Ramadan: How to Connect Even When You Can’t Fast

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Dates and bread from the zawiya of Sheikh Muhammad Ibn al-Habib, may Allah sanctify his secret.

It’s that time again, the month where Muslims empty their bodies during the day and try to clear their hearts so as to become vessels that fill up the mercy that falls continuously, subtly, but – if you are watchful for it – is definitely palpable.

For the last nine years, I’ve tried to cadge a couple of Ramadans between babies, even – two separate years – squeezed in several days before realising I was pregnant (the last time it was only the kidney pain that alerted me to a false negative pregnancy test).

Though someone fasting 22 + hours in a Scandinavian country might want to punch me in the nose for saying this, it’s hard not to be able to fast again.

“Hard? Being excused because of breastfeeding is hard?? Grr…and we’re trying not to get angry!! Razzafrazzarazzafrazz….”

Ahem, well, the reasons behind the rukhsa (dispensation) is that breastfeeding is hard on the body anyway, as are all the conditions that excuse people from fasting (menstruation, pregnancy, illness, travelling, old age…) just as each one comes with its own gifts.

But not fasting yet another Ramadan is a reminder that I am always slightly on the edge of the Islamic community, at least on a temporal level. As European Muslims we tread an awkward path, with one foot among our spiritual brethren and one among our cultural brethren – and I for one don’t want to cut myself from either.

Fasting among people who think you’re dotty as the day is long is harder than going without food and water during the day. Explaining, being patient with other people’s judgements, bearing up even when you have to fast alone, all that is more exhausting than getting up early in the morning to have breakfast.

Not being the toughest of old beans, I’ve always tended towards keeping my faith fairly private, talking when asked but trying not to be too ostensible about it in order to avoid uncomfortable stares and unpleasant comments. It is cowardly of me. But it’s been my coping mechanism, a way to focus on God in all circumstances rather than be distracted by the waves I’m making.

So it’s comforting to be among other Muslims who share your experiences. Having lived through many a Ramadan in which I wasn’t part of a supportive community – one of which, at university, I had suhur and iftar every day alone (possibly the most depressing month of my life) – when Ramadan comes around I get excited about group iftars, which always turn into a party, no matter how drained people were ten minutes before.

Yet, as Muslims will always remind you, fasting is not about hunger per se: we empty ourselves of the world in order to be filled up with the Divine Presence. Like the ney, we realise our emptiness in order to let God make music through us.

It’s hard to have that experience if you’re working, say, at the checkout of a McDonald’s drivethrough. Fasting is the ideal time for reflection, study and prayer; you could say it super-charges your experience of them.

So, if for whatever reason you can’t fast, and if you can’t or don’t want to shut yourself away in a Muslim-only environment in order to make the most of Ramadan, how can you still feel connected to it?

Yesterday I was determined to go to tarawih prayers, having only the baby to look after, but he was too tired and grouchy to justify going. What’s the point of dragging miserable children to long prayers near midnight? I think it would probably put many kids (and the adults who have to put up with their crying) off praying altogether.

On the other hand, there is so much grace for people who are in service. The Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said that “Allah is in service to the servant for as long as he (or she) is in service”; and that for anyone who wakes in the night to attend to their weeping child it is equivalent to seventy years of prayer. (Finally, a reason to be thankful for teething!)

I need to be reminded at times that being in a state of worship does not necessarily mean being in a place of worship, or even physically engaged in visible prayer. For centuries we have associated religion with outward forms, when it is clear just from those two hadiths mentioned above (and there are hundreds more like them – “An hour of contemplation is worth a year of prayer“, etc. etc.) that connecting to the Divine can happen at any time, in any circumstances, by anyone.

That’s not to diminish the importance of outward worship, of course. I just can’t see how a Just, Kind, Forgiving, Loving God would be so unfair as to reserve these rewards only for people who have no hindrances to performing it.

I discovered recently that the root of the English word ‘mysticism’ is the Greek musein, meaning ‘to close the eyes and lips’. It might refer partly to fasting, for sure, but I think it also means fasting from looking around at the world, fasting from the desires that follow on from that, fasting from meaningless talk, and generally just shutting up and letting Reality reveal itself.

