and the pious predecessors who succeeded them in the earlier Muslim generations. Their focus was on isolating themselves from people for devout worship, in order to reap the maximum spiritual rewards in this blessed month.

When one squeezes a citron, pure, pulpy juice flows out. O Allah! Make me survive this squeeze of motherhood. Make me effuse the best of service to you, your Deen and the rest of mankind.

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