This year marks my eighteenth consecutive Ramadan fast and, still, the dryness in my throat, hunger pangs and fatigue can feel intense at times. I still glance at my watch on occasion to see that there’s another nine or more hours until breaking the fast at sunset. Only when the sun completes its descent on the horizon will I have my first sip of cool water, and cleave the skin of a tender date, fig or melon. As I take in these first few morsels of food and drink, I will make an inward intention to resume my fast before dawn the next day. While the outward regime of this month is quite familiar, eighteen years into my practice as a Muslim, I continue to learn new things about myself and the wisdom behind the prescriptions of Ramadan.
Ramadan is often misunderstood as a test of physical rigor and endurance. It’s true that a degree of asceticism factors within Islamic spirituality to help refine the appetitive aspects of self. In Ramadan, we are trying to transform our lower desires from puppeteers into docile companions. However, such transformations aim to serve a goal that underlies Muslim consciousness – and all the great spiritual traditions: To achieve balance in one’s life that harmonizes one in relation to oneself, one’s community and the Divine. To live my own expression of what Rilke captured in the phrase “to bring the inner and outer life into harmony.”
There’s no single way to accomplish this, so each day of Ramadan is an opportunity to invite into one’s practice new insights that bring one into deeper, more cognizant alignment. This can include revisiting familiar verses of scripture with the fresh eyes of life experiences gained over the previous year. This year, I’m looking with particular attention at the following verse that is part of the Quranic section where the injunction of fasting is introduced. In it, we read the pronouncement: “God wills that you shall have ease, and does not will you to suffer hardship” (2:185). Discovering the ease [al yusr] to be found amid these long days of abstention — nestled amid this global pandemic — can raise as many questions. Yet, somehow, because fasting in Ramadan was not specified only for the time of its revelation in 7th century CE but is a standing obligation upon the Muslim community, it follows that the intriguing passage about ease may also remain central to the learning of this moment.
Often, I find this ease reveals itself not by looking outwardly for a new experience, but by realizing something within. The regime of abstention asks me to release my grasp over the material world and reach inwardly to reflect upon the state of my heart. Among other things, this allows me to expand my definitions of nourishment. Ramadan is an annual reminder to me that my need for continual spiritual growth constitutes a kind of sustenance that I cannot live without. And in this space, without the typical outlets for consumption, I can begin to apprehend with greater clarity the myriad of ways the sacred and holy are being revealed. This may be in the silence and tender gaze exchanged with a patient I am accompanying near the end of their life, or in being present to the incomprehension of a student faced with a crisis they can barely give name to.
There is some irony in the fact that abstention moistens the gears of awareness and reflection. Each day, by choosing not to consume but rather notice the mix of needs and inclinations that emerge within me, I can begin to distinguish between what is essential and excessive, and at worse, harmful. Through this, I’m able to consider how to make space and time for that which is most life-giving and restorative while gently closing the door on the habits and ways of being that do not serve my health and vitality in their widest meaning. From these learnings, I try to replenish my own flagging reservoirs of inward compassion so that love and care can be served in abundance to others.
On the interpersonal level, Ramadan offers one the chance to better understand one’s social context, deepen empathy and renew one’s relationship to serving the wider good. It is a chance to see how well one really knows what’s happening in their neighborhood, local mosque or even on campus. Then, to respond from our most loving selves. For me, considering the number of students who have remained at the College rather than go home during this pandemic has been a reminder about the complicated relationships one can have with family and the very idea of “home.” Many of our students now on campus are feeling enhanced isolation from friends and loved ones, even while classes have resumed and their academic pressures may not have lessened to accommodate the realities of how this crisis impacts our mental, emotional and spiritual health. Caring for the campus, now, requires intentionality around being particularly accessible to students and all members of the Williams community for the range of needs that are emerging each day. Such presence, too, is from the spiritual practices honed this month, and beyond.
As for the relationship that pertains to the Divine, or the transcendent dimension, I savor the hidden gifts and insights that I believe God places along the path of human experience. For me, God speaks to us not only in sacred scripture, but through everything from natural phenomena to the celebrations and heartbreaks we encounter daily. In my tradition, the faithful spend much of our devotional lives bowing, low and prostrate on the floor, whispering prayers, confessing sorrows and raising aspirations before the Most Merciful. And in Ramadan, we also experience acute hunger and thirst. Both postures epitomize humility. Both are expressions of cosmic surrender that allow us to lay down any barriers between ourselves and the divine without, and the sacred within. If these times are characterized by uncertainty, I take unusual comfort not because I can neatly discern the ease God describes in Quran, but because I feel its proximity when I bow that much deeper, lean into the spaces of unknowing and commit myself to being open to what I am being taught anew with every breath.
May we each find our ports of safety amid the storms.
Imam Sharif Rosen is the College’s Muslim Chaplain.