And just like that, we are halfway through Ramadan Mubarak, the most scared month in the Islamic calendar that close to two billion Muslims in virtually every country around the world celebrate each year to sustain their yearning for the spiritual in the lifestream of their quotidian existence and to affirm their quest for human self-realisation.
The engaging rituals that accompany this holy month are so encoded in our teleological and cultural consciousness that even Muslims, this columnist among them, who shamefacedly confess to not being overly observant, come to “feel” the presence of God — the ultimate Director of our lives, our history, our destiny — around them.
And even they, during the month of Ramadan, feel that life is indeed worth living and that we live it for a purpose, namely, to pursue taqua, as close to Godly perfection as humanly possible.
All of which puts to the lie the flippant claim by Jean Paul Sartre, the pre-eminent French existentialist philosopher, about the putative “futility” of human existence. “It is absurd that we are born”, he wrote, convinced as he was that “our whole existence is something that would be better not being”.
Even more flippant is the claim by the equally celebrated existentialist, Albert Camus, who wrote, in the plaintive tone that only existentialists know how to infuse into their writing, that “there is no meaning, in the universe, and as humans we work, love, hope, strive, endure and then die”, after which, presumably, we become forgotten dust.
Live the experience of Ramadan
Really? If these folks had, by a trick of fate, been born as Muslims and hung out with their fellow-Muslims during the magical month of Ramadan — not to mention celebrated the joyous three-day event known as Eid that follows it, effectively the feast after the fast — they would have discovered for themselves the underlying spiritual and ethical justifications for our human existence — which is what every Muslim discovers for himself or herself every time they live the experience of Ramadan.
If I were to choose the one word that defines our communal sense of reference during this holy month (a word that contradicts the mindset in which existentialism is anchored) it would be “harmony”.
And harmony — harmony in music, harmony in human relations, harmony in the spheres — is, according to another, albeit not altogether despairing Frenchman, the noted anthropologist and ethnologist Claude Levi Strauss, “le mystere supreme de l’existence”
The holy month of Ramadan, I say, is the time when we feel in total harmony, in harmony with ourselves, in harmony with the objective world we inhabit and in harmony with the Creator we worship.
A time when we take a fresh look at the self that is us, to judge it anew, much as would a person who steps back from a painting on a wall in order to perceive it better. And, above all, a time when we celebrate the beauty in that harmony.
Look, during Ramadan I feel good, thank you very much. I feel good not just as a Muslim but as a human being — and yes, in harmony with everyone and everything I encounter. At peace with myself and in love with the world. Maybe it’s the fasting from sunrise to sunset that does it.
Maybe it’s the reciting of the first verse in the Holy Quran — a verse that a writer and a bibliophile like myself finds enchanting — which begins, “Read in the name of the Lord, He who enlightens by the pen...“
Most magical of magical months
Maybe it’s the delicious Iftar. The company. The effusions of affections from all around. The bonding. The laughter. The profundity of the moment we sense during prayer. Along with the infinite number of other, eh, harmonies that cling to the air during this most magical of magical months.
But, yes, during Ramadan, I, like other Muslims, become both good and goodly.
In “The Mysteries of Fasting and Its Important Elements”, one of the five books about the inner meanings of Islamic worship, by Abu Hamid Al Ghazali (d. 1112), often Al-Ghazali for short, the famous Muslim theologian, philosopher and polymath, who drew on diverse and seemingly complex bodies of knowledge for his influential treatises on Islamic thought (and who, incidentally, was given to the use of maxims in his writings), we read that “Man was not created in jest or at random, but marvellously made for some great end”.
Like that drop of rain happy to die
And that end? As Muslims, according to Ghazali, we are expected to live not passive but engaged lives, ones imbued with that dynamic concept in Islam known as aqida wa jihad, lives propelled by a struggle to pursue noble beliefs, to explore new ideas, to discover new worlds. He wrote: “Those who look for seashells will find seashells, [whereas] those who open them will find pearls”.
Then, he added, when it’s time for the faithful to head on to the hereafter, after they had lived full, ethical and meaningful lives, they would do so “like that drop of rain happy to die in the river”.
See, I tell you, I wouldn’t have read Al-Ghazi were I not possessed by the spirit of this holy month of ours that we are now halfway through.
And, hey, it’s cool being a Muslim and a product of Islam’s rich spiritual, cultural and literary tradition, isn’t it?
Happy Ramadan, y’all.
Fawaz Turki is a noted academic, journalist and author based in the US. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.