So why should I fast anyway?

Originally written for Gulf News Opinion http://gulfnews.com/opinion/thinkers/so-why-should-i-fast-anyway-1.1850796

dates iftar

The clock strikes four and I gulp down the water quickly. I hear the distant call of the Fajr (dawn) prayer and realise that for the next 15 hours, I can neither eat nor drink anything. I think warily of the fact that the girls have school almost half this Ramadan and pick-ups must be braved in the searing heat. It’s not the food I mind giving up, I say grudgingly to myself, it’s the water and the caffeine — and the sleep that gets interrupted when I wake up to eat the pre-dawn meal. I’m a grouch early in the morning and the idea of not being able to get a long lie-in irks me.

“Why must I fast anyway?” I ask myself in a moment of restless, bleary-eyed grumpiness. There’s a voice inside me that tells me to come to my senses, but another stronger voice pipes up, “Because everyone fasts during Ramadan”. I complete the Fajr prayer lazily and throw dirty looks at the clock that just doesn’t seem to move on. As the day wears on, my mood thankfully improves, much to the relief of my family. The conscience is uncomfortably guilty as I question myself again, this time wide-awake and pleasant enough — why, at any rate, do we fast in Ramadan?

The obvious answer of course would be that because Allah commanded us in the Quran to do so. He also told us that He intends ease for us and not difficulty, and that those who are unable to fast due to reasons such as ill-health, travelling and child birth are exempt from doing so. There is also great reward in paradise for those who fast. Just that should be enough for someone of sound faith to want to fast, but I want to delve deeper into this question.

Let me, for starters, examine my relationship with God. When things are going well, I don’t really talk to Him much. I pray mechanically, almost like I just want to tick off a task in my day. But when the going gets tough, I earnestly talk to Him, in the darkness of the night and during the day when no one but Him understands my whispered pleas. When I feel inadequate, unable to do everything that’s expected of me, I reach out to Him and tell Him everything, safe in the knowledge that His mercy is greater than His wrath and that He, alone will not judge me.

One thing about people is that they’re quick to judge you. Say, a woman might be having an illicit affair and people would condemn her for being a two-faced hypocrite, but the only One who knows her full story and still has the door of mercy and forgiveness open for her is Allah. When you’re in the wrong — say things you dearly regret and actions that you’d give anything to eradicate — Allah is the One and only who understands you and still loves you and appreciates the fact that you came back and said sorry. Just the thought is emancipating.

Another beautiful thing about this relationship is that Allah knows me better than anyone, imperfections and all. He still loves me and listens to me every time I need to talk — no matter even if it is too trivial and I can be myself. He takes care of my requests, provided I ask like I really mean them. Even while I prayed and fasted like it was a chore, He continued to bless me with every passing day with gifts such as a functioning body, my family and countless other things.

I feel like a very selfish person — all I seem to care about is MY comfort, MY coffee and MY entertainment. I feel shallow, insincere — but one thing I do not feel is despair, because I know that the moment I reciprocate the love He shows me, Allah will give me another chance.

Outward signs of practising religion are indeed a part of it, but the actions are weightless if the conviction of faith isn’t behind them. I reflect upon the fact that I have this One friend that I have counted on in every moment of need and found Him to be true and incredibly caring and merciful. He continues to love me despite the fact that I mess up way too often. The more I know Him, the more thankful I am to Him and the more I want to show Him my love and devotion too. From hereon, I will fast because I want to, because He said so, because it is a privilege to be able to worship Him in the way He wants me to.

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Detoxing the body and soul this Ramadan

ramadanguest

Originally written for Gulf News Opinion http://gulfnews.com/opinion/thinkers/detoxing-the-body-and-soul-this-ramadan-1.1538896

Published: 15:28 June 22, 2015

When the starting day of Ramadan was confirmed, my heart skipped a beat as I welcomed my favourite time of the year, grateful to be alive to experience it again. Memories of last Ramadan came flooding back to me when I was lumbering around with swollen feet, nine months pregnant, desperately wanting the baby to finally arrive. As the month ends, she will turn one, and because not all of us shed baby weight as easily as Kate Middleton, I am looking to detoxify the body and hopefully shed a few pounds in the process. But what’s much more important is cleansing the soul.

Life for each one of us is a blend of wonderful, rejuvenating experiences and ugly, forgettable incidents. The amazing human mind stores all of these events pretty efficiently — our mind is like a large castle with many rooms, alleyways and courtyards. The negative memories, those painful incidents that we would like to forget, we unconsciously dump in a room in the posterior wing of this castle and keep the door firmly shut. Yet those experiences live within us, and the lingering hurt remains. Adverse experiences are a part of life, and indeed we would not value happiness and peace as much as we do were it not for the occasional jolts that life gives us. There are some of us who are able to brush off every negative experience nonchalantly and go about our merry ways.

