By Amreen Pathan
“That’s what we shouldn’t lose sight of now that Ramadan is over. Who are you? Who can you become if you are not controlled by your desires?”
I recently read this brilliant article (link above) but in sum, the gist of the piece is the exploration of the idea that fasting is a means to spiritual ascension because of the physical and emotional time and space, the abstinence of food liberates in one’s day.
Of course, it’s not just the consumption of food – or lack thereof – that’s important. It’s the symbolic abstinence that is encouraged by the abstinence of food: gluttony and the detrimental ‘binge-feeding’ of one’s desires.
Which brings me back to the crux of the piece: ‘Who can you become if you are not controlled by your desires?’
Just like every person’s genetic makeup is distinct and different, every person’s spiritual makeup is distinct and different too. What this means is that every person’s answer to the above question will be distinct and different too.
What we can explore together however is this concept of desires and its relation to the ‘self’.
Spirituality and the Self
Spirituality is literally defined as ‘the quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.’
In Arabic, the term for spirituality is روحانيات (transliteration: roo-ha-ni-yaat).
The first three letters of the Arabic term reads as روح (transliteration: ruh) which actually means spirit or soul. It makes sense therefore that the Arabic term for spirituality is founded on those very letters around which the essence of spirituality is centred: the soul.
NB: Please note that although the terms ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’ can be used synonymously, in Islam the soul and spirit are to some extent two different entities and the description of each is intricate and complex. However, for the purpose of this piece the following explanation should suffice: the spirit constitutes part of the mortal being that exits the body at death. The soul on the other hand is the non-physical self and it is this self that is the subject of this article.
The modern world has taken a keen and active interest in the old age Eastern spiritualisms and wisdoms of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and the like. It is sad to me that in contrast, despite the spirituality that is enjoined in Islam as evidenced by Ramadan and beyond, it is largely overlooked in favour of the religion’s political and ritual dogma.
The Islamic reality is that the greatest battle one is encouraged to fight is the one that allows the conquering of and victory over the ‘self’ thus acquiring the means to spirituality.
The ultimate conquest
Ibn Rajab reported: Ibrahim ibn Abu Alqamah would say to people when they returned from an expedition: ‘You have come from the lesser jihad unto the greater jihad.’
They asked, ‘What is the greater jihad?’
Ibrahim said: ‘It is the jihad of the heart [self]’.
Similarly, Al Battal said: “Courage is to be patient for a time. This is the jihad against outward enemies, which is jihad against unbelievers. Likewise is the jihad against inward enemies, which is the jihad against the soul and lowly desires. Indeed, this is the greater of the two jihads.”
What we learn from this is the unparalleled nature of the inward jihad or battle or strive. The inward here means the inner self that possesses every living creature and therefore the inward enemy is the desires that the self is attuned to.
This means that the truest form of spirituality in the Islamic sense of the word is something that is attained by nothing other than striving against one’s own self i.e. one’s singularly selfish pursuits and desires of a worldly nature.
A human truth
What makes us human is our desires. This is the strongest truth anyone could utter about humanity. The existence of desires is what differentiates humankind from angels and the concept of desires is what ascertains the choices humankind makes. It is also these very desires then that propel humankind to the highest of Allah’s creations.
Why? Because desires are desirable, pleasurable even; and there is nothing harder than denying one’s self the pleasure of their desires. Islam recognises this struggle and is precisely why striving against one’s desires is considered to be the greatest form of strive.
Allah Almighty says in the Noble Quran:
‘As for him who feared the position of his Lord and prevented the soul from [unlawful] desires, then indeed Paradise will be his refuge.’ (79:40-41)
Desiring is a state of mind that initiates a series of possible motions: acting in a certain way, feeling a certain way or thinking in certain ways. Let’s say you desire a cup of tea for example. Then you will make yourself a cup of tea. If you are unable to do so, then you will be overcome by repeated thoughts about that cup tea until you are actually able to make one and so on. Your desire for a cup of tea has set forth a motion of measures that cannot be stilled until acquired.
One may desire to eat a chocolate or read a book, or go for a walk, or travel, or become environmentally conscious, or have children, or choose a certain profession and so forth. So desires are not necessarily evil by nature. It is desire that gives one’s life direction and meaning and without desires, life would grind to a halt, as there would be no reason to do anything.
What Ramadan reminds us of though is the most important reason to live and that reason that we do anything: serving Allah. This does not just mean offering our prayers or fasting throughout the day or giving in charity. What this means – in addition to those physical acts of worship – is working on the most poorly parts of our selves that in ultimate truth are controlled by our desires.
Ask yourselves why it is you do anything you do and why it is you do not do the things you do not do. Our spiritual makeups are indeed very different and therefore our dos and don’ts will differ too. But our answers to this question will always be the same. It is because we do what our desires direct us to do and we do not do because our desires direct us not to.
And so once again we come full circle to Ramadan, post Ramadan: who did we become with our desires locked away? And who are we today with our desires unchained? What aspects of your self is controlled by your desires and what aspect of your self is controlled by your Creator’s?
If the person who looks in the mirror now is the exact, same as the person who looked in the mirror prior to Ramadan, then that means the conquest is not yet won. I doubt it ever will be but the beauty of this strive is that it is not meant to be.
And Allah knows best.