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Courtesy of The Guardian, UK

Courtesy of The Guardian, UK

In light of Ramadan, now that Boudicaspeaks has given you an overview of fasting beyond just no food or drink, I feel the need to discuss something that I strive to do any time of the year: Remembering God or zikr.  However, for me the intensification of Remembering God is a different one this year.  Many will say that fasting helps do this, but I have found it is all about first silencing the mind, and then intensifying that silence with the hunger.  I mean, being hungry and tired surely brings about silence, but I still have yet to reach that truly meditative silence.

No matter what state of spirituality I am in (and I do not believe in stages, but rather highs and lows), zikr reminds me of the source of spiritual refuge in this universe, regardless of what religion people classify themselves under.  Rather than trying to push forward our own views about right and wrong and the way people ought to live, it may just help to simply be silent, both physically and even mentally (and I can relate to mentally with my constantly wandering mind).

So, why do I bring up all of this silence mumbo-jumbo?  Where is my motivation for it all?  Why is remembrance my main object for Ramadan?  I could make an entire list of goals I should have for Ramadan, but somehow I just cannot get myself to create such a list because, for now I am fully content without it.  I am fully content just letting Ramadan be all about me and my quest for indulging in the beauty of zikr (as selfish as that my seem).

So, here we go.

It was my freshman year of college, and I was trying very hard to get my GPA to the level that I wanted to get into the business program I was aiming for.  However, I could not help but be drawn to one of the class offerings in the Asian Studies department (which later became my major after I scrapped business altogether): Sufism and Islamic Mysticism.  Dr. Hyder, the professor of the class, asked each one of us why we wanted to take this class, and when it was my turn, my answer was I wanted to understand Islam beyond just what my parents taught me and what religious institutions taught me.  In a nutshell, I was curious.

Sifting through the teachings of Rabia, Hallaj, Attar, and of course, Master Rumi. I was enamored by everything I was discovering.  Even though I really did not have to do the readings in order to do well on tests, I did them solely from my own curiosity (and those were books I could never bring myself to sell).  While reading Conference of the Birds (which, by the way, was my only book EVER with pictures in college.  Not sure many can attest to that!), I began to question everything I was taught or observed when I saw other Muslims.  I began to see that religion was not some technocratic venture whereby there is only an obsession with results of the afterlife.  I never thought about it this way because I spent my whole life being told I would either be rewarded in “Janna” (heaven) or punished in “Jahanam” (hell).  I was concerned with trying to create some sort of algorithm for myself, thinking, how do my good deeds outweigh my bad?  How do I keep tipping the balance towards good?

Isn't it really that simple? Source Pranashanti.com

Isn’t it really that simple? Source Pranashanti.com

I then started feeling like I was playing cat and mouse because if I actually counted every “bad deed”, heaven was looking further and further in the distance and I was tirelessly chasing after something that was saying, “Seriously?”  So, I gave up, not in the sense that I pulled a Luke Skywalker and became Darth Vader, but I just gave up “counting” as soon as sophomore year of college hit.

Anyway, back to the course.  The Qawwali music that I used to yawn at as a kid began to make sense to me after reading the sources of Sufi thought (which is too often forgotten in the midst of Politicized Islam).  Did prayer and admiration of God always have to be in one format?  It was never an idea I entertained.  I did not even realize that Qawwali was an admiration of God because I thought it was  just made for hopeless, poetic romantics who were singing about love stories they could never have in real life (an extremely literal translation).  The way current “Sufis” were portrayed by some members in my family were as infidels, and mostly such sentiments were portrayed towards Sufi saints.  Yet, I was never taught the basics and the sources of their thoughts, and more importantly, how open-ended these thoughts were.  They were by no means definitive or categorized into a formal school of thought, but rather glossed over all schools in some shape or form.  This is something Dr. Hyder tirelessly pointed out through the class when people tried to create a definition for Sufism.  This lack of definition helped Sufism penetrate South Asia, serving as an example of Islam’s universality and ability to reach the hearts of all, even those who did not self-identify as Muslims.

 Hearing the intense resurgence in Sufi poetry, art, and music makes me believe that there is a path towards peace, towards love, towards beauty – and towards God.  When I go through Rumi’s writings, I feel transformed by the simplicity of his messages and feel the same compassion that I see in the Bodhisattva’s teachings.  I can only imagine how much better Rumi sounds in Farsi (a  learning venture I hope to take up one day).  In general, I see a universality in his work that I have never felt in another poet’s work, and this is what keeps me living as a Muslim everyday.

It is not a dreadful or narrow path.  In fact, it serves as a serious contender to puritanical and unjust interpretations of Islam.  This is the Islam or “way of life” that I knew was always there, but could never vocalize because it was so hidden from me both at home and in the Muslim environments I was exposed to.  It was at that time that I realized I did not need physical markers to tell me or the world I was Muslim.  I did not feel the need to look and act a certain way to live up to others’ expectations of what a Muslim looks like.  It is very easy to get caught up in the noise when it comes to our beliefs.  I am very guilty of it, but this Ramadan, my biggest focus is to block out all noise, whether it is politicization of Islam, horrible acts committed in the name of it, or disagreements amongst Muslims themselves.

So to Muslims all over the world of all cultures, to people with Muslim friends, to students and enthusiasts of all religions, and to even Xenophobics and misanthropes, I end with a quote that reminds me of the basis of my zikr: unconditional love of my creator.  It is a love that we should all share, regardless of what we label others, and more importantly, ourselves.

“Whoever you may be, come
Even though you may be
An infidel, a pagan, or a fire-worshipper, come
Our brotherhood is not one of despair
Even though you have broken
Your vows of repentance a hundred times, come.”

-Jalal-uddin-Rumi

Ramadan Mubarak/Kareem!

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