Lecture by Gyasie McKinzie | Hosted by Br. Abdullah Syed | Transcribed by Zara T.
Inshā'Allāh I will give Shaykh Gyasi an introduction.
He was born in Washington DC but raised in Memphis, TN, where he accepted Islam in high school, māshā'Allāh. After graduating from high school, he went to the University of Houston where he became good friends with Sheikh Yasir. That's actually where I first met our dear Shaykh Gyasi McKinzie who's with us today. I met him for the first time in Houston. Both of them chose the study of chemical engineering. Then Shaykh Yasir went to University of Madīnah and Shaykh Gyasi went two years afterwards. Then he graduated from University of Madīnah from the faculty of da‘wah and Usool al-Deen. In the year 2000, he moved back to his home state where he grew up in Memphs, TN. There he did many good things including teaching at schools, being a chaplain, teaching for the AlMaghrib Institute for a little bit. Alḥamdulillāh he went on to pursue his masters from Vanderbilt. The good thing is he moved and came to Dallas where I live so alḥamdulillāh I get to see his beautiful smile. If you guys haven't seen his beautiful smile, you're missing out. Whenever I see his beautiful smile, my soul is refreshed completely alḥamdulillāh.[Shaykh Gyasi]: First and foremost, I'd like to thank you for those kind words and I also, of course, would like to thank you and the organizers of Ramadan prep for inviting me again to participate in this wonderful event. It definitely means a lot to me.
Last year, we spoke about our obligation towards new Muslims. So, before we start our new challenge, I want a few minutes to remind you of our old challenge because I think we should be building upon what we learn and we don't want to forget. So last year, we had 10 challenges and the challenge that I covered was the challenge of giving or fulfilling our obligation towards the new Muslim and making sure that their Ramadan experience becomes a good Ramadan experience. Again, I just want to remind everyone that we need to make sure that we haven't forgotten this obligation. I truly believe, as I mentioned last year, that this is something that is of utmost importance. And as I mentioned also last year, our problem is not people accepting Islam. Alḥamdulillāh we have that still, even in a post 9/11 world. The problem is retention. Many people accept Islam but we're seeing them disappear. Again, let us remember that as we're getting ready to enter this Ramadan that's upon us now.
So today's topic is also a beautiful and important challenge as well. Alḥamdulillāh, it seems like each year I get a very wonderful topic, a topic that I'm passionate about. And I think this is the topic, the challenge, and it is the challenge of feeding our hungry souls during the month of Ramadan. So the reason I say this is the greatest challenge and the most important of all the challenges is that when we observe, we notice that for the most part, fasting is somewhat easy. Everyone is capable of fasting and almost everyone in the Muslim world fasts, if you think about it. Many people are fasting, I would say well over a billion people. We're able to do that, yet many people, obviously, are not experiencing a spiritual growth.
So, again, as I try to set up the topic, well over a billion people are fasting. Yet we have a significant portion complaining about not growing spiritually. So of course this means that this topic deserves much attention. Fasting is not merely physical, but it's rather the total commitment of the person's body and the soul to the spirit of fasting. And again, today, fasting has become like the essential ritualistic act. All these people fasting, yet it has become just a ritual. So today we want to examine how we don't become like the hundreds and thousands of people who just go through the motions. As we observe, it's very easy to go through the motions when it comes to fasting
The main question that we're going to answer today is “How do we grow spiritually?” Like I mentioned earlier, there are a large number of people who are not truly growing from the fast. So what do we do? How do we avoid being from the masses of people who are not growing spiritually? So that's the question, really, that I'm going to try to answer today. How do we feed our soul and focus on this mission?
How to Feed the Soul
1. The first thing is the most obvious and the one that I think is most helpful. That is that we understand the purpose and the importance of the month of Ramadan.
