- Forgiveness - This Ramadan was filled with a palpable feeling that everything that I ever have done or will do will fall short of perfection, and therefore I need to seek God's forgiveness constantly. Life is about a constant struggle for improvement: morally, spiritually, intellectually. However, we never reach the goal. There is always more to do and a better way to be, and the reality is that God's mercy is far greater than any good that we might do in our lives. In the face of this realization, there is nothing to do but turn to God and ask for forgiveness of one's shortcomings. I am reminded of the words of the hadith qudsi: "O My servants, these deeds of yours which I am recording for you, I shall reward you for them. So he or she who finds good should praise God, and he or she who finds other than that should not blame anyone but him or herself."
- Family - The happiest moments of this Ramadan were those spent in the company of my wife's family, whether in Providence, New York, or Chicago. In addition to that, I was overjoyed when my parents attended an interfaith iftar in Chicago where I was the keynote speaker. We often forget that closeness to family is what one might call a "meta-Sunna;" it is always there in the sirah, from before the Prophet was born until after he passed away, may God grant him and his family blessings and peace. In this age of travel for work, constant time on the computer, and cell phone madness, spending time in the physical company of family without other distractions is all the more crucial for our overall well being.
- Community - While I thought this Ramadan would be more about community, I actually found that oftentimes it was a distraction from what really mattered. In al-Ghazali's book The Beginning of Guidance (Bidayat al-Hidaya), he has a section on the different types of relations in one's life. He says that the most people we know fall into the category of "acquaintances," and we should limit our contact with them. If we do not, they will fill our time with random requests, which often they neither really need nor are they particularly thankful for the time we give them. In addition, these will be the first people to turn on us, should they decide that we are somehow an obstacle to the fulfillment of their desires. While I do believe in the benefits of being with the larger community (al-jama'a), one should always find time to be aloof from it to a certain degree, so as to avoid unnecessary drama in one's life.
- Fiqh - This Ramadan, while reflecting on forgiveness, family, and community, I realized how broad my understanding of fiqh is. While I am partial to the Maliki school, I truly am comfortable with all the diversity of opinion within the Islamic legal tradition. If you want to pray 8 rak'ahs where the imam reads from the mushaf, fine. If you want to pray 20 rak'ahs where the imam recites from memory, great. But what I cannot stand is ignorance and dissension, which is what causes much of the unnecessary drama in our community, and keeps us from fulfilling the communal objectives of Islam. For a longer reflection on this topic, see my previous post "How I Understand Islamic Law."
- Shaytan - As we know, Shaytan's influence is removed in Ramadan. In a way, when this happens, we can see more clearly who we are, as individuals and as a community. We know what our real weaknesses are, as opposed to just the whispers of random temptation. So as we leave Ramadan, we know what really needs work in the 11 months ahead, before Ramadan appears again. If we just barely made our prayers during Ramadan, then we know that our long-term goal for the year should be to make them all on-time. It will be harder during the year than during Ramadan, but Ramadan has given us a taste of what can be accomplished with a reasonable amount of planning and exertion. Shaytan will try to take us away from this attainable goal, but insha'Allah we will be able to acheive it. Beware of having spiritual expectations for the coming year that are too far above or below what you were able to accomplish in Ramadan. Otherwise, you may fall into the equally problematic situation of not doing enough and thus losing momentum, or doing too much and burning out.
- Social Justice - This Ramadan was filled with reminders that Islam is not just about ritual worship and spiritual elevation, but also confronting the really pressing needs of humanity. We witnessed famine in East Africa, the liberation of Libya, a hurricane devastate the East Coast, and many other signs. One of the most powerful that I experienced was the 30mosques.com piece on Muslimat al-Nisaa, a shelter in Baltimore for Muslim women experiencing domestic violence. What struck me about this story is that it goes to the heart of our social dysfunction, and that it can actually be helped in a real way. Honestly, I don't know if $10,000 given to famine relief in East Africa will make a difference, when it is a problem which will take billions of dollars to address satisfactorily. But just $500 will make a huge difference in the lives of the women who are desperately in need of what a place like Muslimat al-Nisaa has to offer. I can't help but feel that until the American Muslim community can protect its most vulnerable members, it will never be capable of effectively alleviating macro-level global problems any better than the current status quo of governments and major NGOs.
- Oneness - All of these realizations lead to One. In Ramadan, we feel and know and understand that God is completely in control. All around the world, hundreds of millions of people are exerting themselves in worship, and calling out to God to change some aspect of this dunya. But the world will most likely still continue on in much the same way. This is the sunna of God, as the Qur'an states, and this world has a purpose that must be fulfilled: "Glory be to the One who has the kingdom in His Hand, and He is powerful over all things. The One who created death and life to try you as to which of you are best in deed, and He is The Mighty, The Forgiving." (67.1-2) Real change is a lifelong process, and only those committed to the long term will reap the benefits. Everything we want, in this world and the next, whether material or spiritual or social or political or economic or cultural, it is all in God's hand. So ask for it, work for it, and leave the outcome up to the One who determines outcomes.
God knows best (wa Allahu a'lam)
God, you know what we want even before we ask it. For all the good that we have known and will know, and also for the good that we have forgotten or do not even understand, we praise you and give You thanks. For all that which is otherwise, we blame no one but ourselves, a weak and ignorant and selfish human race. Glory be to You, and please save us from the Fire, ameen!