Rumi said, “Fast from thoughts, fast: thoughts are like the lion and the wild ass; men’s hearts are the thickets they haunt.”

………..

(That’s the sound of me shutting up.)

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To Be A Desert In A Monsoon

Rio Guadalfeo, Órgiva, las Alpujarras, Granada.

Summer in the Alpujarras is all about water.

Neighbours have been known to break out into fistfights over whose turn it is to use the acequia, the snowmelt that gushes down from the mountains through carefully dug and maintained channels to the smallholdings in the valley below. From the beginning of June through to the end of September, smallholders get a turn using the water, however long it takes them to water their land (say, three hours to do a third of a hectare) – although that turn might come at four o’clock in the morning.

When it’s your turn, though, you jump at it. The acequia is the difference between this valley being a lush, green paradise where fig trees snake colossal grey limbs up into huge shady labyrinths, mulberries splat you in the face with their fat juicy berries, and orange groves infuse the air with blossom in spring and fruit in winter, and a rocky, yellow plain so dry that firefighters have to suck whole truckfuls of water out of the river daily to keep forest fires at bay. Helicopters overhead is bad news; it means someone’s house has burned down and a mountain slope around it too.

Acequia at work

‘Doing the acequia’ is an utterly magical experience. You open the little metal gate that channels the water to your land, and suddenly you have a powerful, roaring torrent of icy water that you have to rush about diverting so that it reaches the trees and flowerbeds and veggie patch without sweeping everything away. Kids strip off and splash around; little waterfalls appear between terraces of land. On the hottest day experienced in Orgiva in recent years (40 degrees or higher) we did the acequia and the whole place was easily five degrees cooler instantly.

Stream above Capileira. Gives the word ‘cool’ a whole new meaning.

I write this now while fasting; I haven’t drunk or eaten in the daytime now for two weeks, bar a few days when the heat really did get too much for me. This is my first Ramadan for four years, during which I was either pregnant or breastfeeding the whole time. It’s strangely energising.

The first week or so was rough but I have more energy now than I did before, I’m not freaking out at my kids any more, I’m calmer and more patient (let’s see how long it lasts); the process of temporarily wasting away means your body gets a chance to clean out some crap via your pores before having to cope with digesting more food. And with it, whole rafts of negative mental states wash over you with shocking strength and then ebb away to practically nothing. It can really send you into a blissed-out trance, even while you’re cleaning bottoms and puddles of wee ten times a day.

But one thing that fasting heightens is the phantom sensations of taste and texture – specifically, for me right now (can you tell?) the feeling of quenching a raging thirst with cool, abundant water. I feel like a piece of arid land with trillions of seeds buried dormant beneath the surface; one good soaking and they spring into life, coating the tinderbox earth with a thick, moist layer of vegetation.

So when I break the fast at dusk, watching the the pink light disappear from the mountain tops before me, a litre of liquid in various forms (iced hibiscus tea, 0.0 % beer, juice, or just cold Lanjaron spring water) goes down with startling alacrity. I timed it yesterday; one litre of water in seven and a half minutes. I must have had a desert on the inside on my body that absorbed it gratefully in seconds; my skin even felt plumper afterwards.

Many people will think it’s too extreme, and it’s true, in a way, but like any test of endurance, you will always be astonished at how easy it was after all, how much stamina you had and didn’t know it, how much resolve that was there, just waiting to be necessary.

Our lives in the developed world are a doddle compared to those of women who traipse for five miles under African sun to fetch a pot of water and carry it home on their heads. The very fact that we have water piped into our houses means that we waste it. If we had to carry it five miles ourselves, would we leave a tap running while we brushed our teeth? Would we let a single drop go to waste?

Stream above Capileira

Arduous as it may be to fast for a whole month, to shine up a copper pot you’ve got to rub it hard. And the payoff, every evening, is to feel what it must be like to be a desert plain under a monsoon. There is a hadith that says that when a person breaks his fast at the end of a day, there is nothing between him and Allah. Union with the Divine tastes of cold, pure water after sixteen hours’ drought in the baking August heat.

And by God that tastes good.