City of Brass

Blood Moon over Wisconsin by Kirby Wright on Flickr

Blood Moon over Madison by Kirby Wright on Flickr

This is a guest post by Samar Kaukab.

“Her antiquity in preceding and surviving succeeding tellurian generations: her nocturnal predominance: her satellitic dependence: her luminary reflection: her constancy under all her phases, rising and setting by her appointed times, waxing and waning: the forced invariability of her aspect: her indeterminate response to inaffirmative interrogation: her potency over effluent and refluent waters: her power to enamour, to mortify, to invest with beauty, to render insane, to incite to and aid delinquency: the tranquil inscrutability of her visage: the terribility of her isolated dominant resplendent propinquity: her omens of tempest and of calm: the stimulation of her light, her motion and her presence: the admonition of her craters, her arid seas, her silence: her splendour, when visible: her attraction, when invisible.” — James Joyce, Ulysses

By design, Ramadan moons are meant to illuminate truth. Spiritual understanding in this month arrives independent of where you started, where you ended, or even based on the quantity and quality of worship engaged.

In Ramadan, especially towards the end, you always find that you learn something, land somewhere, pinpoint something solid to hold onto and hope for. Yet, the atmospheric quality of Ramadan that brings us to these truths differs, summoning us every time to seek out some new process to “find Ramadan”. Sometimes, Ramadan feels fast – the days and nights move at a breakneck pace, leading discovery to be similarly efficient and swift. Sometimes Ramadan is lenient – halcyon days and tranquil nights uplift and revive at a downtempo pace like an elegant song that steadily trails into its crescendo.

This Ramadan didn’t follow any recognizable pattern. The month was flooded with a deluge of disruptive information and irreconcilable experiences. With 29 days gone by, the poetic slowness of what it means to fast (to abstain from elemental needs, abstain from food, abstain from drink, abstain from ill thoughts, abstain from coherence, to watch the clock for hours, to count the minutes, to note the days and nights in a way that the passing of time does not normally call for) was punctuated by the fast and ferocious. The beautiful and timely death of Muhammad Ali, the greatest heights we have seen of lived Islam in America, met the unsparing, grotesque horror of unimaginable, rapid fire violence and loss: Orlando, Chicago, the Mediterranean Sea, Yemen, Karachi, Mogadishu, Oaxaca, account after account of domestic and sexual violence, Istanbul, Chicago, Afghanistan, northern England, Dhaka, Baghdad, Chicago.

Light upon light; violence upon violence. Just as the moon appears larger near the horizon – an optical illusion playing tricks on our perception – truth also felt illusive, shattered into a million, crimson pieces. Slowness became fast.

In Ramadans past, the nights – and not bloodshed – were usually the inflection points. Night brought water, food, caffeine, and an oasis of coherence between long and sleepy days of deprivation. Night brought with it the seductiveness of redemption: prayer, focused desires, the distinction of and good conscious of feeling faithful. This year the inflection points have been chaotic waves of disruptive violence both near and far. This month the Ramadan moon’s magnificence shed light upon human darkness so great it scattered evil without the aid of any devil.

Lurking below the pursuit of seeking God this month has been something undeniably grotesque and frightening. Our impotent protests squashed, this faith of ours, this faith of many, this faith of more than a billion people continues to be branded with the madness, bloodshed, and violence of lost souls. Deep in the belly of the beast, we scream aloud that we are not of them, we are not like them, that violence hits us hardest but fewer and fewer listen. Further in, we point out that the violence of the ‘civilized’ is never measured, that the violent consequences of slavery, colonization, and the “new Jim Crow” is nothing new, never noticed even as it devastates many whose lives don’t seem to matter.

As another tree falls in the forest of our protests, violence continues to circle in on people who look like us, people who believe like us. As we seek and beg for protection from evil that cannot be chained, we are made conscious that far too many others see the devil when they see us. What a wretched fate. Are we really to find ourselves – let alone God – in this overwhelming sense of chaos?

