Freedom in the Month of Fasting

by Aqeela Naqvi

For millions of Muslims around the world, it’s now the most wonderful time of the year. The Month of Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic lunar calendar and marks the occasion when the Holy Qur’an was first revealed to Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him and his family. Not only is it the holiest month of the Islamic year, it is also one of the most anticipated. You might be thinking, “Wait…isn’t this the month where Muslims fast for 30 days? Why would anyone look forward to that?”

Contrary to what might be expected, most Muslims await this month with excitement—waking in the dark hours of early morning to the warm glow of a kitchen; gathering around the table to eat Suhoor, the meal before dawn; praying Fajr, the Morning Prayer, then crawling back into the arms of an inviting bed; waking to the stomach’s faint grumbling, a hunger which is suppressed throughout the day as one focuses on building patience and awareness; the echoing call to Maghrib prayer at dusk signaling the completion of the fast; the sitting down to enjoy a beautifully prepared meal, Iftaar.

The fast of the Month of Ramadan is not just the fast of the body—it is the fast of every sense. The tongue, eyes, ears, and hands, must all fast from doing anything that would cause harm to the self or others. Not only would eating or drinking break the fast, but so would lying, becoming angry, cursing, emotionally or physically hurting someone, etc. Through the repeated practice of refraining from certain habits, it is believed that those fasting will eventually be able to free themselves from the grip of the material realm, while transcending into the spiritual realm in order to attain Taqwa, or God-consciousness.

The question arises: if this month contains so many restrictions, why do those who fast find it so liberating?

Throughout the year, we get so caught up in the humdrum of daily life that unknowingly, brick by solid brick, we build around ourselves a prison that cages us and our potentials. We limit our vision to the glimpses of sky we can see between the bars; we make ourselves prisoners to our egos and grudges, notions of pride and self-importance. Instead of making our desires the mounts upon which we ride, we make ourselves the mounts, and hand our passions the reins. Our bodies curl inward, bowing down to the illusions of life. We forget that the world was made for us, not the other way around, and by giving it this superiority, we allow it to tell us, “Jump,” while asking, “How high?”

And then the Month of Ramadan comes around and tells us—be the master of your desires, not the slave. Through fasting, we do not engage in “doing,” but rather, constantly engage in “undoing.” We untie knots of anger, envy, impatience; untangle ropes of lust, jealousy, ingratitude; unchain ourselves from every fetter that chains by prioritizing the body over the spirit. When our eyes seek to see that which would harm our intellectual development, when our hands seek to do that which would harm our fellow humans or ourselves, when our tongues seek to speak or our ears seek to hear the hidden faults of a brother or sister—we refrain and reflect.

We reflect and understand the sacredness of the intellect and mind of the individual, and the sanctity of the body and character of every human being (no matter their race, nationality, or creed), and understand why they must be protected at all costs.

The Month of Ramadan reminds us that we are not bodies carrying souls; we are souls inhabiting bodies. It brings us back to our core—a reminder that, if we are able to shake off our earth-bound chains, each of us is capable of reaching unfathomable heights. The idea that there is something greater to live for than ourselves is something that resonates with both the conscious Muslim and non-Muslim alike. Through its physical restrictions on food and drink, the fast urges us that we were not made for a meek existence which is dependent on the limitations of the body. But more importantly, through its spiritual restrictions, it opens our eyes to the elevation that awaits when we are able to break free from the desires which we see as nourishing us, but which are, in actuality, slow and painful poisons.

Through the growling of our stomachs, we are commanded to feel the suffering of those who are hungry throughout the world, and it is through this physical suffering that we are also reminded to look at the suffering of our soul. When all the distractions are removed, we see it shivering in the corner, being suffocated by the walls we have built around it, thinking we were fortifying it and making it strong, when we were actually caging it in and crushing it.

Day-by-day, our bodily hunger motions us to remember the hunger of our spirit, and helps us to realize that the truest satisfaction does not come when, every evening, we sit down to break our fasts with delicious food (no matter how amazing those kebabs taste); rather, it comes when the spirit breaks free of earthly limitations and is able to taste the essence of the Divine.

Through the hunger of the body, we go on strike against the prison of the mind. Like lights in a too-long darkened house, we switch on our consciousnesses, becoming increasingly aware of our physical, social, moral, and intellectual responsibilities—a silent, yet utterly important revolution.

The Month of Ramadan asks us many things, but perhaps the most important question it raises is this: “Do you have what it takes to be free? Do you have what it takes to walk out of the seeming security of your cell, to blink your unaccustomed eyes against the brightness of the sun? Can you dismantle the walls, while asking yourself—why lean against the unforgiving strength of bricks for support, when you can unfurl your wings and rest against the gentle strength of the wind?”

This month forces us to discard the physical for that which transcends it, and ask ourselves: “Knowing that the key is in my hands, do I have the strength to unlock my chains and journey to a swaying field that rests under an open sky; though my muscles strain from being unused for so long, do I have the motivation to run, to walk, to crawl, to keep moving towards that golden place of spiritual exaltation?

“When I walk out the door of that prison, will I ever turn back? Once I smell freely moving, constantly changing air, can I ever return to the taste of stagnation? After this month ends, will I come to hate my shackles, exchanging them for the weightlessness of the sky—or have I become so used to their weight, that I will miss their heaviness on my arms, the security of being chained to the earth?”

The Month of Ramadan arrives every year like an old friend for millions around the world. Its days are spent in fasting and its nights are spent in prayer, and though it seems like it comes with many restrictions, those who truly understand its purpose know that its provisions do not constrict, but liberate. It is a closing of the doors of the meager dining halls of this world, and an opening of the ones to the banquet of the Divine. It says: be hungry and feel the fullness of spirit. Refrain, and become nourished. Transcend the body, its desires. Starve the ego, feed the soul.

It takes us by the hand and smiles while saying: Every time you hear your stomach grumble and feel yourself to be weak, remember the strength to persist that lives in the hollows of your bones, remember the potential to change the world that pulses through the crevices of your palms. Every time you feel your senses begin to be pulled towards darkness, remember the glorious light that dances through your veins, remember the lion’s roar that blazes through your soul.

Remember.

Have the courage to shake off your fetters, for you were not born to be enslaved.

You were born to be free.

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