Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Not every day or night of Ramadan is one of spiritual uplifting and glowing soulfulness. Sometimes we will be overcome by anger, frustration, resentfulness, despair; sometimes there will be good reason for it, sometimes they're more than the situation deserves, but either way, we will feel them. It's not all from Shaytan, necessarily - these are simply human emotions and realities that we are guaranteed to go through and be tested with.

It's easy to feel like we're 'failing' Ramadan because of it. It's easy to feel as though the day of fasting was wasted, that the night of prayer in the masjid was pointless, because our minds are still roiling and our hearts is still feeling heavy and it feels like our souls are pretty much doomed because, well, we suck.
I'm not going to give some warm fuzzy platitudes about how to feel warm and fuzzy. (I'm not particularly good at that kind of thing anyway.)

I'll be blunt: Ramadan is *meant* to be this way. It's not a month where we magically turn into angelic creatures; nor will all our bad habits (physical or mental) disappear; nor will our lives suddenly become easy.

To the contrary, everything becomes exponentially harder.
There's the obvious fact that we are trying to fast from ill speech and ill deeds in addition to physical needs, but there is also the fact that everything in our daily lives becomes suddenly highlighted and almost exaggerated - average things like food and drink are deeply appreciated, small annoyances become spectacularly aggravating... and our sorrows are felt more deeply, our character failings become more obvious, and our daily struggles become infinitely more difficult.

Many of us are praying Taraweeh in these blessed nights seeking reward from Allah, and a precious sense of peace and tranquility. But that sakeenah is not always - and not necessarily - the true goal of our worship.

Often, we don't realize that it is bringing ourselves to Allah with our negative emotions that is the real litmus test. He already knows us better than we know ourselves, but the challenge is in *us* trusting in Him - instead of turning to other human beings to vent our frustrations. So many times, our first instinct is to tell our best friends, or our parents, or our spouses (or Facebook) how upset we are, yet we forget that the only being capable of doing anything about it is the One in control of Divine Decree.

Whatever is happening in our lives, whatever we are feeling, it is because He has decreed it to occur - perhaps as a test, perhaps as a punishment, perhaps as something that will result in benefit for us in the future, perhaps as something that we don't realize is actually preventing us from a greater harm... and perhaps as a means of us growing closer to Him.

While we should certainly try to seek patience and contentment (and of course that ever-elusive yet ever-desired inner peace), we must remember that the Prophets, the Messengers, and the pious had their fair share of feeling restless and troubled. Their tests didn't disappear because of their prayer, yet they consistently turned to Allah with their distress.

As Ya'qub ('alayhissalaam) said:
{...I only complain of my suffering and my grief to Allah...} (Qur'an 12:86)
And what better time to complain to Allah than now?

The full moon has never looked so breathtakingly beautiful, nor so heartbreaking.

We have watched it blossom every night, accompanying us on our drives to the masjid, peeking through our windows at suhoor. As the crescent has grown with every moonrise, so has our own emaan - strengthened by hours of qiyaam, illuminated by dhikr.
As amazing as the full moon is, however, its beauty is nothing compared to the true Light of the Heavens and the Earth:

{Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The example of His light is like a niche within which is a lamp, the lamp is within glass, the glass as if it were a pearly [white] star lit from [the oil of] a blessed olive tree, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil would almost glow even if untouched by fire. Light upon light! Allah guides to His light whom He wills. And Allah presents examples for the people, and Allah is Knowing of all things.}

And the following verse should resonate with us even more:

{[Such niches are] in mosques which Allah has ordered to be raised and that His name be mentioned therein; exalting Him within them in the morning and the evenings...}

As the moon wanes, our worship and our faith should not. Rather than start focusing on Eid coming up or giving into the mid-Ramadan slump, these nights of the full moon should remind us to fill our own hearts with light, to hasten to the niches of light, to seek the Light of our Creator.
These are the nights to beseech our Lord:

{O Allaah, place within my heart light, and upon my tongue light, and within my ears light, and within my eyes light, and place behind me light and in front of me light and above me light and beneath me light. O Allaah, bestow upon me light!}