But there are those who have a hard time letting go and accepting reality. As for me, my personality can be painfully analytical and critical, especially of my own self. I am prone to thinking things through, dissecting them to death trying to figure out why they happened. There’s always a desperate struggle to “get it right” that has defined my life, the feeling that if only I had done this or that, things might have been different. Now the time has come when I want to, consciously, let go.

For every relationship in life that didn’t work out, for every time I have felt dejected, and for each instance in which I have failed, I have frantically tried (in my head) to hold myself, or others, responsible. While introspection and soul searching is generally a good thing, and has helped me on many occasions, there is such a thing as too much of it. There’s a certain calmness and profundity about accepting things the way they are, acknowledging them as they stand today without beating yourself up about it, and without secretly blaming someone else, either.

A month of positivity

To me, this blessed month has always rekindled hope and brought positivity, and this year comes with me needing a fresh perspective on things perhaps more than before. In the last ten nights of Ramadan I will be looking for the genuine contentment that comes only from the belief that every experience that you went through was destined for you.

And that even though it may not seem so, in the grand scheme of things it was somehow the best thing that could have happened to you. Truly having faith that every challenge in life has positive connotations and consequences — no matter how contrary it may seem — is wonderfully liberating. I will take this opportunity to share a beautiful line from the Quran: “But perhaps you hate a thing and it is good for you; and perhaps you love a thing and it is bad for you. And Allah Knows, while you know not.” (Surah Al Baqarah 2:216).

Even though tough times test us and bring us pain they do form an integral part of our life experience, and we are the better for them. True happiness and healing is in learning to be truly thankful for them. Moreover, we tend to dwell on the little hills that are our problems in life — and each one of us has those. But in the process we ignore the mountains of blessings that have been bestowed upon us. This Ramadan I want to give genuine thanks for every gift my Creator has given me that I have neither acknowledged nor been grateful for. It is a time to connect with Him with a certainty that every time we call out to Him, He listens.

As the sweetness of the imam’s recitation during taraweeh prayers warms my heart, I feel that distinct Ramadan feeling, an inexplicable joy that can’t be put into words. Here’s hoping that this Ramadan will be better than the ones gone by, and that I am able to savour every moment of this month that slips by too quickly, leaving us to wonder whether we did in fact make the most of it.

On being the only one who doesn’t fast

Originally written for Gulf News: http://gulfnews.com/opinions/offthecuff/on-being-the-only-one-who-doesn-t-fast-1.1359213

Published July 2014

Like a lot of people who observe and celebrate Ramadan, I generally anticipate its arrival way before the month actually begins. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that I plan my entire year around it, look forward to its arrival and feel saddened when it bids us farewell.

This attachment to the month could be for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that for me, on a personal level, Ramadan has always brought forth positivity. Be it major changes within my own mental makeup or minor ones on the bathroom scales, Ramadan has been, for me, a bringer of glad tidings. Not surprisingly, it has witnessed some of the best moments in my life. At the very essence of it all, there is of course, the act of fasting and in general an increase in worship, the kind that generates from the heart and brings lasting peace and tranquillity to it.

What then, am I to make of this particular Ramadan, when I am for medical reasons (pregnancy, to be specific) not able to fast? Before the month began, I was secretly happy that I wouldn’t have to brave the heat and discomfort during the long day from dawn to dusk without food and water, but when the moon was sighted and everyone around me began to fast, I felt — well, there has to be only one for it — deprived.

The blessed meal of suhour has a charm about it that has to be experienced to be understood. You eat what you can (sometimes half-asleep) and as soon as you realise it’s time, you stop eating and drinking for the sake of your Creator alone. And then when, hours later, after a demanding day, you take your first gulp of water at iftar, you just want to praise the Lord for the sheer pleasure it brings. You suddenly feel content and there’s no emotion in the world that can parallel that.

Vague sensation

I didn’t realise how much I would miss all that. I didn’t realise just how much fasting does for you on a spiritual level — indeed, this time it doesn’t even feel like it’s Ramadan. I have the vague sensation of something extremely precious flowing away without being able to catch it, taste it or experience it. It’s as though everyone around me is taking full advantage of something special while I am on the sidelines, observing them, twiddling my thumbs even as I waddle around the house, with my tummy entering every room a few seconds before I do!

One could of course argue that if I can’t fast, I can surely pray the night prayer, ortaraweeh — the prayer specific to the nights of Ramadan. Certainly, if I can get past my swollen feet and larger-than-life ankles, the (unlimited) restroom runs that just seem to be around the corner and that lovely, calming sensation of perpetual heartburn — and oh, did I mention the mood swings that even I can’t explain?

