Make a black dot on white sheet and ask people what they see. "The black dot" is the invariable response. After the black dot of Sept. 11, the month of Ramadan is a time to focus on the white sheet.

My faith is not a huge black dot. Millions of Muslims like me will try to renew their relationship with God during this month--a period of fasting, prayer and reflection for Muslims worldwide. The month of Ramadan was a period when the Prophet Muhammad (May God's peace be upon him) regularly sought refuge in the mountains of Mecca from the social evils and injustices of Arab society before Islam. It was during one such sojourn in the Cave of Hira when he received the first of the Qur'anic revelations.

This Year Is Different

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  • Today is not yesterday. I do not have to be same person today who I was yesterday. Yesterday I ate when I was hungry; today I abstain and I base my decision to do so on something higher and deep within myself. My dependence is not on the material conditions around me or on the dominant social norms--however unjust or sexist these may be. My dependence is on the spirit of God that resides inside every human being.

    The previous Ramadan is not the same as this one. This year we approach God with a renewed desperation to find answers about faith in him can be used to sustain mass murderers on September 11th and why he allows the killing of innocents in Afghanistan as collateral damage. Last Ramadan, I kept on wondering about God's silence in the midst of suffering; this Ramadan, I may be more carefully tuned to the voice of God as He speaks to us precisely through the cries of the newly orphaned ones. Did the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) not say "The sun rises every morning with an announcement: Oh child of Adam, today is a new day; a new opportunity for you to do good."

    Thus is it with Ramadan; last year's has returned to God reporting on where it found and left us then; if last year's Ramadan saw me relating to all non-Muslims as the enemy, this one can find me more aware that there are good ones among them and some pretty nasty ones; just as I am ashamed of the Osama bin Ladens among us; they are ashamed of their own bin Ladens. If last Ramadan I believed that all women drivers are bad or that the only good Jew is a dead Jew; this Ramadan must see me at a different place. Neither women nor Jews plunged those planes into Twin Towers, nor did they order the bombing of Afghanistan.

    We are to learn discipline, patience, and sacrifice during this month. When someone seeks to pick an argument with you, say, "I am fasting," said the Prophet. While we fast in order to attain the pleasure of God, how we conduct ourselves during this month is pretty much about how we relate to other people.

    At a personal level, this means that I can no longer say that I became angry with my brother because he wore my shirt, that I was nasty toward an acquaintance because she's always unpleasant toward me. Oh no! I became angry because I decided to, I was nasty towards her because I decided to be.

    Far from suggesting that we should never become angry or display resentment, I am only saying that we are free to decide on our responses and then own them as ours. I may not choose the hunger in my stomach or may not be able to avoid the sight of cookies in the shop windows. I can choose my response to these.

    When I am hungry during the day, I decide not to eat. When I thirst, I decide not to drink. The presence of hunger or thirst in my body on the one hand, and that of food and drink in the house on the other, does not compel me to do the obvious. I am free to break free from the obvious.

    Besides freedom from the obvious, Ramadan will teach me about my own vulnerability and my dependence on the grace of God and, hopefully, it will also strip me of my self-righteousness and delusions that only I and my flock are entitled to God's grace.

    During this period, the most sacred month in the Islamic calendar, most Muslims feel a close affinity with God. We believe it is a period wherein the door of God's grace is especially widened. Not entirely unrelated to this is the fact that our hearts and pockets are also expanded towards those less fortunate than some of us. Our own abstinence from food and drink enables us to identify with the hungry in some small measure. It is also the month wherein, customarily, we pay the annual religious tax, the zakah.

    What's the big deal about this period? "Why can't you folks be like this all the time?" one may ask.

    Quite simply, the human condition. We are unable to sustain the level of heightened God consciousness throughout the year. If we were able to do so, then Ramadan would no longer be Ramadan. If summer existed without winter then it would just have been known as "time" and not as summer. Let us not ask why it can't be summer all the time. Rather ask, "What do I need to do in the summer to thoroughly enjoy it, yet always keep an eye on preparing for the winter?"

    Boats are safe in the harbour, and it's tempting to want to hang around there permanently, but that's not exactly what boats are made for. The month of Ramadan is the period wherein we return to our harbours, to repair our weather-beaten souls and to prepare for the next lap of our struggle to reach closer union with God, with our higher selves, with nature, and with other human beings.

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