As Muslims, we are acutely aware of time, and no more so than during Ramaḍān. Memes and jokes abound about the close attention (up to the second?) to when Fajr and Maghrib come in during Ramaḍān, while most of us only have a rough sense in other months of the Islamic calendar. Believers who observe prayer times are cognizant of the movements of the sun, planning our days around our scheduled meetings with God.
Those who observe fasting are also attentive to the moon and its cycles that determine lunar monthly progress. Mosque-goers tally the days of the week before Jumu’ah returns, and women track their monthly cycles for prayer, fasting, and pregnancy. We anticipate the annual feasts of ‘Eīd al-Fiṭr and ‘Eīd al-Aḍḥā, and look forward to the day when we, too, can go on Hajj. Parents watch the years fly by as their children reach puberty, complete their education, get married, and have children of their own. Those very children eventually witness their parents’ time on earth come to an end, returning their bodies, liberated of souls, to God’s earth.
As believers, we wait expectantly for the Final Inevitable Day when all that was said and done is taken to account, before a timeless eternity awaits us. From the unveiling of sunrise to the shrouding of the kafan, we measure our time by countless metrics and plan our busy, beautiful lives.
Time and Accountability
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In the midst of these rhythms of time, central to the human condition is forgetfulness, getting lost in our thoughts, distracted by different forces competing for our attention. Whether or not we accept the Arabic root of insān as forgetfulness, we do know that the Qur’ān is a reminder to humanity of the eternal reality of God and the primordial reality of exclusive, subservient dedication to God. Among the many questions the Qur’ān asks of us, prompting introspection and honesty, is the question of time: How do we spend it? Further, in the ways we do spend it, are we living by the guidance God has given us. Put differently, is there any time we are not supposed to have taqwā, or a consciousness of God that inspires both hope and personal accountability? The short answer is: there is no time or context.
The beauty of recognizing the truth of Islam is a consciousness of God that enlivens and enlightens the believer’s heart in every moment, no matter how we spend our time. We know that beautification and perfection of faith and subservience to God is described as consciousness of God in the Ḥadīth of Jibrīl “to worship Allah as if you see Him, and if you do not achieve this state of devotion, then (take it for granted that) Allah sees you.” [Sahih al-Bukhari 4777] While that consciousness may start in the mind and fill one’s heart, it also extends to one’s tongue and limbs outside of formal “worship.”
Orientation Towards Taqwā
When we speak with taqwā, we consciously speak truthfully and tactfully – to use and choose our words thoughtfully, that we may be accurate in our content while we strive to be understood by our listener. When our limbs move with taqwā, we walk humbly upon the earth, consciously extending mercy and securing justice in every interaction we have: whether it be something as small as escorting a lost insect outside (instead of simply smushing it), to something as large and complex as interpersonal transactions and international relations that require sustained trust and coordinated accountability. This very tension between extending mercy and executing justice is central to Who God tells us He is, how He explains the world around us, and the history of Prophethood. This tension has also inspired vigorous scholarly debate for over a thousand years. The pursuit of godliness is lifelong – orienting ourselves by the Qur’ān towards God in every context.
Beyond simple belief, however, we see that wisdom in faith is knowing not only when, but how, to determine the best course of action at hand. Taqwā comes in to play when we make our decisions based on the simple question, “What does God want from me?” The answer is not always straightforward, and can require some reflection. In seeking to make an informed decision, we do our research. What do I know about this particular issue? What are the Qur’ānic verses and Prophetic examples I know that weigh in on this question? How have trusted scholars analyzed this issue and what thoughtful conclusions have they come to? Most of us have a better grasp on our first instincts (usually based on previous similar situations, emotional reactions, or logical impulses), what our families have taught us, what our friends or community will think, what Muslim Twitter agrees upon at the moment, or what the white gaze accepts, tolerates, or enforces. It is natural and normal to be socialized into a web of competing opinions and to have this variety of influences speaking to our hearts and minds. A commitment to taqwā, or a muttaqī outlook, however, will always bring the fullness of God’s guidance and the Prophetic example into the conversations we have with ourselves.
Dīn and Duniyā
One of the most difficult parts of living a muttaqī life is working with the frames around us that seek to curtail a Godly perspective. One of the most common frames is a binary between dīn (often translated as religion) and duniyā (often translated as worldly pursuits, primarily material wealth). In popular Muslim discourse, this binary has two reasonable origins: 1) Islamic scholarship and 2) Western secularism. On the one hand, we do hear Muslims scholars throughout history referring to‘ibādah, or matters of a person’s interactions with God, and mu’amalāt, or matters of interpersonal interactions among people. ‘Ibādah is usually translated into English as “worship” and covers a wide range of topics we associate with the five pillars of Islam and their conditions: Witnessing to the Oneness of God and the Prophethood of Muḥammad , Ritual Prayer, Purifying Redistribution of Wealth, Fasting during the month of Ramaḍān, and the once-in-a-lifetime Pilgrimage to Mecca. Mu’amalāt, on the other hand, primarily have to do with legal contracts we may be more familiar with in secular law: family issues (marriage, divorce, and inheritance), business transactions, property ownership, etc. The purpose of this distinction in the history of Muslim scholarship was merely one of academic convenience – a type of categorization that served its purpose for the specialization of labor in scholarship.
The scholars did not restrict Qur’ānic and Prophetic guidance from weighing in on matters of mu’amalāt, but they also took local context into consideration for the purpose of justice, equity, relevance, and practical application. It was never suggested that Qur’ānic and Prophetic guidance did not speak directly to matters of mu’amalāt or that pursuits of profit or material wealth would not be directed by Qur’ānic and Prophetic guidance. The precedent for “dīn” vs. “duniya” in the Islamic tradition had more to do with the object of our interaction or relationship: are we dealing directly with God or are we dealing primarily with other humans (and the environment)? Our dealings with beings other than God never are divorced from our commitments to God, nor are our relationships with God wholly unrelated to how we approach our relationships with others.
Effect of External Interventions on Religiosity
On the other hand, we see that colonial interventions on Sharīʿah have imposed European visions of secularism on Islamic legal structures: from stagnating the process of fatāwā (legal rulings) and crystalizing a narrow range of legal decisions to be enforced by the state, to dictating narrowly conceived state enforcement of mu’amalāt. In the West in particular, “Islam” has become a cultural identity in which Muslim life is a matter of idiosyncratic ritual. In other words, the privatization and relativization of ‘ibādah has diminished prayer, fasting, etc. as real metrics of our time. These empty movements of limbs and tongues can be inserted haphazardly between classes, meetings, or feeding your child, the more pressing priorities that structure our lives. The de facto metrics we use to measure our life are the Coordinated Universal Time (the new Greenwich Mean Time), the trajectories of educational institutions
(grade levels and higher education), the rush to gainful employment and marriage (and in that order!), and the biological clock that signals the end of ideal female fertility (rather than the beginning). When the secular measure of time frames our planning, we seek to carve out sparse moments for our personal, private religiosity.
We often hear the call to plan our days around ṣalāh or our work hours around Jumu’ah, but what would it look like if we planned our whole lives around what God wants from us? What would a truly godly life look like for you, extending past Ramaḍān? Ramaḍān is the month of taqwā, in which our restraint from consuming the ḥalāl forces a reanalysis of our time, energy, and efforts that are often driven by consumption. This Ramaḍān, I invite you to rethink time in your life, not just for the month. What might a life of taqwā look like? How would you structure and measure your time? How would you spend your time?
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