By Muna Ali
We live in a world of over a billion dollar self-improvement industry with assortments of best selling books, videos, websites, personal trainers, life coach, diet centers and regimen.
We have countless tools to achieve that elusive better self but the task seems impossible.
We are often told by experts and loved ones “we’ll help, but only you can do this”.
The most important and difficult requirement for this task is to make the decision, to take the first step and to commit to the journey to this desired self.
So we put off the decision until we have more time, more money to buy products or enroll in these programs, more energy…the long list of reasons to procrastinate goes on and on.
What if you were let in on a centuries old secret program for a better self?
A method designed by the best and most demanding physician and life coach.
One who knows you better than yourself, who will lead you to achieve that better self in body, mind and spirit, who will help you find the most profound love and to reach that much sought after state of peace and contentment.
You wouldn’t have to decide when you start, because this life coach has already included the start date and all the details in the design of this program.
How much would you pay? How far would you go to seek this master?
What if you found out that it doesn’t cost you a penny and will probably save you money?
You don’t have to go anywhere because the Master is nearer to you than your veins, knows your thoughts and desires, strengths and fragilities and you can hide nothing.
The Master exhorts you to change yourself everyday but, knowing your nature, has chosen an intense one month long training to jumpstart your transformation.
This year, the month began last night after sunset with the sliver of new moon marking the potential birth of a new you.
Scientists and psychologists confirm that repetition is the key to habits of hearts, minds, and bodies.
A stimulus – be it a thought, an emotion, or an act- travels down a neural pathway that is strengthened and efficiently coded with repetition.
That is how habits, good or bad, are formed, maintained or broken.
The concert pianist, the professional athlete, yoga master and mystic, habitual liar and ardent criminal, the morbidly obese and anorexic, the abused and abuser, have different life circumstances but ultimately and most basically their brains registered particular stimuli over and over again that formed these habits of excellence or shortcoming.
The Master knew that humans are creatures of habit and time and repetition are what forms new habits and break undesirable ones.
Thus the month long program for transformation.
The Master, the Creator, the Merciful, is the Rab and the best murabi (charter educator) who demandingly and lovingly outlined our life changing curriculum.
In this month of rigorous training for transformation, we start with mastering our most basic appetites.
So we abstain from food, drinks, and sex; essential human needs and giving them up is not easy.
But the Master creator and best Educator knows his creation’s need for reward and reason.
So He tells us that fasting is the most beloved of all acts to Him; done only for Him, He rewards abundantly; it is a pathway of His Prophets and a road map to His love for which we long.
But if this abstention does not go beyond an exercise in hunger and thirst from dawn to dusk, the Master says He has no need for our hunger or thirst.
For these are but means to a particular end!
If the abstention from appetites is not also a bridling of other passions and a striving for virtues, if the pangs of hunger pain do not lead to genuine gratitude and compassion in words and actions and to a particular ethics of consumption, if we are no closer to the Creator when we finish than we started, if we remain distracted by acquisition and busying ourselves with trivialities, we get nothing from Ramadan but thirst and hunger and waste opportunity for transformation.
You know all about the importance of keeping tempers in check, not lying or backbiting, about giving generously and renewing kin relations.
But I would like to remind myself first, and then you, that while maghrib is time to break fast from food, drink and sexual activity, it is not time to break fast from all appetites and unleash other passions nor a time to indulge in excessive food or drinking.
We all say we “love Ramadan” and are quick to list to non-Muslims the virtues of fasting and Ramadan’s transformative potential.
Yet, we often reduce it to a habit of fasting in the day and feasting at night.
Around the world, most Muslim households spend more on food in Ramadan than any other month in the year.
Women spend hours preparing “special Ramadan dishes” that take hours to prepare and soon after dinner the planning for suhoor menu begins.
Is it not ironic that people gain weight in Ramadan when they fast all day for a month?
Like good stock market investors trying to maximize returns, we give our donations and Zakat during Ramadan to the various causes, but do we remember these causes the rest of the year?
Do we work for a systematic Zakat collection and distribution to achieve Zakat’s objective of lifting people out of poverty to become Zakat payers?
If we try hard we pray the 20 taraweeh rakat, do Qiyam in the last 10 days and complete the 30 ajza of Quran.
All commendable and difficult tasks!
But at the end of it all, if our bodies are not healthier and more fit, if our manners are no better, if our giving is not more meaningful, if Quran reading and contemplation on the created book spread before us in nature and ourselves and qiyam stop on Eid day, if we resume all of our bad habits and add no new ones at the end of the month, then what was it all about?