Sounds very simple and trivial but in reality, subḥānAllāh, I think our shortfall or our challenges in the Muslim world today are simple challenges. For the most part, we know the answers, we just need to get about implementing them. A way to rectify this problem, the problem of not growing spiritually, is to recognize and to understand the purpose and importance of the month of Ramadan. And this is the case for anything. For example, we're told over and over again why we are at school. And we see that when people don't come to school or don't remember why they come to school, you see there are problems. Likewise, when people take math, science or social studies, teachers are often asked, “Why are we studying this topic?” but once the teacher readdress this question, it becomes much easier for the student and the student typically focuses more.
This also applies for us. The purpose, alḥamdulillāh, is explicitly spelled out for us in the Qurʾān. Allāh says that fasting is prescribed upon us just as it was prescribed upon those before us so that perhaps we may gain taqwa. So when we are fasting and when we embark on this fasting this Ramadan, we need to remember that we are fasting to gain taqwa, to gain this awareness, this consciousness of Allāh . So we need to think about that before Ramadan, during Ramadan, and at the end of Ramadan. If we continually think about that, inshā'Allāh it'll increase our productivity and our spiritual growth in Ramadan quite a bit.
When we think of this, we realize, meaning that Ramadan is to attain taqwa, we realize that also, in the month of Ramadan, the standard and the bar of excellence is raised. In the month of Ramadan, in order to achieve that piety, in order to achieve that taqwa, we're asked to go even further. We're asked to push ourselves more. And so not only are those things that are forbidden restricted from using the month of Ramadan. But even things that are most beloved to us-food, drink, intimacy with our wives (these are all strong urges) …in the month of Ramadan, we're told to push ourselves to the limit and to curb our appetite. The word siyam means “to restrict” so we even temporarily restrict ourselves from those things that are halal. And no doubt if you just reflect upon this, inshā'Allāh, there should be some growth, there should be an impact, and there should be this desire that we get. the month of Ramadan serves as this annual refreshment, this annual shot in the arm. Just as the Jumu‘ah prayer serves as the weekly refreshment, or the weekly energizer factor and likewise we have the 5 daily prayers that adds this focus factor on a daily basis.
Once a year, we're told to push the bar higher, and it keeps us, inshā'Allāh, on track.
Now with that then said, unfortunately, if we don't constantly think about this goal, it can be easily forgotten. We find that the prophet [saws] has warned us many times not to lose focus on the goal of Ramadan. The prophet [saws] has warned us that if we don't enter Ramadan properly, if we don't fast Ramadan properly, then we can leave Ramadan with very little impact and it will just become ritualistic. It's amazing that even the prophet [saws] and the classical scholars of the past talked about the “Ramadan Muslim” or this ritualistic problem that we have. And again, as I mentioned earlier, one of our major problems is the simple things, the fundamental things. One of the major problems that we find, that's identified in the Middle East, in the Indian subcontinent, in Africa, and throughout the world, even of course in the West, is that our act of worship has simply been rendered as just as ritual act. and we are in trouble, if that's the case. As the prophet [saws] said, “Whoever does not leave speaking falsehood and acting in accordance with it, Allāh has no need of him giving up his food and drink.” If you're not becoming a better person, then Allāh has no need of you going through this ritualistic act. Likewise, the prophet [saws] said, “it may be that a fasting person gets nothing from his fast except hunger and thirst.” So again, the prophet [saws] is explicitly telling us that if we don't consciously think about our purpose, la 'allakum tattaqoon, you could just be going through the motions.
So that's the first thing, and again its very easy, that we just focus on our goal, focus on our mission, again, as I mentioned, this is something that we do with everything in our lives. In order to really get the most out of something, we need to know why it's important. We need to focus on our mission and our goal.
