Ramadan: Giving up religious habits

We have said our goodbyes to coffee and various other midday loves, and launched into a month of restructured schedules.

When I was pregnant and had gestational diabetes, it was terribly strange to not eat cookies, or chocolate, or any glucose-laden fruit in any quantity.

It’s been a long time since I’ve done that. Not eat something I really wanted to do. Not do something I really wanted to do. Wake up when it wasn’t necessary to wake up; stop eating when it was fun to keep eating; not eat pudding because my nafs wanted it; turn off the tube when I didn’t have to; close the curtains and close my eyes and talk to the Beloved when it wasn’t time for an obligatory prayer.

In his “Discourses,” Hazrat Shahidullah Faridi (RA) discusses how both fasting and tahajjud (the optional night prayer) break your aadat, your habit. This is why Da’udi fast (associated with the Prophet Daoud, or David) is highly recommended: fast one day, don’t fast the next, and so on. Otherwise fasting just becomes habit, something your body desires and easily falls into. Hazrat Zauqi Shah (RA) says that when you take some form of medication constantly, it ceases to be medication and becomes regular food.

The tahajjud prayer in the middle of the night breaks habit too. You go to sleep, and then you wake up. This is difficult.

“Soon shall We send down to thee a weighty Message.
Truly the rising by night is most potent for governing (the soul), and most suitable for (framing) the Word (of Prayer and Praise).”
– Surah al-Muzzammil (73:5-6)

For those who have at times done tahajjud — (not by accident, like, “Man, I can’t sleep so I’ll just get up and pray,” but by design) — you know how it is. You can feel that:

“Every night, when the last third of it remains, Allah, our Sustainer, the Blessed, the Superior, descends to the lowest heaven saying, ‘Is there anyone to ask Me so that I may grant him his request? Is there anyone to invoke Me so that I may respond to his invocation? Is there anyone seeking My forgiveness so that I may forgive him?’” (hadith).

The 5-time namaz is awesome, and necessary to keep you on track. But it’s more like a regular meal. Tahajjud, or optional zikr, or optional charity, or meditation, is more like the ambrosia that brings you back to life, to appreciate everything that had become habit.

Sometimes I feel like we Muslims of relatively moderate religious observance simply organize our lives so that religious observance becomes aadat, habit. We don’t push ourselves on an everyday basis. We don’t venture every now and again.

It’s not a struggle for me not to drink alcohol, because I was raised with a visceral disiike of it. Because I don’t like the smell, and because I don’t socialize at bars. Do I still get credit, or does my habit, upbringing, and tradition get all the credit? And how do I grow from adhering to my no-alcohol principles? Not drinking is simply part of my routine, and drinking would actually be very inconvenient and uncomfortable for me.

Does that mean I plateau from leading a religious life that has little element of effort?

“And for such as had entertained the fear of standing before their Lord’s (tribunal) and had restrained (their) soul from (lower) desires.” (Surah al-Nazi’aat, 79:40).

Habit is like a cocoon that encases us and almost protects us from the exhilaration of spiritual experience.

Sometimes, the spiritual masters say, even sinful acts which make you humble are better than acts of piety that make you arrogant and confident. (Of course you shouldn’t plan on those sinful acts. Obviously). By Mercy, they serve a purpose in your spiritual progress.

You build a persona of yourself, as The Pious Goodly Moderately Conservative Yet Open-Minded and Ecumenical Muslim. Every day you turn to that persona, and follow in its footsteps from the day before. — Which reminds me (speaking of ego) of a poem of my own from my niqabi days, Ghalib Day at the Quaid-e-Azam Library (1991 maybe):

… [It] shocks me
into realising that the years for me have
swept past in a fever of doing
something or nothing, of something happening,
or nothing happening, chewing
the endless gum of every day. We unstick it
from under the table, grey
and hard and stale though it may be –
(we must continue from yesterday), every day
unthinking — Lord, slow me down; remove me from
the pointless race of every day,
and let the ceaseless rattling train of
routine fears, joys, sorrows, hopes, stay
its deafening motion, – stop, and let me
see the landscape of eternity
and see each individual moment bloom like a flower,
and wither naturally.

The gestational diabetes diet made me stop for a moment to see the moments bloom.

This Ramzan, I’m intimidated at the thought of not drinking coffee at midday. But I’m still grateful of the reminder – of a time when I used to give up something, every now and again. Not because I had to. Not because it was haraam – but like the crazy lover Majnun who foregoes food and rest to catch a glimpse of the camel that carries Laila in the curtained palanquin. You rush to the mosque, not because you should, or because you must, or because you get to see friends, but because of the flame in your heart that makes you run in different directions to seek, even blindly.

“No means whereby My servant seeks My Favor are more pleasing to Me than the observance of Faraa’idh (obligatory practices). And My servant ceases not to seek nearness to My by optional practices until I make him My favorite. And when I make him My favorite, I become his ears by which he hears, his eyes by which he sees, and his hands by which he holds, and his feet by which he walks. And if he asks Me for something, I fulfill his desire, or if he seeks refuge against anything, I grant him refuge” (hadith).

These words of the Beloved shed light on the secrets that I am blind to, the beauties that I’ve veiled in words, in do’s and don’ts.

Religiosity can become such an idol. Such a persona. Such a stagnant pool.

Ramzan helps shatter that idol so we must struggle to see what lies beyond it.

Break it up, and truly BE, in freedom and in love.

PS: This was a re-run from 2007.

 

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