And yet, in the incongruous fast and slow of this Ramadan, in this flood of digressive information, begins to surface a lesson I know I’ve seen before: within chaos lies unique strength. Maddeningly reductive storylines and popular, fear-based narratives coalesce with the freight-train momentum of crimson violence, unleashed bigotry, and the fear of uncertainty to bring a strange sort of spiritual climax – a magnified spiritual loneliness that could never be born out of order. This digressive course strangely brings us to what we hope most for in Ramadan, a pathway to God.

While the madness has been anything but a virtue for the suffering – what comes out of it is a beseeching like no other. Without the languid distraction of impeccable, immaculate, and easy to perform worship, a dynamic worship is possible. It is in these days that God and that which God loves becomes most magnetic.

Poets have written about this for centuries, before ink even existed. Great discovery arises out of chaos, from entering the space that is riskiest, least certain. Nothing that happens would have been possible without it, in fact. In chaos, lies another chance, coherence even. Stability flows out of disorder. The fleeting, the spectral, sheds light on the Eternal. It is of such moments – such times – that the thing is made in us that endures, that lasts, that brings us to eternity and God.

Chaos upon chaos; light upon Light. Freedom is the choice that arises out of rejecting enslavement and apathy. May our beseeching this Ramadan bring us to another more lasting place. This Ramadan, as in every Ramadan that came before and every Ramadan that will come after, the suffering and the spectacle are not for nothing. Tell God everything.

“You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.” (Friedrich Nietzsche)

Samar Kaukab is the Exective Director of Arete, a research accelerator at the University of Chicago. Passionate about the intersection between gender, Islam, and the lived experiences of Muslim women, she writes and serves on the Advisory Board for AltMuslimah. You can follow her on Twitter at @samarkaukab.

Related: Ibadat in Ramadan: process as piety

We have indeed revealed this (Message) in the Night of Power; And what will explain to thee what the night of Power is? The Night of Power is better than a thousand months. Therein come down the angels and the Spirit by Allah’s permission, on every errand of Peace. This until the rise of morn!

In just five brief verses, the Qur’an reveals the purpose of the Night of Power – an amplification of our ibadat at the very summit of Ramadan. We submit to its power as we stay awake all night in prayer and supplication – every act magnified a thousandfold. On this night, we are surrounded by Allah’s angels on their errands of peace, and our jihad is to strive to join them.

Ramadan is a journey, the spiritual analog to the physical journey of the Hajj. In Hajj we travel physically to the Plain of Arafat on the Day of Arafat, and in Ramadan we travel spiritually to an elevation of spirit on the Night of Power. We have prepared for the spiritual pilgrimage accordingly. The journey is not over, but the remaining time is precious, and wanes with the moon.

Laylatul Qadr mubarak to everyone! Please do remember me in your precious dua tonight.

ramadan masjid ibadat

Taken one year ago, during my first Ramadan in Los Angeles.

Example of Bhori thaal

Example of Bhori thaal

This is a guest post by Fatema Baldiwala.

Rushing to make it in time for all the deadlines that a mom of two busy teenagers has to meet, I have many times substituted quick, easy, convenient fast food substitutes for complete meals. Today was no exception, as I rushed to make it in time for maghrib namaaz; a protein bar was hurriedly placed in my boys’ hands. These meals are not the optimal nutrition that I want my kids to consume, but by default it is what we consume on the go.

Nutrition is something that’s very much in the forefront of my thoughts, when my stomach craves food in the fasting month of Ramadan. My kids are first generation Americans who do not have the cultural memory of food like I do: of home cooked meals, of steaming plates of spicy and tantalizing aromas that bring instant saliva to the mouth, of anticipatory forthcoming tastes, of warm pliable roti crumbling between the fingers, of the joys of communal eating with laughter of friends and family. In America, we have become consumers of “meal replacements”, fake duplicates that look like the real thing which promise all the nutrients that our body needs, yet cannot replace the real.

