Ramadan is in many ways a very different time of the year. Not just for its outer expression – iftar parties, charity appeals, the hustle and bustle of parking at the mosque, watching live streaming of taraweeh and so on, but, for what happens deep within us to our sense of presence. Whether we fully realise it or not, fasting modulates the body’s psycho-physiological and perceptual responses, triggering seemingly out of the ordinary consciousness and feelings. Visible signs of wilful consumption turn into deprivation and hunger, idle chit-chat turn into silence, libido turns into abstinence, muscularity reduces to gentleness, individualism is replaced with communion, and so on. These first-hand experiences in turn, to the inward―esoteric―sense, go some way to instil the meaning of faith (iman) and demonstrate the will to submit to God (Islam). Though, they’re most effective if we pay careful attention to them of course.
It’s well-known that by around 8 hours into a fast, in most people, the body switches to what is called a fasting state. At which point, it starts metabolising not sugars but fat stored in adipose tissues. As the fasting day progresses, our energy levels drop and perception and interaction with the world have a tendency to change. The gradual build from a slight growl to the feeling of an empty stomach is hard to ignore, too.
Yet we refrain from eating, counting down to the last seconds, or even adding a minute or two just in case. We go to this trouble because, regardless of how religiously devout we are, we instinctively want to get this right, and thus we’re prepared to be patient (sabr). At stake is the very mark of our own inner determination to obey God with intent. Fasting, God says, ‘is for me’ – made all the more acute because it only comes around once a year. In the process, we may realise that it is God who provides or we may become more disciplined – all part of the wider merits of fasting that scholars have mentioned. And whilst the quality of this connection may differ from person to person, the core lesson of submitting unquestioningly ― ’we hear and we obey’ ― seems uncomplicated and accessible to everyone.
At the same time, our minds shunt into a more relaxed and introspective state of awareness. Hunger signals bring about a consciousness of going without food. In other words, we experience what it’s like being unable to eat despite the desire to or feeling hunger in our stomach. As it turns out, these are normalised everyday experiences of hundreds of millions who go without meals or have no idea where their next meal will come from. Increased empathy and charitable giving seem, therefore, natural reflexes of fasting. And to top it off, increased mental sharpness that also comes with fasting, perhaps, helps catalyse mere concern or intent into conscious acts of giving (sadaqa, zakat) because we realise the need for zakat and other charity.
There is then also the disruption to our natural circadian rhythms of the day that comes in the month of Ramadhan. Taraweeh can easily take us up well into the early hours of the morning. The length of such prayers is a useful tool, even if in prayer our minds wonder elsewhere. The words of the Qur’an echoing from a melodious reciter can be mesmerising. And as scholars have pointed out, standing in complete stillness in prayer for prolong periods can in itself help bring about or sustain a state of humbleness (khushu’). As beggars, even if as late as the 20th raka’at we achieve some mindfulness in the form of a split moment of intimate realisation of God’s presence ― sending electrifying goosebumps through the body, or a sudden moment where the meanings of the words of God really hit home or make us weep in awe of God ― it would still be well worth it. These are precious moments when time and space become at once vacuous to our consciousness, and our focus suspends in a state of metaphysical elevation in the Divine presence. And it happens because, at a basic level, we have understood God’s words.
This kind of “ihsani” connection is common to those with deep attachment to prophetic knowledge and gratefulness to God, which can explain why they get so besotted with prayer throughout the night. The pious, to Imam al-Ghazzali (1058-1111), “considered their prayers to be perfect when they were unaware of the people to their right and left.” We can only pray and hope that before the end of our own lives, God favours us and we become like these people.
In the meantime, as with most things, there are inherent obstacles to overcome and false paths to avoid. Lack of food can quite easily lead to outbursts of mild anger or frustration. It can also lead to binge eating once the fast is over. The test to refrain from over-indulgence, only eating portions that satiate a third of the stomach and avoids wastage are important prophetic remedies to a world that seemingly thrives on consumption and appropriation without care. That very human desire to enhance dignity in the eyes of others by acts of obedience to God (riya) can also completely undo the esoterism of Ramadhan.
But as always, we have to sincerely intend (niyyah), hope for God’s grace (tawfique) and strive (mujahada) to understand the Qur’an and obey God to stand a chance of benefiting from the esoteric fruits of Ramadan.