I’m going to start with a grandiose statement, but I stand behind it: The biggest problem in our world today is that Muslims have a warped view of their Creator, Sustainer, and Lord.
Everything to do with God is fraught with feelings of guilt, performance anxiety, and fear. That includes Ramadan. We are true materialists, like everyone else in our time.
We believe in 1 plus 1 equals two, and forget about the role of the One.
Our calculations don’t factor in the miracles, rewards and blessings that He offers without count. We are unable to comprehend the blessings that aren’t the result of our own deeds – because we project our materialist mindset onto God.
We think that it’s all about cause and effect, input and output: input some deeds, get the output of reward from God.
We treat God like a banker managing our bank account.
This is why many of us are upset when we can’t fast or perform ritual prayers during the month of Ramadan. We believe we have lost something weighty and irretrievable. We believe we are being deprived of a great benefit.
When we are unable to fast due to sickness, travel, or menstruation, there is a loss in the performance of an action, but is God really depriving us?
The story is so much bigger. The Goodness of God is so much wider and more generous than our limited accounting. Before you allow yourself to feel sorrow at not being able to fast or pray, first check to see if this circumstance of yours has affected the true Reality of things.
What do I mean by “the true Reality of things?” I mean that unseen realm that is the realm of God’s Grace, His Prophets, His Angels, His Blessings, His Rewards, His Love and Forgiveness. This invisible reality is sometimes undeniably, clearly, manifested in our seen realm, but most of the time it is the unseen truth that courses through it. Only someone pointing it out to you, or you having a trained inner eye, will allow you to perceive it regularly.
It is in that Reality that the deeds you do are celebrated, accepted, rewarded…And in that Reality, when you cannot fast or pray because of your circumstances, nothing is any different than it would be if you were actually fasting and praying.
Listen to this: the Beautiful Guide peace be upon him tells us about a person who dedicated himself to performing an act of worship regularly, but one day, could not do it for a reason beyond his control such as sickness or fatigue. The Prophet says that the Angels are commanded by God to write in that person’s book of deeds a full record of the action, and God Most High grants him the reward for it, as if he had done it – even though he didn’t do it. We understand that this Grace is bestowed upon the man because he would have, if he could have, done the action he was dedicated to perform.
He would have, if he could have, but he couldn’t, so he didn’t. Isn’t that your state sometimes? This is the reality that matters to God. Not the outcome, but the intention. The least important part in that sentence, in God’s Sight, is “he didn’t.” It’s enough for our Generous Lord that you would have, if you could have. Isn’t that you, when you are sick or menstruating?
From this blessed teaching, the Gentle Guide, peace be upon him, lifts the burden of loss, lights the way to joy, and most importantly, helps us understand Who our Lord is.
We also have been taught by the Beloved, peace be upon him, that whoever intends a good action, but does not end up doing it, has it recorded in his book of deeds as a complete action.
In Ramadan, teaches our Guide, peace be upon him, a fasting person’s sleep is considered worship, and their silence is considered tasbeeh(praising of God) – even when the person has no intention to worship God through that sleep or silence. This teaching of the Generous Prophet, peace be upon him, shows that even effortless actions such as sleeping and silence, not normally in the repertoire of what we consider “worship” – and in this case, not even accompanied by an intention of worshipping God through them – are still considered by God as acts of worship. And our Teachers have explained that this blessing, as well as others like it which are for the fasting person, extend equally to anyone who would have liked to fast in Ramadan, but cannot.
God Really is that Nice
These teachings of our Beloved Prophet, peace be upon him, mean that you can actually be happy even when you are not performing at top level. Yet so many Muslims have a hard time accepting that God’s Grace and reward encompass you even when you are not doing a whole host of deeds….
It is such a painful experience to meet so many dedicated Muslims today who have a profoundly negative vision of God – as someone who is ready at a moment to withdraw all good from them. How can you who worships God, that is, you who adores God (for that is the meaning of worship) – accept to believe that He’d put you in a situation beyond your control, rendering you unable to perform, only to then deny you the rewards of performance? That He’d give you an illness or circumstance not in your hands, and take out of those hands the spiritual blessings of the religious rites you are now not able to do? That’s not the God I know.