2. Not only do we remind ourselves of the goal, we also try to correct the misunderstandings that we have.
We must ask ourselves, “What does Ramadan mean to me? When I think of Ramadan, what does it mean?” if you can truthfully answer that question, you can somewhat improve this Ramadan that's coming. I used to ask students and children all the time what does Ramadan mean to them and it gives you a lot of insight into the house. A lot of times what Ramadan means to the child is what you and I are teaching that child. For many people, Ramadan is all about food. It's about eating, it's about going to many parties, it's about really devouring all of this food. It sounds very funny but I think many of you know what I'm talking about. This is a joyous occasion because we get to eat better. This is the case for many people, Ramadan is all about eating, it's not about refraining. If this is your mind frame, the only thing you get from Ramadan is physical growth and not spiritual growth. They say that there are even people who gain weight in the month of Ramadan, and that's no surprise because it's all about eating. Hopefully we can correct this if it's our mind set and also we can help teach our children that this is not what Ramadan is all about.
Others, Ramadan is all about partying. Even in my time in Madīnah, I remember the kids were very happy during the month of Ramadan because they would stay up all night. There would be new programs on the television all night. A lot of American sitcoms would come on just in the month of Ramadan, special programs. I heard that this is the way it is in Egypt and other countries. A lot of the good blockbuster films come out during the summertime. Believe it or not, a lot of the sitcoms and films would come out during Ramadan. So of course Ramadan to them is a time for entertainment, a time for partying, a time for staying up all night. Of course, we need to make sure that this is not the way that we look at Ramadan as well.
We also have another mindset, which is the mindset of restriction. Even the best of us can fall into this mindset. “What do you think about Ramadan?” I think it is a pillar of Islam, we have to fast. But it's a time of restriction, a time of hardship. I'm going to have to fast for 14+ hours in the hot sun. I'm going to have to deal with parking issues at the masjid. Especially for those in college, you hear this all the time. You can easily get into this mindset. I found myself fighting this too. Am I from the people who look at Ramadan as a hardship? “Well I gotta pick the kids up, gotta get a bite to eat..” we shouldn't look at Ramadan in that light. I always say that a way to see when you fit in this category is when there's 29 days, do you hope for 30 or do you hope for Shawwal? Some people don't want that extra day. If that's the case, something is wrong.
I also want to mention, and maybe this is something that we should do, for those of us who have kids, ask our kids what does Ramadan mean to them, and I think it would give us insight into what we are projecting. They'll be our mirror. They'll help us.
It's funny, many kids when they think of Ramadan, the very first thing that they say is 'Īd, which means again the party type of mentality that I mentioned earlier. If you think about it, 'Īd is not even in Ramadan. It's after Ramadan. It's Shawwal. And I do understand that some of us have young kids and we do want to make Ramadan beloved to them, we do want to make Ramadan exciting. But I'm just saying we have to be careful and we have to make sure we have to have that fun, we have that excitement, we eat well, but at the end of that, we teach our kids and ourselves first and foremost that the purpose of Ramadan is for us. And this is like the last category, to push the bar even higher and to truly focus.
How hard is it to focus nowadays? Even with the five time daily prayers, even with the adhar that we say, even with our recitation of the Qurʾān, it is so difficult to stay focused. So this annual reminder that we get that is blessed, we should use it to stay focused on our main goal. And our main goal and the greatest thing we can get out of life is what comes after life, and that is paradise. We believe that there is a land in which fantasies become realities. We believe in a land in which dreams come true, wishes are granted. We believe that there exists a land in which there is no hardship, no dissatisfaction, no boredom, no sorrow, and no end. So Ramadan keeps us focused on this simple mission. Paradise is our goal, but with this distraction of the telephone, the internet, our jobs, our kids, our families, so many things around us, all of these things distract us many times from our greater mission. If they help us, that'd be great. The television, internet, etc. can help us focus on our goal. But many times, they become more of a distraction than a help.
Again, we mentioned the first point of helping ourselves grow spiritually is to realize and understand the importance of Ramadan and the purpose of our fast. Secondly we said that we need to ask ourselves: How do we view Ramadan, what does Ramadan mean to us? Are we truly understanding the purpose and the importance of the month of Ramadan?
