Lecture by Yasmin Mogahed | Hosted by Br. Abdullah Syed | Transcribed by Sameera[The transcript includes slight modifications for the sake of readability and clarity.]
What I want to talk about today is something that we are about to enter into. Before I talk about the gift Allāh is about to bestow on us, I want to take it back to the beginning and talk about a concept everyone should think about, which is the concept of purpose. Every created thing was created for a purpose.
In order to understand the purpose of the creation of anything, you need to go back to the creator. If you look at something as simple as a paperclip, you need to ask why it was created and in order to answer that question, you have to go back to the creator.
We are also a created thing, and in order to understand the purpose of why we were created, we have to go back to our Creator. Our Creator answers this question in the Qurʾān and says simply and clearly that Allāh has not created jinn and human beings for any other purpose except to fulfill 'ubūdiyyah to Allāh . This is the singular purpose. Notice that this āyah begins with a negation and has been constructed differently. Allāh could have said our purpose is 'ubūdiyyah and to worship Allāh, but the āyah begins by negating any other purpose, which creates exclusivity. Our purpose is to worship our Creator, and that's it. It is not to worship our Creator and be the richest or prettiest person or have the highest status. It is just the singular purpose. In order to fulfill the purpose, look at if there are any barriers to keep us from fulfilling the purpose.
If you study the Qur'ān and Sunnah, you will see there are two barriers that prevent us from fulfilling the ultimate purpose of our creation. One is an internal barrier and the other is an external barrier. We have been taught since we were young that we have an enemy outside of ourselves, the Shayṭān, who wants to keep us from our ultimate purpose. Shayṭān has vowed when he was taken out of Jannah to do everything in his power. He said, “I will assault them on Your straight path.” Notice that Shayṭān's assault comes on the straight path. He doesn't need to work as hard on those who are not on the straight path. Those people who are trying and struggling on the straight path, Shayṭān says he is going to come at them from every single direction. We know that Shayṭān is an enemy to us. Shayṭān is a barrier that keeps us away from fulfilling the purpose of 'ubūdiyyah to Allāh alone.
There is also an internal enemy of the nafs, our own selves. Within every single one of us is an internal enemy, which is our lower inclination. Where does Ramadan fit in? Ramadan is a gift of Allāh in which He has set up the optimal conditions in order to fulfill this purpose or aid us in fulfilling the purpose of 'ubūdiyyah. Why? For a number of reasons.
Allāh removed one of the enemies. There is the external enemy (Shayṭān) and there is the internal enemy (the nafs). In Ramadan, Allāh tells us in the words of the Prophet that when Ramadan begins, the gates of Jannah are opened and the gates of Hellfire are closed and the shayāṭīn are chained. In Ramadan, one of the enemies is taken out. So what's left? This is where we have to encounter what is left: our own nafs.
Many people ask: During Ramadan, the shayāṭīn are chained, so why is it that I still sin? Why don't we all become angels? This means that it is your own self. If there are things you cannot give up in Ramadan, then know that it is your own self and your own attachment to the sin. You know that you are coming up against your own self. Allāh wants us to overcome our nafs and control it. This is how Allāh gives us the gift of Ramadan to help us and aid us in that.
In order for us to be really successful in overcoming the nafs, we have to undergo a process of tazkiya (purification). Zakāh and tazkiya share the same root. Tazkiya is the purification of the nafs, and zakāh is the purification of money. We purify our money by giving a portion of it. In order to remove the internal barrier to our purpose of worshipping Allāh, we have to undergo a process of tazkiya. This is how you get the nafs under control.
Allāh in Sūrat'l-Shams makes a series of oaths one after the other. When Allāh makes an oath in the Qur'ān, He is putting emphasis. When we want to emphasize something, we say, “wallāhi” and swear by Allāh . Allāh makes oaths by His creation. In Sūrat'l-Shams, He makes a series of oath by His creation and then says an important truth: “Indeed, He will have succeeded, the one who purified it, and he would have failed – the one who allowed it to be corrupted.” The one who purifies his nafs will be successful in this life and the next, and the one who corrupts it will fail in this life and the next.
How can we actually attain it? When we look at Ramadan and what Allāh tells us about the month of Ramadan, we see that there are two main themes. The first main theme is the theme of taqwa. Allāh tells us about fasting and why He has prescribed fasting. Many times people give the reason why they fast as being because it allows us to feel what the poor people do. While this is a noble consequence of fasting, it is not why Allāh has commanded fasting. Allāh says, “O you who believe, fasting has been prescribed upon you as it was prescribed on those before you in order that you may obtain taqwa.” Allāh clearly tells us why we are fasting. We are doing it for a greater purpose of taqwa. We need to know what taqwa is. Often times, taqwa is simply translated as “fear of Allāh.” If you look at the root of taqwa, you will find that the root means “to protect, shield yourself.” What are you protecting and shielding yourself from when you have taqwa? You are protecting and shielding yourself from a number of things.