We need to question the view we have fostered in our hearts towards God. This view is of God as taskmaster. There are a whole list of tasks He’s waiting to see how we perform on…and if we can’t do the task, or don’t excel at it, He will withdraw His Grace. Such a view requires of us continuous and perfect action. It requires continuous and perfect good health. And the fruits of this view are sorrow, sadness, and despair when ill health or incapacity visit us. It’s this view that makes us mourn as a great loss our inability to fast and perform ritual prayer when sick or menstruating. What a sad state to waste tears on a loss that is only imaginary, a product of our small-minded thinking that fails to grasp God’s Vast Generosity!
Sadly, when it comes to God, we are very quick to assume the worst. We easily assume He is depriving us of this or that blessing or reward or opportunity. This is why it’s so easy to fall into the trap of believing that we are losing a chance to get closer to Him when we cannot do certain actions due to fatigue, sickness or menstruation. But how could this be? How could we believe this if we believe in God being all the things He says He is: Generous, Unconditionally Loving, Giving, Bestowing of all Good, Forgiving, Overlooking, Compassionate…God is not saying He is all these things conditional upon our hard work in the realm of deeds. He is, Indepently of us and our deeds, all these things, always! Glory be to Him.
Prayer and worship of God go far beyond the actions of fasting and performing the ritual prayer. Prayer of God is as wide as the sea…and you can be in prayer even when you are sick or menstruating. Because prayer is this: adoration of His Great and Beautiful Characteristics, contentment with His choices for us, hope in Him, trust of Him, and gratitude towards Him. None of these things is ever inaccessible to us, and it is these things we are invited to give life to, especially when we are not able to do the traditional actions we are accustomed to. Contentment with God’s choices for us, hope in Him, trust of Him, and gratitude towards Him are all extremely important aspects of iman, as mentioned in the Quran. If these essences are not present in our acts of worship such as the fasting and ritual prayer, then our acts of worship have no meaning. And if they are present, then even when the body that carried them – the acts of worship – is taken away, they will still be there. That spirit of connection to God will still be strong and alive. Our adoration of Him, our Awe at His Greatness, our deep and tender appreciation of His Kindness, our calling out to Him in need and vulnerability, all this will flow on, regardless of our ability to perform certain actions. Our hearts will continue to sing their songs to Him.
Accept His Love
From one of my Teachers, a Hafiza of Quran and doctor of Sharia – but most importantly one who has a healthy relationship with God, I learned:
Not only do we not lose anything when God asks us to not fast when we are sick or menstruating, but He actually is treating us with care and concern, doting upon us like a protective Mother over her beloved child. God is treating us with tenderness, love, and care. It’s the most beautiful expression of deep and personalized affection. How could we have turned this into a reason to be sad and feel left out? When we are unable to fast like everyone else in Ramadan, or pray the ritual prayer during the last ten days…we are not left out, we are deeply in – in His care.
Joy in this experience of being lovingly privileged by Him with special treatment during our times of sickness, menstruation, or travel should replace our sense of deprivation. (Yes, the experience of illness can be very hard physically, and none of this is to deny that fact, but we must never lose sight of His presence with us through it. For a beautiful reflection on this, please see this article.) While God has privileged us by lovingly lifting from us the expectation of physical actions as means to rewards, He has not lifted from us the rewards.
This is not just a mind-game; we are not just adopting a positive spin on things to trick ourselves into believing they are good. It is actually an act of worship – because to see God and what comes from Him as good is a form of worship called “husn-ath-thann fIllah.” The Beloved Guide, peace be upon him, teaches us to always see what comes from God in the best light, and that the ability to do so is the highest quality one could possess.
“But I want to fast, I don’t want just the reward!”
We feel happy when we land a job with good benefits. Being able to take paid sick leave is one of them. Why, then, is it so hard to conceive that God could give us the same when we are sick or unable to do certain religious rites? Would He really be less compassionate than the early unions who fought for this right for workers? And why is it so hard for us to graciously accept this benefit from Him when we’d receive similar benefits with true gratitude in our work lives?
