Ramadan: Finding the Light in One’s Heart
Ramadan: Finding the Light in One’s Heart
Professor Nazeer Ahmed
There is in every heart a divine light. Every human being is born with it. It comes to him with the spirit that Allah breathes into him. And yet, humankind is lost, occupied with the trivial and the useless. It has forgotten that Light that is bestowed upon him by Divine command. Ramadan is the month to rediscover that Light.
In America, we are gratified that people of other faiths join us in celebrating Ramadan. That is beautiful. It must be encouraged. And we must reciprocate. We, as human beings are interconnected in a web of relationships. We have many identities but the basic identity that we share is one of our common humanity. It is tragic that humankind has forsaken that identify and defines itself in compartments that limit its humanity, in terms of race, religion, culture, origin, color, language and sect. It has forgotten the focus of the interconnecting web, namely, the common origin of all men and women.
Ramadan can be looked at from many different perspectives. Scholars with many different schools of thought have illuminated us as to what the meaning of Ramadan is. I will venture to offer here some other perspectives. As a space scientist, we use a term called the Signal to Noise Ratio. You design a satellite or some space sensor that acquires a target, we talk about Signal to Noise Ratio. For instance, you design a telescope that looks at a distant star. Not all the input that comes to you is a signal. There is noise that comes to you from multiple sources. Similarly, human beings have a Signal to Noise Ratio. The Signal is the input that comes to you from the light in your heart. Unfortunately, that signal is lost, overwhelmed by noises. We will talk about how in the month of Ramadan we strive to contain and overcome those noises.
Another perspective is to look at it from the point of view of optics. Optics is about mirrors. The more perfect a mirror, the greater the signal, the lesser the noise and the farther you can see. For instance, the mirrors in the Hubble Space Telescope can acquire a star of magnitude 8, almost at the edge of the galaxy.
It is similar with the heart. The more perfect the heart, the greater the signal that comes to you from the light that Allah has bestowed upon you. That is the meaning of “qalb e saleem”, a sound or perfect heart. The heart of a prophet is without blemish. It is perfect and is capable of receiving the light, the revelation that comes to it as Divine Guidance. It also explains the hidden meaning of the parable about the angel Gabriel (Jibreel) opening up the bosom of Prophet Muhammed (pbuh), removing a dot from his heart and washing it in heavenly waters prior to the revelation of the Qur’an.
Every human being, be he a Muslim, a Christian, a Jew, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Zoroastrian, a believer or a disbeliever has that light except that we as human beings lose sight of that light as it is overwhelmed by extraneous noise.
A third way to look at Ramadan is that it is a month of reminder. It is a characteristic of us human beings that we forget and have to be reminded again and again. There was an occasion when all of us, from Adam to the last human who will walk on earth, stood in Divine presence, and He asked, “Al Astu Bi Rabbikum” (Am I not your Creator, Sustainer and Cherisher?). “Qaloo. Bala’” (They said, yes indeed!). Bala’ has two meanings. It means, yes, indeed. But it also means a challenge, an affliction. Therein was a compact between man and God and with it mankind took on a Trust. The Qur’an expounds on the Trust: “We did indeed offer the Trust to the Heavens, the Mountains and the Earth. But they declined, being afraid thereof. Mankind accepted it. Indeed, he exceeded the bounds and was foolish”. What is that Trust? People say, “We are trustees of the earth. We are trustees of the environment. We are trustees of the plants and the animals. We are trustees of wealth, and so on”. These are all approximations. Trust refers to that one thing that only human beings possess, which is the Spirit (the Ruh) that is given to us at birth. That is the real Trust. It is through that Trust that we receive life, knowledge and power. And from this Trust emerge all the other trusts. Yes, indeed, we are trustees of the earth but we carry that trust only because we are given that Spirit. If we did not have that Spirit, we would not be human beings. The gift of the Spirit bestows upon humankind power over the heavens and the earth.
Allah offered that Trust to the heavens and the mountains and the earth, but they declined, because they did not have the capability to carry it. But, to quote Mevlana Rumi, drunk as humankind was with the love of God, it accepted that Trust. Love had overcome fear and it had made humankind audacious and jahil. The word jahil does not just mean foolish. A buffalo does foolish things but we do not say that the buffalo is jahil. The word jahil has a deeper meaning. It means one who has the capacity to know and yet does something foolish. Only humankind can be jahil. The term is reserved exclusively for men and women.
Thus did humankind embark on its journey through history as the Trustee, therein to toil and struggle to fulfill its destiny and keep its covenant with God.
Ramadan is a month when we are reminded of who we are, namely, Trustees of the Spirit. Humankind is forgetful of the Spirit because of the “noises” that it surrounds himself with. What are these noise sources?