The irony of this situation hits me every time I enter the “jamaat khana”. The aromas are what assail me first, transporting me back to childhood memories of communal eating. The bhori thaal is resplendent with stacked food catering to our every taste. The goodness of the farm transformed into a variety of dishes, namely roti, curry, rice, and dessert, all downed with a sip of sparkling sherbet. Not only is the food tasty, home cooked, and nourishing, but is eaten leisurely amidst a small group of close friends sharing stories from their day and their lives.

Ifthari dinner begins with having a pinch of salt before starting on the three-course meal. Tradition believes that a pinch of salt will ward off 72 diseases. There is scientific truth in this as our bodies are constituted of salt and our very existence is founded on the discovery of salt. In ancient civilizations it was prized as much or even more than gold because of its medicinal and preservative values. After the pinch of salt comes the sweet dish. Sweetness is the most pleasing taste to the tongue and connotes an item as a rich source of energy. The sweet dish is followed by a meat curry. Curries are made by sautéed onion, garlic, and various spices. Chemists have identified this mix as containing powerful antibacterial components which can negate whatever dangerous bacteria there is left on meat. Furthermore, science has discovered a 5th taste, called “umami” which in Japanese means deliciousness. Curries are supposed to possess the taste of umami. Umami is identified in ripe tomatoes and onions, which are essential ingredients to curries. Umami works in synergy with other ingredients enhancing flavor and texture of a sauce. Curries are slowly cooked. The ingredients mix together in a huge closed pot, simmering gently, giving out its special welcoming aroma. Dinner ends as it started, with a pinch of salt.

Other Americans would marvel at this, first for our continuing tradition, of eating the same way as we have done from generation to generation, and at eating the same food, cooked the same way. Secondly, our choices are based on habit, culture, and taste rather than on any scientific research, as most American food with its extensive calorie count has become. Americans’ obsessive food neurosis has been influenced by a relatively newer field of food science that has overlapped their common sense and replaced traditional cultural food with inferior capitalistic-driven substitutes.

We Americans tend to be the unhealthiest people in the world. Diet-related diseases are an epidemic-sized issue for people living here. America has always been a country with choices, and we value choice over all else as evident by the sheer number of food varieties available. Furthermore, being a country of immigrants from all over the world, each immigrant community introducing it special dishes, we have a choice of cuisine from all over the world. The question, “what’s for dinner?” will usually elicit an array of varied choices, even if all of us are sitting down together for a meal. Even though each immigrant population has brought its own ways to the American table, none has been powerful enough to become the norm. The abundance in food choices has made us a country with no fixed cultural diet, which is ideal for the food industry.

The food industry benefits from having a demographic with no time to cook and a fading memory of their cultural food. The supermarkets are packed with aisle after aisle of quick meals from all over the world offering the convenience of being precooked and that can be consumed quickly. These meals have usually originated in a food scientist’s lab, rather than traditionally cooked and are processed chemical derivatives of the original. These substitutes or meal replacements may look and even smell like the home cooked version, but they leave you disillusioned after the first bite with a lingering aftertaste that leaves you unsatisfied.

In spite of technological advances, we are a population with less and less time on our hands. We are also a population vulnerable to particular fads exacerbated by the food industry (who are only interested in making a quick profit). Remember the famous Atkins diet, that created almost an overnight rejection of our most staple food, bread, and gave rise to a population of people suffering from carbophobia? Or the era when margarine outsold butter? Only to find out that margarine is one molecule away from a synthetic plastic and what we were spreading on our bread was a liquid form of plastic Tupperware. We go through oscillating ups and down, elevating one food, demonizing another till we are totally confused about what we should consume.

To the rescue of this confusion comes our Bhori thaal that encourages eating as a community. Where else can both the physical as well as the spiritual self come together as a whole? The starved body rejuvenates, taking comfort in our shared cultural heritage as we, as a people, partake of our ifthaar meal. We are thankful that at least in the evening, after a long summer day of fasting, we are blessed to be eating traditional foods that nourish not only our bodies but satisfies on a deeper level, awakening for an all too brief a moment a feeling of homecoming and belonging.

Fatima Baldiwala is a writer and a mother in Los Angeles.