For Muslims, the afterlife guides much of our spirituality. “Die before you die,” the Prophet Muhammad once said. As in: Let that ego go, divorce yourself from your earthly body, seek oneness with God and radiate kindness, humility and compassion. Rabia of Basra, a Muslim saint and Sufi mystic, (who was said to have greatly influenced Rumi, the great Persian Muslim poet) wrote: “Ironic, but one of the most intimate acts of our body is death.”
Ramadan is a time for fostering this kind of intimacy. And it’s done through a kind of inverted regimen of self-care. The fasting and prayer of Ramadan are, in part, undertaken to be awakened. But they require rigor. This practice “teaches me community and humility, both of which are the antithesis of ego,” as Huda Hassan, a writer and researcher, put it to me in an email.
This is an idea the current iteration of the self-care movement has tapped into — coming back to oneself — but its often without a holistic, reverent or spiritual, perspective. “Detoxing” has become popular among wellness gurus for supposed health benefits, commodified and stripped of religious ritual and ceremony.
Cleanses and radical diets are focused entirely on the effect of detoxification on the physical body. But in Islam, the physical body is merely a vessel. It’s the soul, and the exaltation of the mind that is paramount. Purifying the body, which is a large part of the practice of Ramadan, cannot happen without detoxing the mind. The latter journey is much harder.
The annual occurrence of Ramadan, which is based on the lunar calendar, officially begins with the sighting of the new moon on the ninth month. Fasting starts then, and it lasts for thirty days: During those days, Muslims traditionally abstain from food from dawn till dusk. Between suhoor (the meal at dawn) and iftar (the meal at dusk), nothing, not even water, is consumed.
Being hungry is clarifying. It forces a kind of focus. (Or, to paraphrase Simone Weil, when the body is hungry, we can truly hear the soul’s calling.) “I ingest — we all do — so much of what we don’t need, so much excess and waste,” said Kima Jones, writer, poet and founder of Jack Jones Literary Arts. “Ramadan is my annual opportunity to deliberately and purposefully treat myself the way Allah intended for me to treat myself. It’s back to basics.”
Fariba Salma Alam, a visual artist based in New York, described it as an exploration “that ranges from: Am I really hungry? What does it feel like to not eat? To why am I angry right now? Can I temper it? Can I manage my incessant thoughts about food? Can I forgive? Can I find solace where I once hurt? Can I follow the light? Why am I doing this?” Of the final stage, she wrote: “I surrender.”
That the act of fasting untethers people from selfishness is paradoxical; it’s impossible not to fixate, in some part, on physical need. But the abstention is followed by a ritualised and often communal meal — there is an end to hunger and it is shared — which creates a deeper bond with the experience, and the bigger picture.
“I am amazed at what a powerful channel I become when I am not eating or drinking,” Ameena Meer, 50, a writer based between Los Angeles and New York, wrote in an email. “My ‘sixth sense’ becomes remarkably clear.”
Her regime is a focus on caring for herself through being still and reading more. “I speak less, I listen more,” she wrote. “I catch myself, letting go of small irritations, forgiving quickly, being as honest as possible.” This Ramadan, she is also reading about Unani medicine, an Islamic naturopathy based on ancient Greek medicine from Hippocrates and Galen. All this heightens her senses, she wrote: “Hearing birds and the rustling of trees from great distances, sharper scents, the sun or the breeze on my skin, the vividness of the colors and sights around me, give me so much more pleasure.”
But, mostly importantly, through this, she added: “I am almost able to step away from all the attachments,” she said.
In Islam, prayer is done through meditation and “dhikr,” a form of rhythmic devotion that consists of the repetition of Quranic verse. Prayer during Ramadan is an act of coming back to oneself many times a day — five times, if you’re Sunni Muslim, or three times a day, if you’re Shi’a — in order to minimise the self. Again, the act of returning to oneself to leave oneself sounds paradoxical. But when it is undertaken with the care it deserves, the meditative mantras of Muslim surahs takes us outside the friction of everyday life. In our day to day, the stresses of the world — including the Islamophobia — keeps us alert but bothered, consumed with the physical, and less in touch with the spiritual.
“I understand the meaning of worship as a way to reconnect with the Source of All Wisdom, Love, and Energy and feel drawn to it,” Meer wrote.
Prayer, and any deep reflection, really, unlocks us from our mind’s prison. It’s an incarnation of death, too — a fundamental reminder to seek greater purpose in our individual lives. Even if it’s just every Ramadan, it’s a start. It’s meant to be a month of actualised self-care for Muslims.
It’s an angry world we live in — or at least, there are many things that incite anger, and can lead to deep sorrow.
This year, after the mosque shootings in New Zealand I was awe-struck. When the pain subsided, I felt enraged. My anger was, and still is, about the injustice that comes with the rampant dismissal and demonisation of Muslims, without considering what that does to our psychology. On top of that, it’s about the constant deaths of Muslims around the world via the hands of other Muslims, too — whether in Mali or Pakistan. Or about hearing the story of a 17-year-old Bangladeshi girl, Nusrat Jahan Rafi, who was burned alive for speaking out about sexual assault at the hands of her Muslim principal.
The onslaught feels never-ending. During Ramadan, we are asked to contend with these feelings and let go. The result, in one Arabic word, is jihad — which actually means a spiritual battle with oneself. But how can one accept the horrors of the world and radiate kindness and transcend?
These acts of discipline that Ramadan necessitates, in prayer and fasting, help create a boundary, a division from anger. And it’s energising, somehow.
“Islam teaches me commitment and discipline, and whenever I am successfully fasting, that energy carries me through the month and thereafter,” Hassan pointed out.
The purpose of Ramadan is to energise the orientation of the soul and activate what has been lost throughout the lunar year: to re-remember how we, our selves, fit into the greater spiritual community. In ritual, we focus not on the lack, but the abundance of the world, and how lucky we are to live in this time, in this space, to honor its transience, and make use of the vital years that we are here. The practice brings us back to a state that Hafiz, the Muslim poet, described as the “divine crazed soul.”