3. The third point, also a simple point, is to remind ourselves of the virtues of Ramadan.
This will help us understand how important the month of Ramadan is, if we constantly remind ourselves of these virtues. There are so many ahadith and many verses also tell us about the importance of this pillar. Just to remind ourselves that this is a pillar of Islam, this is one of the things that Islam is established on shows us the great level and the virtue of the month of Ramadan
The first virtue that we can think of is that we understand that there are so many ahadith that tell us that Ramadan, fasting in the month of Ramadan is a means of forgiveness. This is one of our purposes in life, of course. That is to expiate our sins, that is to try to cleanse ourselves, to try to come to Allāh s with the cleanest soul. If we want to grow spiritually, we need to reflect upon the fact that Ramadan is a means for forgiveness. There are several ahadith that mention that. One of them is that that the prophet [saws] tells us that whoever observes the fast during the month of Ramadan out of sincere faith and hoping to be rewarded, then all of your past sins will be forgiven.
The Prophet [saws] even said May Allāh disgrace the one who reaches Ramadan and his sins are not forgiven. Obviously, for the one who fasts the month of Ramadan, it should be easy, or almost a given that your sins are forgiven, if the prophet [saws] made duaa against you.
Not only is it a means of having our sins forgiven, but it's also a means of having our supplications accepted. For one who fasts in the month of Ramadan, his supplications are more likely to be accepted. This is something, of course, that makes us more happy. All of us have supplications….we want to go to medical school, we want a beautiful and pious wife or husband.. a way to attain that and a way to increase the odds of your duaa being accepted, then fasting in the month of Ramadan and outside the month of Ramadan will help in that regard.
Likewise, on the Day of Judgment, we want to be safe. We want to make it to paradise as quickly and as safely as possible. We want to be among those people who experience no sorrow and no fear. The prophet [saws] told us that for those who fast, then the fast itself along with the Qurʾān will be an intercessor for you. It will talk on your behalf. It will tell Allāh to have mercy upon us because it kept us from our desires, it kept us away from our urge or our desire to eat and drink and of course we want something so noble to talk on our behalf. Again, it might sound simple, but remind yourself of that. When you think of that, it encourages you.
Just to make a sports analogy, that pep talk goes a long way. That pep talk at half time or on the court, it works. It charges them up. Even though many times the pep talks are a bunch of clichés. That reminder of success and what have you (and this is not true success) helps us. So don't belittle reading these ahadith again. I know sometimes people complain about the same hadith and things again. That's one of the beauties of Islam, that you constantly get reminded of things that you are forgetting. Again we get off track so easily. It's hard to stay focused. So we have to remind ourselves of these ahadith that we've heard over and over and over.
Just to make one quick point, I was told a story. I don't know if its true, when I was in Madīnah, one of the brothers told me that they had a khateeb who used to say the same khutbah over and over again. Meaning every Friday, he'd say the same khutbah. Eventually, the people say 'if this brother gives the same repetitive khutbah, we're going to tell him that he needs to change.' So sure enough, the next time it was his turn, he said the same khutbah. They said what they had promised. He said, “Let me ask you, did you act upon what I was saying?” and they held their heads down. So he was saying that the reason that he was repeating it is so that they can act upon it
Sometimes we've been hearing things over and over since our childhood but we haven't really acted about it
Two other points about virtues:
1- We are told that at the start of Ramadan, the gates of paradise are opened and the gates of hellfire are closed and the shayateen are tied up. And a caller cries out from the heavens, “Oh seeker of good come forward and oh seeker of evil, stay back.” So this gives us hope. The gates of paradise are open. It signals to us that there is hope, it signals to us to try hard. The shayateen are tied up. We know now that we have an easier battle. this should give us more hope to try harder. We're battling our own selves, we don't have so much weight pulling us down
2- Perhaps one of the greatest virtues is that we are told that in this month that comes once a year, that there is a night that is hidden in the last part of it. It's the last part so that we end the month of Ramadan with our greatest push, with our greatest charge and we begin Shawwal at a high.