You are shielding yourself from the evil of your own nafs. You are protecting and shielding yourself from Shayṭān. You are protecting and shielding yourself from the wrath, distance and displeasure of Allāh. If we use this definition and go back to the āyah, Allāh is saying that He prescribed fasting upon us in order that we learn to shield and protect ourselves from Shayṭān, from our own nafs, and ultimately from the wrath and displeasure and distance from Allāh.
Let's think about some ways why this may be the case. Imagine for a moment that you are in Ramadan and you have kept yourself from eating and drinking and intimacy with your own spouse – things which are normally ḥalāl. During the day of Ramadan, you hold yourself back from things which are normally ḥalāl for the sake of Allāh . If you are able to hold back from what is normally ḥalāl for His sake, then are you not able to hold back from what is normally ḥarām for His sake? You are building the ability to control yourself and your nafs against that which it naturally wants – the lower desires (food, drink, intimacy). Think about taqwa as a muscle. The more you build the muscle, then the stronger it will be. You are building the muscle by staying away from food and drink and things that are normally ḥalāl. It will make you stronger and more able to hold yourself back from that which is normally ḥarām.
Another way to understand the concept of fasting is that when you take the focus away (you are not eating or drinking during the day), you notice how much of our focus during the day is on what we are cooking and eating for breakfast, what we are cooking and eating for lunch, and what we are cooking and eating for dinner and who we are going to share these meals with. So much of our lives revolve around eating! We live in a culture that lives to eat.
The idea here is that when Ramadan comes around, it takes the focus away from eating and drinking. You can now take that focus and point it towards internal things. Eating, drinking, and intimacy are the physical fulfillments and pleasures. When you take that away, you have given yourself the ability to focus on the spiritual health and the internal relationship with Allāh and building your heart. You are holding back from the nafs and withholding from the physical self in order to feed the spiritual self and the heart. You are starting the nafs and feeding the heart.
Heart & Soul
This is extremely important because it is our heart and soul that we are going to hold onto and which we will return to Allāh with. None of us will keep our bodies. None of us will keep what we ate today any longer than tomorrow. Everything we put in our physical bodies passes away. The only thing remaining is the condition we kept our hearts and soul in.
Allāh tells us this on the tongue of Ibrāhīm . He is describing the Day of Judgment as the day when no wealth and no children will help any person, except for the one who comes to Allāh with a heart that is sound.
Ramadan gives you the opportunity to feed the heart. SubḥānAllāh, this is only an example. We are supposed to be taking the focus away from food and away from the physical realm and focus on the spiritual realm, but ironically what we end up doing is the exact opposite! We spend so much of our focus on what we are eating for ifṭār and who we are spending ifṭār with. There is much reward in feeding a fasting person, but I think our focus has gotten off-center, and we use our time and focus when we are supposed to be feeding the heart and instead focus on what we are going to feed the stomach when maghrib time comes. SubḥānAllāh this is the opposite of what the intent really is of moving away from that focus.
Taming the Nafs
When you are trying to control the nafs and feed the heart, you need to think of the nafs as a wild animal that we all have inside of us. You need to break the nafs like you break a horse. When you try to break a horse, you do two things.
1) Reduce intake. The horse is eating and drinking less.
2) Overburden the horse.
In Ramadan Allāh is removing the enemy of the Shayṭān, so it is just me and my nafs. Allāh has commanded us to reduce intake to the nafs by reducing food and drink and intimacy during the day. Overburdening the nafs is through our increased 'ibādah. During Ramadan, we want to increase in our reading and reflecting on Qurʾān, prayer, tarāwīḥ. By increasing in our remembrance and dhikr of Allāh, we are overburdening the nafs.
Allāh has given us this gift to help us take on this internal enemy. We can seek protection from Shayṭān with Allāh, but the nafs is one of the really difficult things to break.
Practical Steps: How to Benefit Most from Ramadan
I want to leave you with practical steps on how I think we can inshā'Allāh benefit most from Ramadan.
1. Be careful not to make fasting just about hunger and thirst.
The Prophet said there are some people who get nothing out of their fast except hunger and thirst, and they get nothing out of qiyām except wastefulness. In another ḥadīth, the Prophet explains that the one who does not give up evil speech and evil actions, Allāh does not need him to give up his food and drink.
We have to understand that Ramadan and fasting is not simply about just going hungry and thirsty. Ramadan is about trying to make ourselves a better person and striving to change ourselves internally. Allāh told us the result of this. Allāh doesn't change a condition of a people unless they change what is inside themselves. If we really want to leave Ramadan changed, then we need to change within ourselves. Don't let Ramadan just be about staying away from food or drink.
2. Don't let Ramadan be a ritualistic holiday.
Many times we take Ramadan as a holiday. Ramadan is not just a ritualistic holiday. It is a time to come back to Allāh . It is a time when Allāh is showering His mercy upon us, and this is something the Prophet told us. When we are talking about the different themes of Ramadan, the first one we spoke about is taqwa, and the second one is mercy. This is a time when Allāh showers His mercy upon us. The Prophet said the beginning of Ramadan is the mercy of Allāh , the middle is His forgiveness, and the end is protection from the Hellfire. Ramadan is about the mercy of Allāh showering upon us. We need to take advantage of that. Let us not make it just a ritualistic holiday.
