For the ninth time this year, the moon goes round the Earth, wrapping it and all who dwell on it in a period of mercy, of extra closeness to Allaah Almighty. The month of fasting connects terrestrial bodies to extraterrestrial bodies, material provision to spiritual sustenance, and souls to souls across humanity.
But it took exposure to another kind of fast to teach me the vital importance of this third connection.
Visiting my grandfather recently in a rehab center, my eyes fell upon his roommate as I entered the room. He lay in a fetal position: Old and small, weak and helpless, utterly emaciated. A nurse entered and talked to the man, asking if he ate. He grunted a response, unable even to talk properly. The man, I discovered, had a severe case of diabetes and his body refused food. He was starving to death.
From that first moment, I felt intensely emotionally invested in this man whose existence had been previously unknown to me, whose past life and present personality I was wholly ignorant of. I did not even know his name. But his present state of helplessness rendered everything else irrelevant. Everything had failed him––except his human spirit. He was absolutely nothing but a human being I recognized him, felt an affinity and love for him. I knew him. He was a soul.
I found it so easy to care about and empathize with him, stripped of every normal necessity we humans depend on (proper clothing, physical movement, fresh air, and then even food). His state of depravation, it seemed to me, disburdened his soul from the material distractions and interferences most of us ceaselessly consume and surround ourselves with.
I emotionally connected with him in so powerful and acute a way, it startled me: Why did I care so much for someone I did not even know?
Our souls contain a power that binds each of us to all of humanity––regardless of our spatial differences. It is this that allows humans to transcend the weighty pressures and corruption of this world and aspire to a nobler and more worthy status in the other. The scary reality is that most of us habituate ourselves to turning off this spiritual connection with others because we lack the courage to sacrifice for someone else, the selflessness to care for another soul, regardless of our own interests.
But, ultimately, this is a failure of trust in Allaah, a breakdown in our belief that He will never abandon us and will ever do what is best for us in this life and the next. A human being that dismisses the suffering of any soul anywhere ends up materially limited, physically weak, and emotionally vulnerable––a bitter, desperate creature. I promised myself never to debase myself in such a way.
But the deep habit of disconnection came up in me suddenly. I began turning off my concern for the starving old man. Then the most unlikely thing occurred. Because Allaah had placed him in this humble position, stripping him down to his core, I suddenly saw through his disappearing body to his human soul- and it was beautiful. I remembered the meaning of fasting, of Ramadhaan, of Islam, of the purpose of the Muslim community in the world. So I took the next step. I wanted to let the dying elderly man know, as our Prophet said we ought to, that I loved him for the sake of Allaah.
I wrote the man a letter. In it I introduced myself as a brother in Islam, telling him how glad I was to have met him and that even though I didn’t know his name, I loved him for the Sake of Allaah. I assured him that I was praying for him and his family, knowing these were difficult times. Although it may be harsh now and painful, I told him, it is only for a short while. We just need to believe in Him, The One, He Who has no partner or son, and trust He will take care of us. So then, when we die, our real lives begin: And that is one of eternal enjoyment for the pardoned believer with all the believing people we ever loved on earth around us. I told him that I aspired to visit him again… there.
He nodded when I gave him the letter. I smiled at him as I left, never seeing him again. He remains in my prayers, etched in my soul, and it comforts me when I think, Allaah willing, we will meet again in Paradise.
The month of Ramadhaan approaches. These are the days when strangers, in mists, enter into our midst––and never do they eat as we do. Yet they care for us, by the Command of Allaah. They are a mercy to us, a blessing, by the Command of Allaah––although we are human beings and they are angels.
This is the month in which Allaah chose to send down a unifying Mercy for His human creation, that we may connect with one another and benefit from each other, unhindered by linear time, geographical boundaries, or personal differences. Refraining from food–– a truly powerful (and empowering!) action––lightens the heavy worldly material covering our souls.
All over the rotating Earth, encompassed by the orbiting moon, in Ramadhaan some people look to the sun more frequently than usual. They await its decline. They long for its disappearance behind the horizon at the end of the sky. These are those fasting for the Mercy of Allaah, the abstainers for forgiveness, the beggars for divine pardon.
As they act not, in that physical, material, earthly human way, one by one the veils begin to fall away like old shrouds from their souls. Fast after fast, they are no longer relying on the material sustenance so much, but rather on the filling spiritual provisions harvested from their daily worship.
As the fasting mounts, calm descends, and a more diaphanous soul seems to extend far, far into a sense of greater belonging. People, for some reason, all over the earth, look more, well, recognizably human,
Oh, the worldly cataracts shed by the eyes of the faster!