Hajj is placed at the last part in the last month of the year. We end the Islamic calendar at a high and begin the new Islamic calendar at a high note. Again, this is something that we should reflect upon
We're told that there is a night of decree which is better than 1000 months. How many of us waste time, even though time is the most precious thing that we have? Even the busiest people in the world, I'm sure they somehow waste time. This is a means of somewhat compensating, of somewhat making up for the time that we lost. And a means of making heavy our scale of good deeds
When I think about it, is it really the jackpot that's there? Meaning Laylatul Qadr that is the virtue? Or is it the pursuit of the jackpot? Even if you pursue it, you're a winner. You cant lose. If you're at the end of the month of Ramadan, you're trying not just as hard as the beginning, but even harder. You're squeezing out the most, as the prophet [saws] did. He used to roll up his sleeves. This is what paradise takes.
Moving on to the last portion of how to grow spiritually from the month of Ramadan. I wanted to mention some specific acts that we should perform to derive spiritual growth. Many of these points are points that are talked about in the other challenges that the other speakers will talk about. The first of the specific actions that we should do and after we do them will increase our spiritual growth is reflection, thinking, pondering. Something very, very simple and basic but it's amazing. It's something that is lacking nowadays. So you find in the Qurʾān that nearly 1/8 of the Qurʾān is dedicated to urging the reader to reflect and think. One of the main topics that Allāh tells us to think about is the Qurʾān itself. Throughout the Qurʾān Allāh praises those who yasmaoon. Those who yatafakaruun, those who yatadabbaruun, those who yanzuroon, those who ya'qiloon, and on and on. Allāh is praising those who exercise their intellect.
Some scholars have said that tafakur is in and of itself a form of ibadah. Some have considered it one of the highest forms of ibadah. For example, Ibn al-Qayyim says, “Thinking for an hour is better than worship for many years.” And there are so many statements of the scholars saying that reflecting and thinking is more important than this explicit action of ibadah. Sometimes studying could be more beneficial than another act of worship. Of course, as I said, tafakur, or thinking in and of itself is an act of worship.
Some have went so far to say that it's obligatory for you to reflect and ponder over your recitation of the Qurʾān, over your dhikr of Allāh, over the things that you do.
If we think about our creation, we think about the sunset, we think about all these beautiful things that should really lead us to a high level of īmān. But that's only if we reflect. And one of the best things to reflect upon is the Qurʾān. When we read the Qurʾān, as Allāh says, it's a light, it's a source of guidance, it's a cure for all the ailments of the soul, the heart, and the body. The Qurʾān is amazing. It's the greatest of all miracles. It's a miracle that's in front of us. We haven't seen the miracle of the sea parting. We haven't seen the miracle of Isa resurrecting a man from the dead. We haven't seen all these great miracles, but we see the greatest of these miracles, which is the Qurʾān, it's right in front of us. But many times we don't recognize it for what is it. And we struggle with that. We may see Twilight or Harry Potter more entertaining than the Qurʾān if really don't focus on the Qurʾān. We're going to struggle to get to the level where we cant put it down. We have to struggle to get to the level where we understand that the Qurʾān is the speech of Allāh, the last communication to mankind
Allāh says about the Qurʾān, a very beautiful verse, and it helps clear up many misconceptions of the Qurʾān, Allāh says that this is a book which “We have sent down to you, full of blessings, that they may ponder over its verses and that men of understanding may remember.: So Allāh is telling the Prophet [saws] that this is one of the main reasons for the revelation of the Qurʾān. Even the prophet [saws] had added focus on the Qurʾān in the month of Ramadan. We should also, but we should understand that we must remember this goal of the Qurʾān.
