In the Name of God, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate
In the eyes and minds of most, if not all, of those who look at the fast of Ramadan from the outside, the main theme of the month is wilful (and perhaps in the minds of some, irrational) deprivation of that which is essential to the health and well-being of everyday life: food and drink. Many people, especially when they learn that we cannot even have water during the fast, wonder why we forgo – many times happily – food and drink during daylight hours for 29-30 days at a time. What a terrible burden they must think we Muslims must carry each and every year of our lives. What purpose could starving and thirsting yourself possibly serve?
Far from being a month of deprivation, the month of Ramadan is all about freedom. Sure, people are free to disregard the fast of Ramadan if they choose (which happens all the time). Yet, that is not the freedom of which I speak. The fast of Ramadan – the willful deprivation of food and drink even when no one is watching – liberates the believer from the chains of bondage to all things that are liable to ensnare one in this earthly life. It emancipates the believer from bondage to everything but the True Master, the Precious Beloved.
It is amazing – once one is deprived of food, drink, and the like during Ramadan – to realize how much we become physically dependent on things that are unnecessary to our survival: coffee, cigarettes, doughnuts, bagels, cookies, etc. The same is true in the moral sphere. During Ramadan, we try to be “extra good,” avoiding such things as slander, backbiting, foul speech, and the like. When we stop ourselves from talking about someone else behind their back, we realize how easily such sins slip from our mouths. All of this is liberating: it frees us from the bondage of sin to the servitude of the Almighty.
If we can refrain from sin during Ramadan, then we should be able to refrain from them when Ramadan is long gone. Isn’t this tremendously liberating? We can shed the shackles that keep us from progressing toward our Lord. We can avoid the chains that tie us down to this earthly domain and turn our heart’s eyes toward the Divine, whose light is eternally nourishing. That is all on a spiritual level, which is the most important function of Ramadan, for once we are spiritually liberated from this world, we can move on to the next world, which is the True Life.
Yet, there is also a physical benefit, as I mentioned earlier. This is especially true when it comes to smoking, something which I cannot avoid mentioning because, as a lung specialist, I see first hand the devastating effects of cigarette smoking each and every day of my professional life. Muslims are forced to forgo cigarettes during the day during Ramadan. Isn’t this a perfect opportunity to permanently quit smoking cigarettes? Yet, so many Muslims, as soon as the call to the sunset prayer is made, light up almost as quickly (if not more quickly) as they eat their date, or cookie, or even drink their cup of coffee. It truly saddens me. Ideally, the numbers of Muslim smokers should be dwindling each year because of Ramadan. Sadly, however, this is not the case.
I do not mean to castigate smokers, not in the least. Nicotine is more addictive than heroin; it is perhaps the most sinister product ever manufactured, because once one is hooked on cigarettes, they become almost enslaved to the product for life – unless they quit. Well, Ramadan can be that catalyst to help liberate someone from the bondage of chronic tobacco abuse and addiction. Moreover, there are new treatments approved specifically for cigarette smoking, and these can be added to the fast of Ramadan to further help the smoker to finally kick the habit. It can become a spiritual mission, and maybe this extra motivation can be what helps someone to quit and quit for good.
Now, as for me, I am a slave to quite a few sins, bad habits, and shortcomings. They are too many to work on in just one Ramadan, and I pray that God gives me many Ramadans to help improve myself. Yet, this year, I have been freed from at least one physical slave master: caffeine. Before Ramadan, I had a tremendous dependence on caffeine. Each and every morning, it was obligatory (almost as obligatory as the morning prayer) for me to purchase a very large cup of coffee. It was very difficult for me to function without the cup of coffee. Although I hate to admit it, I have sometimes missed the morning prayers…but I’ll never miss my morning cup of coffee. How shameful. On top of this, I would be drinking a very large amount of diet caffeinated soft drinks after I finish my cup of coffee (sometimes, as soon as I finish my cup of coffee).
Yet, now that I must do without that morning cup of joe and daytime diet soda, I realize that I can function just fine without it. Of course, the first few days without caffeine were difficult: I was walking around like a zombie due to caffeine withdrawal. Yet, once that passed, I felt better. My sleep is deeper, more refreshing, and my dreams are vivid and real, much more so than when I was drinking tons of caffeine during the day. Moreover, when I really do need a cup of coffee to help me stay awake, such as when I work a night shift, it really works. It is tremendously liberating. The challenge will be, when months and months have passed after Ramadan, how much I can keep up my avoidance of caffeine. Will I stay true to my Ramadan liberation, or will I simply slip back to my old ways? That is the $64,000 question, especially significant as we are entering the final days of Ramadan.
So, once again, far from being a victim of a vindictive spiritual practice of a vindictive God (glory be He from ever being thus), the believer during the month of Ramadan frees himself or herself from the bondage of the hypocrisy of the human condition to the freedom of serving the One Lord, the Precious Beloved. If this state of total liberation can be achieved through the month of hunger and thirst, then no amount of succulent food, no amount of refreshing drink, no amount of sensual pleasure could ever equal the benefit of being truly free.
May the Precious Beloved grant us that state of total freedom. Amen.