You might answer, “because fasting is not ‘work’ for me – I actually enjoy it – that’s why I feel sad that I can’t do it.” Let me respond by asking a few questions:
What do we love more: the fasting, or the One for Whom we are fasting? What are we more attached to, the action of fasting, or Allah? What do we value more, the deeds we do/don’t do, or the larger relationship that gives meaning to those deeds?
We need to learn to value our relationship with Him more than the actions we do or don’t do in that relationship. The tone of the relationship is set by our attitudes more than our actions. We all know people who do everything right for their loved ones, but who do so with a bad attitude. Who do a multitude of admirable tasks, but who don’t provide a feeling of affection to the ones for whom they are, ostensibly, doing those deeds. Such relationships suffer.
Within our relationship with Him, we need to learn to accept His tender loving care; if He has asked us not to fast, this is Him saying: Let me make things easier for you, My beloved. Don’t say: no thanks, I know how to look after myself…. Do you really want to reject a gift coming from God? Even if you think you are capable, for example when you are menstruating but feel strong enough to fast – still, take the opportunity to learn good manners with God. It’s more important to accept His grace than to do an action out of your own sheer desire.
When a sick person says that they are unable to do certain actions due to their sickness, but also says they are unhappy that they can’t do those deeds, it’s cause for concern. While it is healthy to “miss” those deeds, it is not healthy to be unhappy. Because it means we are not accepting of and satisfied with the situation He has given us. We must do all we can to preserve a state of satisfaction with God’s choices for us. This satisfaction is more imporant than any deed.
Beautiful acceptance of our circumstances, and receiving God’s loving care with grace, open new doors to new and unique rewards. When we are sick or menstruating, every time you eat and drink, you are doing what He has asked you to do in that moment, and thus gaining reward.
Attitude check: Do we have an abiding sense of gratitude for being in a relationship with Him? Do we really see Who we are in a relationship with, in the way He wants us to see Him? Do we accept His care and love, or do we think we know better and can handle all things on our own? When we fall sick, do we feel He has abandoned us somehow? Do we resent His choice to give us sickness?
I’m asking these questions to get at the heart of the real sickness here. The actual sickness and real incapacity are not those which prevent us from doing the actions of the fast and the ritual prayer, but those which eat away at our sense of joy in being God’s cared-for creatures and knowing He is here for us, in sickness and in health, forever. It’s a bond far more subtle and abiding than any marriage vow, a bond stronger than that of Mother to child. It’s the commitment of the Creator to His creation.
This Ramadan, don’t lace your actions with the poisons of pride or sense of accomplishment. And don’t lace your non-action with the poisons of resentment or reproach of yourself or God. Absence of action can also be blessed and rewarded…when accompanied with humility and love of God.
This Ramadan, let’s remember that the fast was never about hunger and thirst, but about something much greater and something you can reach even without actions – taqwa: mindfulness of God. Let’s become mindful of Him, aware of His Great Goodness towards us. Let us ask Him for healing for our incapacity to see, receive, and rejoice in His amazing Grace.
This Ramadan, I challenge you to rejoice, relax, and resplend. Rejoice in the Reality of things: a Ramadan bounty and reward that are freely given without condition. Relax in His care, a manifestation of how aware He is of your needs and how Protectively He shelters you in your weakness. Resplend with the joy of being in this relationship with Him.
If we cannot fast or do the ritual prayer, let’s embrace that as tenderness, love and care from our Lord. Smile when it happens. Accept all His gifts joyfully, without protesting that you did nothing to deserve them. Of course you did nothing to deserve them. He’s just that Nice.
Let me finish by saying that none of this is to diminish the reality of physical and mental pain and suffering that are a part of illness. But know that God is with the one who is sick, weakened, and suffering, and that that state is already a spiritually-uplifting state, even if it does not appear that way to us. We do not need to complicate our illness by also becoming spiritually sick….For those who are experiencing great pain due to their illness, may they not exacerbate that pain by also feeling abandoned by God. It’s just not true.
“Show me where it hurts, God said, and every cell in my body burst into tears before His tender eyes. He has repaid me though for all my suffering in a way I never wanted: The sun is now in homage to my face, because it knows I have seen God. But that was not His payment. The soul cannot describe His gift. I just spoke about the sun like that because I like beautiful words, and because it is true: Creation is in homage to us.” – Sayyida Rabia of Basra