The ONE whom we attempt to please and draw nearer to in Ramadan remains long after Ramadan passes.
His purpose for Ramadan was to create a spiritual, mental and physical bootcamp to develop long lasting habits of excellence.
Because of our natural makeup, that which is good for us is not always the easiest to do.
But difficult things are made a little easier if done with the support of loving companions along the spiritual path and if the rewards are great and assured.
So let us together pledge to make this Ramadan one like no other before it and the beginning of many transformative Ramadans to come:
a) Rather than splendid tables of iftar dishes, let us eat our ordinary daily dinners. Women as first teachers in our families can set the tone. Rather than cooking the “Ramadan specials”, make this Ramadan special by cooking regular dinners and spending the saved time in reflection with the family. Cut all noise and experience moments of silence and remembrance individually and as a family.
b) Let us use smaller plates so we don’t overeat and let us remember and give generously to those around the world (and especially in the horn of Africa) who at best are today malnourished and at worst are dying of starvation; there is no breaking of fast at sunset for them! Pray that God gives them strength and patience but remember that you and I, individually and collectively, have the ethical, moral and religious obligation to be the answers to their prayers. Thinking of their withering bodies should be the best weight loss program and a wake up call for all of us. Dying of hunger in the 21st century anywhere in the world is a scandal and shame on all of us. So ACT NOW!
c) This Ramadan let us be conscious of the environment. Let us have a Green Ramadan that leads to a green movement in our homes, mosques and our society. Muslims should not just join but lead the green and environmental stewardship movement. After all being khulfa’u-Allahi fil ard (God’s vicegerent on earth), living green is a Muslim Thing!
d) Let us strive to at least drop one bad habit and pick up a good one during Ramadan and continue practice the whole year until it becomes a two good habits. Unless the undesirable habit is one you have so far been granted satr (concealment of shortcoming), declare your intentions to one or two companions who can help you keep your promises. You might drop overeating or excessive spending, or smoking or impatience etc. and pick up a good habit of reading a page of Quran contemplatively, doing Qiyam once a week, volunteering your time and talent for a worthy cause seeking no human accolades or gratitude but HIS love. Make your goal meaningful and manageable; for success breeds success and Allah loves acts done with persistence however modest they may be.
We often trivialize love by overusing the term.
We “love” a particular thing or act or someone when “desire” or “like” would be the suitable word.
We “love” or are “in love” with someone but demand they “accept” us for “who we are” all the while demanding they become what we want them to be.
We “love Ramadan” and “love Allah”.
Beyond a feeling, love is first and foremost a verb and is demonstrated in attitude and action.
Love is singularly demanding and trying and the most important thing in our lives!
Think of your love for your children, your parents, your spouses!
“If you love me, show me” is the oft repeated statement.
And Allah demands no less!
But unlike the people we love who drive us crazy because they expect but give us no hints on how to best demonstrate our love, al-Rab, the best educator has laid out explicitly the expectation and reciprocity of this loving relationship.
He sent prophets to demonstrate the ways of/to this love and preserved it in His book. As love is a practice not an event, He set out times in our days and years to practice and perfect our acts of love and devotion.
No guessing games here about when and where or what and how!
And what do you get in return, real eternal bliss you might say and you’d be correct.
But you need not wait for the hereafter; for this generous beloved also demonstrates His love here and now and reciprocates in multiple folds.
He says: “if My servant draws near to Me by a hand’s span, I would draw near to him by an arm’s length and if he draws near to Me by an arm’s length, I would draw near to him by a fathom’s length. And if My servant comes to me walking, I would go to him briskly.” He also says “my servant draws near to Me with nothing more loved by Me than the acts of worship that I have enjoined upon him. My servant continues to try to draw nearer to Me with more devotion, until I love him. When I love him, I will be his hearing with which he hears, his sight by which he sees, his hand with which he strikes, his feet on which he walks. When he asks Me for something, I will respond and when he takes refuge in Me, I will grant it to him. I do not hesitate in doing anything I intend to do as much as I hesitate in seizing the soul of My faithful servant; he hates death and I hate hurting him.”
What a profound love and incomparable beloved!
Let us then make this Ramadan what it was meant to be: the time of love and devotion for the Creator and creation, a time to implement this masterfully and divinely designed transformation program towards our better selves.
May the ONE accept our fast, prayers and all good deeds and may He grant us all success in making our intentions into meaningful and transformative actions to achieve our better selves and attain His love.