By: Sabnum Dharamsi
The Holy Month of Ramadhan provides us with the opportunity to utilise the dark hours of the day for worship. Sabnum Dharamsi discusses 'the juxtaposition of day and night, life and death and the blurring of boundaries between the two'
"Why get tied to a hag like this world, and for such a price?
And for a ration of three loaves, why think of the sword and the knife?
At night the Beloved always returns, take no opium tonight,
Close your mouth to food and know another taste."
(Rumi, The Ruins of the Heart, translated by Edmund 'Kabir' Helminski)
In this month, the blessed month of Ramadhan, I wanted to share something more personal with you. I wanted to share with you thoughts about the tenderness of the night in month of Ramadhan and its significance for healing and well-being.
As a counsellor, I help people with the problems that we all experience, but I am also concerned with being proactive in relation to well-being, and especially what that means at a deeper level. The holy month of Ramadhan is an intensely powerful month and this article is an invitation to embrace all that it has to offer.
Of course, there are the more obvious bits of advice. Many articles have been written by Muslim doctors and health professionals who have seen fasting as a motivator to better physical health and an opportunity to give up smoking and eat more healthily.
But what I mean is a kind of inner health - a health not only of the mind, but a deeper health, one which exists within our hearts.
We have to go beyond thinking of Ramadhan as an opportunity to temper the indulgences of the body, but rather a time to understand a little bit about how it removes the cobwebs from our minds and purifies our hearts.
So, I specifically want to discuss the nights of month of Ramadhan. Many scholars have written about the spiritual meaning and significance of these blessed nights, but in this article I would like to focus on the tenderness of those nights.
People often say that the most difficult thing in Ramadhan is not refraining from eating, but the disturbance to their sleep patterns - particularly in more northern climes when Ramadhan falls in summer and the nights are short and the fasting days long. We are more often awake at night, and if we sleep, it is often only to wake before fajr.
So what is good about this? It means our attachment to everyday reality is disturbed.
The word Qalb, meaning heart in Arabic, comes from the root qalaba, to turn. The healthy heart is one which is not fixated or held captive by the illusory pleasures and anxieties that are the nature of this world. Often we become creatures of habit, following routines that stultify us and lead us to live shallow or robotic existences.
In this verse, it's as if God is telling us that there are people who are alive but only exist:
'.... they have hearts with which they do not understand, they have eyes with which they do not see, they have ears with which they do not hear'. (7:179)
Of course, we are human too, and the mercy of Islam is that it recognises that most of us struggle to keep vigil everyday. Lots of us love sleep, and for good reason. We know scientifically, how important sleep is to our well-being. Even though so little about sleep is understood, we know that not to have sufficient sleep affects our brain function, our ability to learn and interact with others, and it can also upset the balance of many hormones, including insulin. Indeed, for God says:
'Splitter of the dawn, He has made the night for rest, and the sun and the moon for calculation. That is the ordaining of the All-Mighty, the All-Knowing'. (6:96)
But I believe it is also important to release ourselves from the veils of conditioning, and when we do, we see that truth is there. The Qur'an says, 'God...created the heavens and the earth in Truth' (15:85).
This is what Rumi is calling us to in the poem above, to give up, as he says, the 'opium of sleep'.
When we don't sleep, perhaps we can bear witness to that intangible tender sacredness that falls over and through us like a protective sheath. It is as though our selves, the personas and roles we inhabit most of the time become dislocated. In the night maybe we begin to taste how it doesn't matter whether we are beautiful or ugly, rich or poor. We perhaps temporarily loosen our identification with our roles of brother, sister, Imam or sweeper. In doing so we create a space for worship in our otherwise preoccupied hearts. We discover His Names; His Vastness - the unseen becomes apparent, almost like even our bodies feel like a temporary envelope; we are living between worlds, timelessly. And I believe something in us, something in the way we are designed, needs to experience this feeling of beyondness.
It's a long poem and I don't have the space to quote it all, but here are a few excerpts from another poem by Mawlana Rumi, who explains further:
"Earth is not the final rest Of a bird born of that sea. No we are pearls of that ocean And if it weren't so why would Wave upon wave arrive? ..... Beyond this world is a world That has no boundaries" (Rumi)
In month of Ramadhan, we can, I believe, by His Grace, feel more easily the boundlessness that is the truth beyond our everyday illusions. It reminds me in a way of that shift of perspective that we experience when someone close to us dies; we are reminded of what really matters.
It sounds paradoxical, but being conscious of night, with its closing of the day and its activity, reminds us of death. It can be a lonely time for many, particularly that point just before the first light, when most suicides occur.
The juxtaposition of day and night, life and death and the blurring of the boundaries between the two, enable us to acknowledge our frailty and submit to our intangibility, and maybe glimpse the Hand behind all things. It's not uncommon, though frightening, to experience dark times in ones life. And those dark times are there with purpose, to encourage us to face this reality, that life and its pleasures are temporary. Facing the night, is in a way to face death, and when and if we can do so, life is all the more sweet.
In month of Ramadhan, protected by His grace, especially on the Nights of Qadr, when there is peace till the breaking of the dawn, I have witnessed transformations occur. Truly, Tender is the Night.
Originally published in islam today magazine UK, issue 21 | July 2014. It has been republished here with permission.