And it is not entirely easy to feel enthusiastic about standing in prayer for long hours at night, when you’ve played mom and homemaker for the better part of the day, slogging away resolutely, mustering up just about enough strength to carry along all of those extra pounds your body currently sports.

I do perhaps sound a little more frustrated (disappointed?) than I should be, because my situation brings with it a joy that is extremely precious and life-changing and truly makes everything worthwhile. As always, there is a strong case of looking at the glass half-full and finding ways of making this Ramadan wonderful and memorable too.

After all, doesn’t Allah look at your intentions and is it not the heart that is made content, regardless of whether you are able to fast or not? Isn’t it about connecting with your almighty on a profound spiritual level? Then I, for one, should know that exhausted, frustrated and inadequate as I feel, it takes only a moment of earnest seeking to find that which I’m looking for. Perhaps it’s just that one evasive tear that refuses to fall from my eye or that one suppressed supplication that hasn’t yet escaped my lips that will make this Ramadan even better than the last. Here’s hoping that I too, will be able to partake in the blessings of this special month and it won’t go by without transforming the negatives into positives and somehow bringing about yet another new beginning.

Mehmudah Rehman is a Dubai-based freelancer.

Do some soul-searching during Ramadan

ramadanguest

This image is one I took and designed last year for Ramadan.

Originally written for Gulf News “Off the Cuff” http://gulfnews.com/opinions/offthecuff/do-some-soul-searching-during-ramadan-1.1206472

It’s one of those things about life; it takes us to the lowest possible ebb, and just when we’re ready to throw in the towel, it gets us to rise again. I remember last Ramadan with a mixture of sadness and fondness. It had been a tough year for me, perhaps one of the most turbulent phases of my life.

About a year ago, I wrote about how Ramadan was important to me because it wasn’t just about abstaining from food and drink, it was about clearing my heart and letting go of every malicious thought, every grudge and ill-feeling that I harboured against anyone.

I wanted to truly forgive and forget and I wanted a clean slate. Those days turned out to be, in many ways, a turning point in life for me.

I could have either given up on everything and everyone or I could have moved on into the light, brushing aside the cynicism and the negativity.

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I was tired. I was tired of the way things had been, I was tired of myself and I was very conscious of the fact that I might never see another Ramadan again.

When the Ramadan moon was sighted, it brought with it a hope as faint as the moon itself, and as I searched the heavens for a sign, I saw a hazy sliver of silver suspended in the faraway sky and I wondered if that little bit of light would somehow, miraculously brighten up my world too. I had known all along: it was time for change.

The change that had always made a case for itself but I had ignored the fact that it was even, in any way, needed. I decided that I would let this month be a sort of new beginning.

That meant only one thing: a fresh perspective, some serious soul searching and hoping, praying and trying desperately for the changes I so badly, urgently needed to make within my own self.

Ego issues

The ego of a human being is the single greatest thing that stands between a person and total happiness and peace. I wanted to conquer my ego, I wanted the realisation of my own errors that would help me break down and cry, and start again from scratch, without a ton of unnecessary baggage weighing me down. I wanted to humble myself, and I knew I had to take responsibility for everything that had gone wrong.

Holding myself, and just my own actions accountable for everything that had happened was where it all began. When I finally came to terms with the fact that our present is a direct result of our decisions and behaviour in the past, it looked as though the grime was finally shifting.

When the mosques were full and people beseeched Allah in the blessed nights, I too prayed for a miracle. And then just as quickly as it had come, with so much hype and hope, stealthily, the month of Ramadan passed me by.

I wondered if the changes I so desperately wanted would occur and if they would manifest themselves. It is said that if you take a step towards Allah, He in all His might and glory takes ten towards you, and if you walk to Him, He runs to you.

stepshadithforMM

Feel free to share this pictorial, click for a larger image. This one was designed a long time ago by me.

About a year later, I say this with moist eyes — change did happen. It happened from within. Perhaps that’s why I could I see the world clearly, because my own vision was no longer altered with an omnipresent layer of dirt.

I don’t know how, I don’t even know when, and I certainly don’t know why — but all I know is that sincere remorse, no matter how lost you are, and being honest with yourself is the best way to pick yourself up again, and to rise like a phoenix from the ashes.

As I wait again for another Ramadan, I am filled with joy, gratitude and a sense of wonder and a warm feeling of hope and positivity. The blessed nights are truly special.

PS: What does Ramadan mean to you? How was your best Ramadan, do you remember it? What are your favourite tips for a great Ramadan?

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