Many people consider Ramadan to be a time of togetherness - of having communal suhoor and iftaar, of praying taraweeh in Jamaa'ah, of family traditions and the excitement that pulls you through each day.
But for some of us - even born Muslims - Ramadan is a time where our solitude is more pronounced than ever.
The true nature of fasting is such that it is a deed that we do that no one else can truly know about except our Lord - not just whether we are abstaining from food and drink, but how well we are struggling with our inner selves.
Anger, resentment, frustration, heartache... in the absence of the distractions of food and socialised rituals surrounding it, our baser selves emerge at the forefront in all their uncomfortable, unpleasant glory.
Ramadan is a time of taking ownership of who we really are, of admitting our own faults, of confronting ourselves, of being forced to stop deflecting blame onto others.
Ramadan is a time when only we know how well we have made it through the day - or not. In the moments between sajdas and suhoors, between the physical humbling of our bodies and the rituals of worship, we alone know if our hearts are any softer, any purer, any more penitent.
We are not all saints and spiritual paragons. Most of us are painfully human, stumbling over ourselves, clinging with bloodied, tear-stained fingertips to the knowledge that every time we fall - once, twice, ten times a day - alLateef, alWadud, arRahmaan, alGhaffaar is there to catch us, to love us, to have mercy on us, to forgive us.
We who are so very alone, whether in the midst of bustling households or the silence of our own company, are never truly abandoned, though it may feel that way.
{The one who comes with a good deed, its reward will be ten like that or even more. And the one who comes with vice, their reward will be only one like that, or I can forgive them. The one who draws close to Me a hand's span, I will draw close to them an arm's length. And whoever draws near Me an arm's length, I will draw near them a fathom's length. And whoever comes to Me walking, I will go to them running. And whoever faces Me with sins nearly as great as the earth, I will meet them with forgiveness nearly as great as that, provided they do not worship something with Me.}

A lot of us were/are stressed over the long days, but - as always - there are incredible blessings in these lengthy days of Ramadan.
In the winter, the days are over so swiftly that we've barely done our basic chores before it's time for iftaar and the taraweeh rush.
In the summer, though, we have more than enough time for everything: the kids' school routine, our own work, time to work on our khatmas, time to prepare food, and best of all, time to squeeze in a nap (if you're extra privileged, that is).
If we have slipped up in the morning, we have hours to do tawbah and seek to perfect the rest of our fast. If we have used harsh words or watched too many YouTube cat videos or spent too much time on Pinterest staring at food (*cough*), we still have many chances to do istighfaar and work on filling the remainder of our time with activities pleasing to our Lord.
Our nights may be too short for lengthy qiyaam, but our long days as fasting believers means that we have ample opportunity for du'a, dhikr, & qira'ah.
Though sometimes the wait for iftaar seems interminable, it is in those moments that we have even more to be grateful for - more chances for us to be counted as those who endured hunger and thirst solely for the pleasure of our Lord, more time for us to be counted amongst those ransomed from Hellfire, more opportunities to be of those who will enter Jannah from Baab arRayyaan, more blessed minutes and hours to become of Ahlul Qur'aan.
In years to come, we who have been blessed to witness this year's Ramadan will be deeply grateful for it. We were chosen to be of those who sacrificed comfort for a long month, a month of heat and hardship, and for that, we will inshaAllah be of those:
{Reclining therein on raised thrones, they will see there neither the excessive heat of the sun, nor the excessive bitter cold,
The shade thereof is close upon them and the clustered fruits thereof bow down.} (Qur'an 76:13-14)

It will strike us - that moment, like a punch in the gut, of anger, or resentment, or jealousy, or bitterness - just when we think that we have read enough Qur'an to make us religious enough, prayed enough qiyaam to be spiritual enough, endured enough hunger and thirst to be good enough - too good for these feelings.
It could be a minor matter, something petty or trivial; or it could be something that strikes at some of our most painful insecurities. There is something about experiencing such a moment in Ramadan that makes it feel even more intense than it would normally. Our inner human instinct, that initial flare of emotion, seems amplified.
In that moment, the choice before us is even more difficult - and more meaningful - than it is at other times.
Will we choose to become defensive and deflect? Will we become sullen and simmer in our rage? Will we focus on the wrongdoing of others, seize onto their slights against us, harbour a silent grudge? Will we latch onto our own self-righteousness and build inside ourselves a convincing argument of how wrong the other party is, how faultless we are, what victims we are to others' selfishness?
Or will we bite back the urge to lash out, and remember that we are no better, no less human, no less inclined to making silly mistakes and committing unintended offences towards others?
Will we swallow our pride and insecurities, and rather than allowing ourselves to wallow in our emotions, acknowledge the ways in which *we* need to change for the better?
Will we take this as a moment to turn to Allah, wounded pride and stinging hearts and all, and seek His healing?
Will we be of those who say:
{..."Our Lord, forgive us and our brothers who preceded us in faith and put not in our hearts [any] resentment toward those who have believed. Our Lord, indeed You are Kind and Merciful.} (Quran 59:10)