For example, we focus on the reading of the Qurʾān and the goal is to just finish reading the Qurʾān in Ramadan. Although there is reward for every letter that you read in the Qurʾān, the purpose of the Qurʾān was not just to be read without meaning. The purpose of the Qurʾān was to transform our hearts. If the Qurʾān is not transforming or changing us, then it is not getting any farther than our throats, and we are reading it and it is not having any effect on us. It is extremely important for us to not just read the Qurʾān quickly to get through it, but read and reflect on it and it will affect and change us, which is the purpose why the Qurʾān was revealed.
The Qurʾān was not revealed in one year. It was revealed over many years and the reason for this is that the Prophet changed. The Qurʾān was sent down to a people who used to bury a girl alive to being the greatest people who walked the earth. This is what the Qurʾān can do. If the Qurʾān can have that effect, Allāh said, “If this Qurʾān was revealed on the mountains, then it would crumble out of the fear of Allāh .” Imagine if this Qurʾān comes down on our hearts and our hearts are unmoved, then how hard does that make our hearts? Our hearts are not moved by the Qurʾān and mountains would crumble by the Qurʾān. This is something very crucial to understand. The Qurʾān is intended to change us and transform and purify our hearts. It is not just intended to be read without meaning.
3. Remember to set time aside for you and Allāh alone
It is so easy to get caught up in the rituals of Ramadan. We have our activities during the day – going to work, going to school, preparing for ifṭār. Ifṭār comes and we run from one place to another.
A lot of times we lose the opportunity to be alone with Allāh . I really want to emphasize and tell you how important it is to set that time out when there are no distractions or at least minimal distractions, and have that time alone with Allāh .
A lot of times we lose the opportunity to be alone with Allāh. I really want to emphasize and tell you how important it is to minimize distractions and have that time alone with Allāh. The best time is the last third of the night. We are told in a ḥadīth qudsi, Allāh descends down to the lowest heaven, and this is when Allāh is closest to His 'abd and calls out, “Who is calling on Me I can answer his call? Who is seeking forgiveness from Me so I can forgive him?” This is the time when we are nearest to Allāh .
Set out time just before fajr to be alone with Allāh, make du'ā', read Qurʾān and reflect on it and pray during that time. This is the time we wake up for suḥūr and feed our bodies. We wake up to feed our bodies but won't wake up to feed our hearts and souls. This is ironic because our bodies will not last. It is only our hearts and souls that will return to Allāh . My advice to you and myself is to feed the heart. We worry so much about missing suḥūr. If we miss suḥūr, it is like the end of the world and we wonder how we are going to fast. Eat suḥūr and feed your body; this is the Sunnah of the Prophet , but make sure you are feeding your soul. Set out time with Allāh during this blessed time of advice.
Advice for Parents
Another advice I want to give you: when you are teaching your children about fasting and learning the Qurʾān, do not give them monetary rewards for doing this. Don't pay your children to fast and memorize Qurʾān. It is very important that we teach our children to look forward to the reward with Allāh rather than giving them the external reward. What that does is make the person attached to the external reward instead of being attached to the internal reward.
Teach our children to look forward to the reward from Allāh and to the good deeds Allāh gives them. This doesn't mean that you can't give your children rewards and gifts, but please don't connect it with acts of 'ibādah like fasting or memorization of the Qurʾān. Instead, instill in your child the desire for the reward from Allāh in Jannah. Throughout their life, this will be why they are doing this.
Psychological research and motivation has shown that when you have an external reward, although the behavior might temporarily increase, the motivation for the behavior is linked to the external reward – the money, the gifts. As soon as you remove the external reward (money or gift), the person no longer wants to do the action and has little motivation to continue the act. This is really dangerous with an act of 'ibādah. We don't want to teach our children that the only reason they were fasting is because they were getting paid.
We ask Allāh that we use this month.
The last advice I want to give: clean out the cup of the heart. The heart is like a vessel. A lot of times we enter Ramadan and leave Ramadan completely unchanged. We go into Ramadan and increase our 'ibādah for a while and leave Ramadan and we are exactly how we were before Ramadan. The heart is a cup. If a cup is already dirty and you are trying to fill it with the most beautiful thing like honey and it is covered in dirt, then the honey will be mixed with the dirt, and it will not be pure.
We need to use this opportunity to clean our hearts of the stains of our own sins. We all commit sins. There may be certain sins which we are addicted to and unable to leave. Ramadan is the time to go back to Allāh and make tawbah and ask Allāh to forgive you. In that act of tawbah, you are cleaning your heart. Make this Ramadan an opportunity to stop doing that sin. Leave the sin for the sake of Allāh . Know that anything you leave for Allāh's sake, Allāh will replace it with something better.
I ask Allāh to bless us with a Ramadan from which we can come out pure and closer to Allāh and can shield ourselves from our own selves, Shayṭān, and wrath, displeasure, and distance from Allāh.
I ask you to keep me and my family in your du'ā's. I am inshā'Allāh coming out with a book that is a collection of my writing called Reclaim Your Heart.