Imam Khalid Latif is blogging his reflections during the month of Ramadan for the third year in a row, featured daily on HuffPost Religion. For a complete record of his previous posts, click over to the Islamic Center at New York University or visit his author page, and to follow along with the rest of his reflections, sign up for an author email alert above, visit his Facebook page or follow him on Twitter.
In my freshman year of college, Ramadan was in the Winter. Immediately after my last exam, I took a train back to NJ, dropped some things off at my parent's house, and went to our local mosque where I intended to spend the last week or so in the masjid for a practice called Itikaf.
Narrated Abdullah bin Umar: Allah's Apostle used to practise Itikaf in the last ten days of the month of Ramadan.
The word itikaf itself denotes "remaining" in a place and when referred to as a practice undertaken by many during the last 10 nights of Ramadan (as well as other times of the year), it refers to an individual's spiritual retreat to the mosque. The idea is to remove oneself completely from the world and focus on the development of one's relationship with the Divine. Leaving behind the pursuit of the material and everything that comes with it while pursuing acts of worship, moments of reflection, and congregational and individual prayer in hopes of rooting the heart in a state of tranquility.
I don't think I'll ever forget the time I spent in Itikaf that year. The moment I felt its impact the most was the minute I left from the mosque and stepped into the world again. Things that I had seen almost every day of my life prior to that day now looked different, not because they were different, but because the eyes that I was looking at them with now saw things differently. Issues that I was facing at the time became easier to deal with. The tiredness that those issues burdened me with was lifted as I felt a different sense of strength from my spirit. In these last 10 days of Ramadan, I would highly encourage anyone who can to take time off and engage in the practice of Itikaf, even if it's just for a night. If you cannot complete 10 days, it doesn't mean that you shouldn't do at least one or what you are able to do.
At times we don't realize how hard our hearts have become. The gradual process of a subtle bitterness enveloping them coupled with an absence of regular and consistent times for self-reflection and self-care lends us towards a lot of heaviness on our insides. The pursuit of complacency becomes our goal rather than the pursuit of contentment and we sacrifice things that would bring us everlasting comfort in pursuit of those things that simply give us the facade of comfort.
Even if you are not able to perform itikaf this year, take the time to reflect on your inside. Acknowledging the presence of a certain hardness is the first step in eliminating it.
Dhu-nun al Misri, a 9th century Egyptian Muslim scholar known for his teachings around the development of the soul and the purification of the heart, gives a profound advice to the seeker of internal peace on how to deal with the hardening of the heart.
Idha aradta an tadhaba kasaawatu qalbik, fa adimis siyaam.
If you desire that hardness of your heart leaves you, then endure fasting.
Two thirds of this month have passed now and for those who have observed it, whether you are Muslim or not, the gains are evident. The emphasis on enduring the fast renders us to move beyond simply the physical aspects of it and go in the direction of a spiritual fast. A fast from complaining, a fast from thinking ill of others, a fast from thinking ill of ourselves, a fast from coarse language and harsh speech, a fast that's focus is not on food or drink, but how the absence of those things leads towards the development of a strong heart. That's the fast that we should strive for - one that moves beyond not feeding our bodies and focuses more on feeding our souls.
wa idha wajadta kasaawatan, fa atlil qiyaam
and if you still find the hardness, then make longer standing (at night for prayer.)
The assumption here is that one is already standing during the nights in prayer, and can thus increase its length. If we are not amongst those who take moments out of our days and nights to engage in reflection, it's a practice that we should definitely start to observe. The impact may not be felt just through a day's observance, although it could be. Let it be a regular and consistent practice that allows for the harshness and monotony of the day to be separated from the blessings and gains of the day so that understanding of one's self and one's needs can reach its full potential and the heart can do nothing but soften.
wa idha wajadta kasaawatan, fa zaril haraam
and if you still find hardness, then refrain from that which is prohibited
Limits that have been set shouldn't be transgressed, for no other reason than the individual carrying that out is the one losing the most. At times we get stuck in an argument rooted in validation. I am focused on proving that even though I do something haraam, it doesn't make me a bad person. By taking this frame of mind, we prevent ourselves from really reflecting on the impact the action itself is having on us. What you are doing might not have a impact on the world around you, but its having an impact on the world inside of you and that's not a place you want to forget. And just as drinking alcohol, eating pork, and committing zina is haraam, so to lying, cheating, backbiting, and other things that deal with our character is also haraam. Struggling against them is better than not doing anything at all. The companion of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, who struggled with drinking alcohol was still deemed to be one who loved God and His Messenger by the Prophet himself. He struggled though and tried to break away from it. We should follow suit and do our best as well.
wa idha wajadta kasaawatan, fa silil arham
and if you still find hardness, then connect the bonds of kinship
In NYC where I live it's really easy to forget people. Society itself feeds us with ideas rooted in individualism and we absorb all of them. Days, weeks, even months go by without us being in touch with relatives, close kin, even parents and siblings. Unreconciled emotion from a falling out begins to encrust our hearts with a sourness that lends to think of where we were wronged and potentially not where we might have done wrong. This is not to say that every breaking of relationship is unjustified. I've seen a lot of atrocious behavior within families, some of which necessitate bonds being severed. A father who beats his daughter, an aunt who molests her nephew, a mother who is aware and pretends like nothing happened, these things happen in the Muslim community. But for many of us, we are not in those situations, yet we do not maintain the ties that we should and it takes very little for to justify why we don't. Forgivness is also not always for the one being forgiven, but moreso for the forgiver. It's not good to carry that kind of toxicity inside and better to get rid of it. Mend relationships and establish ties to those who you have left behind.
wa idha wajadta kasaawatan, fa altif bil aytaam
and if you still find hardness, then be gentle with the orphan.
The literal sense of this is just as important and the broader sense. My reflection from a couple of days ago discussed my thoughts on the importance of taking care of orphans, etc. so I won't reiterate here. More broadly the idea of demonstrating gentleness and kindness, especially towards those who are in need, will definitely eliminate hardness from the heart. Do your best to actually experience that kind of service first-hand. There is a benefit in punching your credit card number onto a website and donating money, but there is also a benefit in experiencing firsthand serving someone else. How could your heart not tremble by being privileged to help a person in need?
Our hearts are important and unfortunately we tend to feed every other part of our beings other than them. Use these last 10 days wisely and make sure to spend sometime of it on the development of your internal. For those who are in NYC, we will be hosting the 2nd Annual ICNYU Ramadan Grand Qiyaam, an all night prayer service, on Saturday, August 3rd starting at 10:00 p.m. and ending on Sunday, August 4th at 5:00am. It's open to everyone and will be held this year at the Judson Memorial Church across the street from the Islamic Center's facilities to better accommodate the large number of people we are expecting. Feel free to join us if you are in the area.