Standing in line at taraweeh, the mind makes a quick mental catalogue - that girl's forearms are showing, that aunty's feet are uncovered, that lady's scarf is slipping. Ugh, don't they know it's Ramadan and their salah probably isn't valid now?
The angels on their shoulders write a detailed catalogue - that girl just gave away her entire week's salary in sadaqah secretly, that aunty's heart has been cleansed of all grudges, that lady's children have the best adab and akhlaaq out of everyone in the masjid. Their beauty is magnified in the Sight of Allah and the angels who ascend to witness their Lord's slaves in worship.
The angels on our shoulders write down an even longer list - today, you lost your temper; today, you spoke harshly to someone and drove them away from the masjid; today, your recitation of the Quran did not go deeper than your throat; today, you assumed that your 'knowledge' made you an intellectual, that it made your actions impeccable, that Allah has guaranteed the acceptance of your deeds simply because you (think you) know more about the Deen than everyone else.
Today, the person we were judging - however silently - may well enter Jannah long before we even smell its fragrance.

Ramadan is for the heartbroken and heartbruised; for those who feel like all they really have to cling to is the hunger and thirst of their fasting, and the meagre rak'aat of taraweeh; for those who don't have great spiritual reflections or transformations, but who prostrate themselves nonetheless begging Allah to accept what little they are capable of - the faltering recitation of the few surahs they are still struggling to memorize, the stumbling of weary tongues over half-remembered du'as, the sorrow of those who know they should do better, who *have* done better in the past, but who are too heartsore now to do more than fulfill their obligations and hold back the aches in their chests.
Ramadan is for the heartbroken and heartbruised; for those who flinch at the Divine Verses of warning, of punishment and hypocrisy, whose sinking hearts and guilty consciences are outweighed only by the desperate hope and knowledge of their Lord's Mercy and Love, who know that this is the month they can count on to have their souls freed from the chains of Fire they had earned throughout the year.
Ramadan is for the heartbroken and heartbruised; the ones who once considered themselves confident and then found themselves humiliated; the ones who overestimated their own strength and were brought abruptly back to earth, their faces rubbed with the dust of reality; the ones who were convinced that they were of the purified, of the pious, of the righteous... and then found themselves staring into a reflection warped beyond recognition.
Ramadan is for the heartbroken and heartbruised, for those of us who have betrayed ourselves, for those of us who feel betrayed by others, for those of us who have learned to trust no one and nothing but our Lord.
Ramadan is for the heartbroken and heartbruised: for those of us who fast the days and pray the nights with nothing more than sheer faith and the promise of Allah's forgiveness to keep us going.
Man saama Ramadan emaanan wah'tisaaban, ghufira lahu ma taqaddaama min thanbih.
Whosoever fasts Ramadan with emaan and ihtisaab (assurance of its reward), their previous sins will be forgiven.
Man qaama Ramadan emaanan wah'tisaaban, ghufira lahu ma taqaddama min thanbih.
Whosoever prays qiyaam in Ramadan with emaan and ihtisaab (assurance of its reward), their previous sins will be forgiven.