Sheikh Sa'di has said that Allāh has made it clear in this verse that the first goal of the revelation is that its verses be pondered over. And pondering over the Qurʾān is the key to knowledge and understanding. From it, one can derive all good. And from such pondering, one's faith is increased. So reflect over the Qurʾān
The prayer is something that we should focus upon. Prayer is another act of worship that can become ritualistic. Routine helps you but you still have to constantly be in a state of reflection and contemplation. Of course prayer is the key to our success and it will be the first action that Allāh will judge. And if it is good, sound, and complete, then everything else will be sound, complete, and accepted.
The prophet [saws] tells us that whoever prays in the month of Ramadan at night, with īmān, and seeking Allāh's reward, he will have his sins forgiven.
Two more points before I conclude.
1 – Not only should we reflect and we should read the Qurʾān and make the recitation of the Qurʾān meaningful and focus on the prayer; but also, we should have thoughtful dhikr.
Meaning this mentioning of Allāh and this remembering of Allāh is a powerful thing. Unfortunately it's trivialized. Dhikr is done with the tongue, the heart, and the soul. This is one of the best things that we can do. Throughout the Qurʾān, Allāh is telling us to remember Him, to make mention of Him. Amazingly, this is one of the first things that we are ordered to do after Ramadan, is to make dhikr. Allahu Akbar Allahu Akbar Allahu Akbar Laillaha illala. We are making this dhikr. It has an impact on you, it makes you understand how great Allāh is, and it reminds you. And a sign of loving Allāh, no doubt, is that you make much mention of Him, for surely you do not love a thing except that you make much mention of it. Throughout the month of Ramadan, we should make sure that we are engaged in dhikr, and after Ramadan.
Qaadi Abu Bakr states that there is no good deed except with dhikr as a precondition for its validity, for its acceptance. And whoever does not remember Allāh in his heart at the time of his charity or fasting for example, then his deed is incomplete. Therefore dhikr is the best of deeds because of this. So here, we even see Qaadi Abu Bakr [rah] also talking about perhaps the Ramadan Muslim or the ritualistic Muslim. When you're fasting or giving charity, remember Allāh.
Ibnul Qayyim says about dhikr that “it is the food for the heart, the weapon by which one fights, the cure for the diseases, and the connection between the servant and his Lord.” So let us engage in thoughtful dhikr before Ramadan, during Ramadan, and after Ramadan and inshā'Allāh this will allow us to benefit more from the month of Ramadan
2 – The next point is that we need to encourage ourselves to be more generous and try to rid ourselves of greed and selfishness.
Allāh says more than once, “Whoever is saved from his own greed, these are those who are successful.” And of course we're looking for success all the time.
Success in Islam is found in helping others. You see so many verses and so many ahadith telling us to focus on others.
The Prophet [saws] said, “The best of people are those who bring the most benefit to others. The best among you are those who are best to their families. The best of people are those who are best at fulfilling the rights of people. the best of you are those who display the best character.” So becoming successful, becoming the best of Muslims is to care about the others sincerely and to benefit the society
One theologian said, “He who lives only to benefit himself, confers on the world a benefit when he dies.”
Lastly, I conclude by saying let us also focus on quality and not quantity. And if we do this, inshā'Allāh, then we not only will be on a path for spiritual growth, but it will be a sustained spiritual growth. As the prophet [saws] tells us that the most beloved deed to Allāh is that which is done consistently, even if it's trivial. So I think many times this is a common mistake, this is something that we need to be reminded of too, we focus on number. We focus on quantity and not the quality. I end this point by saying that you find the vast majority of the companions were not hufaaz of the Qurʾān because they focused on quality and not quantity. So they would take 10 verses at a time. They would understand the meaning, memorize them, and implement them. If we want success, we need to follow that format of those who were before us. And again, I think this is something that we need to be reminded of. With that, I conclude by asking Allāh to allow this Ramadan to be a Ramadan in which we really see significant spiritual growth and that this Ramadan is better than our previous Ramadan, even if its our 50th or 70th, it's still better. I think each one can be better. The 71st can be better than all the previous ones especially if we constantly remind ourselves of these points, and other points of course. JazakumAllah khair, Assalamu alaykum wa rahmatullah.