Less than a year ago I was in Murree, Pakistan - tiptoeing up and down the steep steps meandering along its hills, posing for pictures with falcons and pure-white horses, sipping tea with the locals, and enjoying the distant view of the K2 Mountain. Today, I can only image how many of the men, women, and children I met there are still alive, and have food, water, and a roof over their heads. I also wonder what Ramadan is like for them now. When I am in class, or at work, and my body is fatigued and begging for food and water, I am able to remain calm and assure my body that when the sun goes down I will surely have food, water, and shelter. It is hard to even nibble my beloved dates knowing that in Pakistan, and in too many parts of the world for that matter, a father, mother, sister, child, or grandchild does not know when the next meal will arrive. Having so little, just the cool mountain air whisping into the rooms of their small home, the servants at my cousin's family's summer home graciously offered us tea and cookies in their finest china. Now, having everything, I am compelled to offer my help and possessions.
But in donating to Pakistan relief funds, and giving the obligatory Zakat for Eids, am I really sacrificing as much as they would and did for me? Buying tea and cookies, thanks to God, is a drop in the bucket for me. But for them the sacrifice is far greater. The people I met in Murree found ways to give charity in even the simplest daily activities. As I speed north, south, east, and west along Manhattan's sidewalks, I urge myself to slow down when I see a homeless person asking for money. Better yet, I try to always keep some spare change in my jeans pocket so that the time from the thought of giving money, to the moment when the cold metal or thin bills land in an old coffee cup, is as short as possible. In each second that passes as I struggle to dig change out of my closet of a purse, heart racing from rushing to get to class or work on time, Satan is feverishly pumping laziness and apathy into my mind so that I will abandon my search and pass by the person without a second thought. Even worse is when Satan tries to keep me from even stopping with excuses that the person has nice shoes on, smells like alcohol, doesn't look all that skinny, etc. I am not ashamed to reveal these thoughts. God allows man to exist on earth, knowing that Satan is always one step behind trying to trip us and make us lose our footing. But what I would be ashamed of is if I listened to those whispers and agreed with them. Moreover, if I allow my mind to remember them even with Satan is not around. With Satan locked away during Ramadan, it is the best time to look at myself and weed out all the evil thoughts that my mind has not yet shed. I want to clear out my soul and mind as thoroughly as I can by the end of Ramadan.
Learning to recognize frivolities, and realizing how little they weigh on the scale of necessities, is truly one of the main purposes of Ramadan. Yet I can't forget that there is a flip side to this lesson. Life goes on without such luxuries, but God has given me these luxuries for a reason, and there is nothing to be ashamed about for having them if I just enjoy them responsibly. I interpret the Qur'anic verses "Say I seek refuge with the Lord of the Dawn; From the mischief of created things." (113: 1-2) as a warning that the physical creations on this earth are blessings that must be handled carefully. When handled correctly, they can bring us closer to God. For example when I relax under the mustard, rouge, and tangerine shade of a fall tree, I thank God for creating such beauty. This beauty is not only a pleasure to live in, but is also a reminder of God's infinite power. We could not have imagined such beauty if God had not first created it. And this beauty, as extraordinary as it may seem, is nothing compared to the beauty of Heaven. In nature's beauty, I can see God. He is the chlorophyll draining away from the leaves, the bark, the roots, everything. But by focusing too much time, too many efforts in some of life's creations, I may actually be distracting myself from remembering God. With each creation, good or bad, there is the possibility to remember or forget God.
Charity follows these same principles. Although Ramadan is one of the most important times to give Zakat, or charity, I try to maintain the giving spirit throughout the entire year, regardless of how thin or fat my wallet is. With each extra bill God puts in my wallet is the chance to either be thankful for the bill and ask God how best to use it - giving it to charity, using it for myself, or using it for something that helps others, not just me - or the chance to think how much I need this bill and don't want to part with it. Ramadan highlights this tricky balance of how much to spend for my own needs, and how much for others. After all, what I "need," other than the basics of food water, health, shelter, cleanliness, etc., is subjective.