Have you ever had that moment where, all of a sudden, you remember something that you said or did in the past, the severity of which you only realized later on?
That sharp inhalation, shortness of breath, the flush of humiliation, the sick lurching in the pit of your stomach as you recall hurtful words, or an action that was so clearly displeasing to Allah... it is a very physical reaction, a recoiling from your own past deeds.
It may not even be the first time you think about those actions, it may not even be the first time to make istighfaar because of them... but sometimes, it may be the first time that you really and truly feel absolutely sickened at the realization of the gravity of it all. It might not even have been a 'big deal' - perhaps it was a cruel joke to a sensitive friend, or not having fulfilled a promise that was important to someone, or betraying a secret that you didn't think was all that serious.
And yet... and yet, at this moment, your memory of that action is stark and gut-wrenching.
It is a deeply unpleasant feeling.
It is also a very necessary one.
Tawbah - seeking forgiveness from Allah - is something that we speak about, especially in Ramadan, the month of forgiveness. However, it's also something that we tend to speak about in general terms, or write off as something simple - "Just say astaghfirAllah and don't do it again."
In truth, tawbah is about much more than muttering istighfaar under your breath. It is a process, an emotional experience, one that engages your memory, your soul, and your entire body.
The first step of tawbah is to recognize the sin - whether seemingly small or severe - and to understand just how wrong it was. Each and every one of our deeds is written in our book of deeds; each and every deed will be presented to us on the Day of Judgment for us to be held accountable for. There are times when we say things so casually that it doesn't even register to us
how we could be affecting the person we've spoken to - as RasulAllah (sallAllahu 'alayhi wa sallam) once told A'ishah (radhiAllahu 'anha), "You have said a word which would change the sea (i.e. poison or contaminate it) if it were mixed in it." (Sunan Abi Dawud)
The second step is to feel true remorse. It's not enough to rationally acknowledge that action as being sinful; one must *feel* guilt, remorse, and grief over having committed it.
This experience is so much more powerful than a mere "I'm sorry," or "omg that was awful"; it is an act that embodies our submission to Allah because it requires us to make ourselves incredibly emotionally vulnerable, and in that moment, to experience a deep pain and acknowledge our wrongdoing. It is to hold your heart out to Allah and to beg Him, with every fiber of your being, with tears in your eyes, with a lump in your throat, wracked with regret, to please, please, *please* forgive you - because without it, without His Mercy and His Forgiveness and His Gentleness and His Love towards us, we have no hope and we will be utterly destroyed.
{Rabbanaa thalamnaa anfusanaa, wa illam taghfir lanaa wa tar'hamnaa, lanakunanna mina'l
{Our Lord, we have wronged ourselves, and if You do not forgive us and have mercy upon us, we will surely be among the losers!} (Qur'an 7:23)
This experience of tawbah is powerful, emotional, and heartbreaking. It is meant to be. It is a reminder to us of how truly dependent we are upon our Lord and our Creator, how nothing else in our lives can give us joy or a sense of peace if He is displeased with us. It is a reminder to us of how deeply we crave His Love, of how desperately we need it, of how His Pleasure is the ultimate goal of our existence.
Finally, there is the step of resolving never to commit that sin again, to redress the wrongs if possible, and to follow up the bad deed with a good one.
The vow is one we make to ourselves, asking Allah's help to uphold it - because we are incapable of doing anything at all without His Permission; the righting of wrongs is what we do to
correct our transgression against others' rights over us, although there are times when we may well be unable to seek another individual's forgiveness, whether because of distance, death, or
otherwise; and the good deeds to undertake as penance are numerous, whether they be sadaqah or increased 'ebaadah.
But it doesn't end there. And it never will.
Tawbah is not a once-in-a-lifetime event. It's not even a once-a-year event, or once a month, or once a week. It is meant to be a daily experience, a repeated occurrence, in the earliest hours of
the morning, in the depths of the last third of the night, during your lunch break or your daily commute or in the middle of a social gathering.
Tawbah is a lifelong journey, for who amongst us doesn't commit mistakes and errors every day?
All we can do is beg of Allah not only for His Forgiveness, but also:
{Allahumma ij'alnaa min at-tawwaabeen.} - O Allah, make us amongst those who are constantly engaging in repentance!

I have been through Ramadan while pregnant, throwing up, and struggling with thoughts about killing myself.
I have been through Ramadan breastfeeding, sleep-deprived, and utterly isolated from family and friends.
I have been through Ramadan in a uniquely poly situation, wondering how it was that I managed to survive not just the hunger and thirst, but the emotional roller coaster that felt more exhausting than the five kids, late hours, and the scramble to complete my khatmah on time.
Each year, I nursed different wounds, sought healing for old scars, and found solace in solitude in the middle of the night.
Each year, I thought that my circumstances were too much, too difficult, that I wouldn't be able to get through the month without utter failure.
Each year, my Lord blessed me with a heart that was just slightly softer, a mind just slightly wiser, and a soul just slightly more conscious of Him.
This year, I am more privileged than ever - the kids are no longer homeschooled, I have immediate family nearby, I have work hours that accommodate my schedule, and there are over 18 hours of daylight in which to accomplish all that I had set as my Ramadan goals.
And yet... and yet, halfway through Ramadan, I have already failed, and there is no one and nothing to blame except myself. In a month of self-accountability, I have held myself to shamefully low standards and made excuses for my poor commitment.
My personal faults have become painfully clearer, my weaknesses more obvious, my struggles more embarrassingly simplistic and yet feel emotionally insurmountable.
The inspirational quotes and posts are all over Muslim social media, and they are indeed excellent reminders. They are encouragement to those of us lagging behind, a gentle push to remember that the month isn't over yet, that we still have time to change, to get better, to earn the Pleasure of the Most Merciful.
Nonetheless, it is difficult... as it should be. Ramadan strips us of our pretenses and shows us who we really are, in times of difficulty, in times of ease, in times of mediocrity.
The test lies not in hunger or thirst or desire, but in discovering who we are each year. We who may have emerged strong in times of crisis may find ourselves slipping in times of leisure. It is not enough for us to rest on the laurels of past trials, to depend on mere belief as the means of passing the litmus test of true faith and character.
The test is renewed each year to match who *we* are each year. We believe, but we must also show the depth of how our belief translates to action, to character, and ultimately, to who we will choose to be... for the rest of Ramadan and after.
{Alif, Laam, Meem.
Do the people think that they will be left to say, "We believe" and they will not be tried?
But We have certainly tried those before them, and Allah will surely make evident those who are truthful, and He will surely make evident the liars.} (Quran 29:2)