I can’t quite well remember when my first fasting began. Well into the second half of my first century memories of those early years are as misty as the morning hills of Hulu Langat. But I am sure I began fasting sometime in my seventh year or so as any other youngster would. Early memories were peppered with recollection of the seemingly never ending pangs of hunger and thirst. But like everyone else I persevered. Why? Didn’t give it much thought then though. Everyone is doing it and it’s expected of good Muslims. That was about it. Ahh, and the breaking of the fast, a maelstrom of sweets and drinks to your hearts contents. Never mind that the adults would say that too much cold drink and not enough proper food would be regretful the next day. That would be next day’s problem.
I guess that went on for many years, I would say that I would fall into the category of people whom, the Prophet p.b.u.h would describe as getting nothing more than hunger and thirst for 30 long days. Along the way however, much further up the road, the mysteries and meaning of Ramadhan began to slowly unfold itself. One of the first stories which made a lasting impression on me went like this.
God declared to the Angels that He would create Man who would then be the Vicegerent on earth. The Angles politely listened and when God had finished His announcement, equally politely inquired as to why He would do such a thing. The Angels politely pointed out that Man with his propensity for violence would only spread destruction and corruption on earth. This was very mystifying to the angels as it would be too for me. God replied quite simply – “I know what you know not”.
Now comes the second part of the story. The first part could be corroborated in the Quran. The second part is somewhat a mystery as to its source, but even so it has a profound message that I could never forget it. It goes like this – So each time the month of Ramadhan came God would look at the Angels and say, “Now, do you know what I meant”.
It was not clear to me then when I first heard the second part, but it touches the very depths of my thoughts . Over the years as the grey hairs grew in numbers on my head despite valiant but futile efforts to subdue them, glimmers of comprehension slowly seeped into my consciousness.
Through my various explorations I began to understand that Man is indeed God’s most special and spectacular creation. It is no wonder that God asked all the angels to bow down to Adam p.b.u.h., our forefather. As we all know all complied except one. Why special or spectacular?
The way I see it, Man is God’s only creation which combines both the qualities of the beasts and the angels. His beastly qualities pulls him down and ties him down to the earth in his desires and quests for all the material satisfaction that his body desires, be it food, shelter and everything else that goes with it. On the other hand his angelic qualities make him reach out to the heavens in search for true peace and understanding of the universe and it creator. The sublime versus the crass. The unending battle between the crass and the sublime.
The true beast however has no such dilemma. He is quite contented being what he is, happily tearing the zebra in half without an iota of conscience. The Angels also have no such dilemma. They are created to love and obey with no other desires keyed in.
On that note it would appear that it is quite easy really to either an animal or an angel, but not so to be a man. He has to balance between the two qualities, harnessing the beastly qualities only for the right tasks, whilst all the time trying to keep his angelic qualities dominant. Not an easy task by any measure, as we all knows it. Okay, for some it’s easier than most.
Now let’s go back to the second part of the Ramadhan story, where God looked at the angels and say, “Now do you know what I meant?”. Now, it became clear to me the message behind that question.
Man having had taste of the multifarious pleasures of the flesh, literally and figuratively, now willingly and without question forgo these pleasures during his waking hours only because God said “do it!”. This is something which the angles, being programed only to love and obey with no desire keyed in, never had to content with. Now, is that not obedience or will power or what?. And that is what made man special and spectacular that all the angels had to bow down to him, the will power and the ability to rise over his basic desires and reach out to the heavens just because his Lord said so.
It is no wonder that God said, all of mans deed is for himself but fasting is only for God alone.
Of course, the learned will also say that fasting is not only physical but also spiritual. Simply put, the tongue, the mind and the heart must also fast, purging themselves of every corruption and pollution. Couldn’t agree with them more. In short Ramadhan is an overhaul of the entire system, an annual calibration exercise to make sure that if our course has meandered from the right path we are nudged back on to the right coordinates. This, in itself is a mercy from God. Had it not been for His instruction, reminder, we would go on year after year as we are, checking ourselves only when we suffer a huge bruise on the head after hitting a brick wall. That is, if we take notice. In fact, for me the spiritual fasting is more important than the physical one, yet it is most often overlooked, by me at least.
And then, there is the additional congressional prayers in the nights of Ramadhan, the Tarawih prayers. I grew up admiring those people who can do so many cycles of these prayers, some up to 36 cycles. Sometimes it almost appear like some kind of competition as to who could do more. Simple me, would struggle to do the usual 21 cycles, which often left me dizzy in the head and woozy in the legs. Later on I learnt that the Prophet p.b.u.h. did only 8 cycles. So where did the extra cycles come from. It does not really matter so long as the intention is sincerely to get close to God. As for me, the 8 cycles is okay by me.
The other day I saw a poster inviting people to do the Tarawih prayers led by a Hafiz (the ones who could recite the whole Quran by heart). Great, but I will pass. It’s nice for the first two cycles or so but as it goes on the long verses can really take a toll on your legs (you stand as you hear them being read). It reminded me of an incident whereby an old man came to the Prophet p.b.u.h. one day and inform the Prophet p.b.u.h. that he would not be attending congressional prayers anymore, because the imam read long verses and he being old cannot stand that long. The Prophet p.b.u.h. got upset with the imam for being inconsiderate to old people, the infirmed and similar. That is what I admire about the Prophet p.b.u.h. His wisdom and depth of understanding and compassion is incomparable.
Having said that the Tarawih prayers is indeed special. It is an opportunity to communicate with God in an extended session. He made extra official time for us, to implore for guidance, health and bounty and to thank Him for all His blessings. If extra audience time with a King would drive us ecstatic, what would extra audience time with God do to us. Hence Tarawih prayers should be treated with respect and sincerity.
In about a week the fasting would come to an end. How has it been for me? Well, I can say that it has been most unsatisfying for me. My energy level is at its lowest level ever and it has been a real struggle. Perhaps I must admit I am no longer a spring chicken and that I can no longer put on the hours outdoors as I would in regular months. Gone are the days when I could play squash over lunch time during Ramadhan feeling no less for wear. Incidentally, our riding students asked us if riding classes are as per usual during fasting month. We told them that since our horses are also fasting, riding is confined only to early morning hours.
With that we wish all our Muslim friends a blessed fasting for the remainder of Ramadhan and a blessed Aidil Fitri. For our non-Muslim brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces, we convey our warmest regards.