In the Islamic parlance, we use the word Kashaf. It means a veil, a curtain. In certain contexts it could also mean unveiling. A curtain is a static term. I prefer the term “noise” because it is dynamic and connotes movement and action. Through the ages, our ulema have discussed the Kashaf of the body, of the mind, and of the Nafs (the soul). There is no Kashaf or curtain on the Spirit because it comes from Allah. It shines of its own with its eternal ebullience. It comes from Him and returns to Him. Inna lillahi wa inna illahi rajewoon (Indeed from Him do we come and indeed to Him do we return). The Light that comes to us from Him returns to Him. He is the Light of the heavens and the earth.
So, what is the Kashaf, the curtain, of the body? What are the noise sources that come to us from our senses?
Everyone thinks that Ramadan is about food and water. It is not about food and water. It is not about hunger and thirst. Food is only a source. In a deeper sense, it is a symbol. Allah has bestowed untold blessings upon the United States of America. His Grace descends with particular intensity on this state of California. Go back home today and examine the food on your counter top. This morning I was looking at my own countertop. Within a space of three feet, I counted seven different kinds of fruit: peaches, plums, nectarines, grapes, bananas, strawberries and melons. Ask yourself, how it is possible for a little patch of land to give us seven different kinds of fruit? When you partake of the food, think of the processing as that food goes through the body so that it can sustain you and nourish you.
And contemplate the sense of taste. Why is there a sense of taste? There is no convincing answer to that question except that it reminds of you of the taste of heaven. Food is not just for sustaining life. It is rizq. It is a gift from the heavens. It is a sign. It sustains life so that through that sustenance humankind may discharge its responsibility to carry that Divine Trust.
Have you ever wondered why you are here? Have you asked: “What is the purpose of my creation?” Everyone of us is unique. Never in human history will there be another individual like you. There was never a human being like you since the creation of Adam, and there will never be one like you until the Day of Judgment. If someone brought you a diamond and said, “This diamond is unique. There is nothing like it in the whole world”, how much would you pay for it? Everyone of us is unique. And we do not value ourselves.
Allah says in the Qur’an, “I created not the jinns and the humans except to serve (worship) Me.” And a Hadith e Qudsi teaches us, “I was an unknown treasure. I willed that I be known. Therefore, I created (a being who would know Me)”. So, human beings were created to know, serve and worship Him. There is no other purpose for the creation of man.
It is to fulfill that divine purpose that Allah has given us food. It is to sustain the body so that we can discharge that obligation to carry the Trust, to know, serve and worship Him.
And how do we know Him? Think about your eyes. It is very difficult in a metropolitan area like San Francisco or Los Angeles to look at the heavens. There is too much stray light here, too much noise. Look at the sky from a mountain top. Have you ever wondered how expansive the universe is? And how beautiful it is? Have you ever wondered how we live in a small niche in a corner of the universe so that life can be sustained? There are two billion galaxies known to us. Each galaxy has 2 billion stars. Each star has its own planets. And somewhere in a middle sized galaxy called the Milky Way there is a middle sized star called the Sun. Around it is the earth, a speck of dust floating in the eons of this creation. And on this earth there are seven billion of us, each with an ego larger than the distance between San Francisco and New York City. That is how egotistical we are.
Allah says to us: Look at my creation. How beautiful it is! And how perfect! The Qur’an challenges humankind in Surah al Mulk: Look at the heavens! Do you see any defect in it?
Or, at the other end of the spectrum, if you want to look at the smallest of the small, look at the atoms and the strings. The other day I was thinking about quantum theory and the theory of relativity and how scientists are striving to combine the two to understand gravity, electromagnetic waves, big and small forces holding atoms, electrons and protons together. They offer different perspectives. Have you ever wondered about an atom? No two atoms are the same. They may be similar but not identical because they are separated by time and space.
Have we really looked at each other? How beautiful is each face! How perfect! How unique! How is it possible? Never has there been a time in history when someone identical to any of us walked on earth, similar perhaps, but not identical. Every leaf is different. Every flower is different. Every date palm is different. Every orange is different. Every peach is different. Every grain of rice is different. Every molecule of air is different. Every drop of water in the oceans is different. That is how beautiful Allah’s creation is. And yet, do we look at it? We take it for granted. “Oh, it is food. It is iftar time. Let us eat. Let us gorge ourselves and compensate for what we missed out or during the day.”
And the sense of hearing? Have you seen a person who has no sense of hearing? How difficult it is for that person to talk and connect his tongue with his ears? Have you ever wondered how we hear? And how it is that sound travels through the air as p-waves, hits the cochlea, then the vibrations are picked up by the nerves and then are translated into something that is meaningful! How wonderful it is! How exhilarating is the cry of a newborn! How refreshing is the chirping of a bird, the rustle of a tree, yes, even the movement of wind past your face! How beautiful is the voice of a parent! Or of a friend! Have we ever pondered what would happen if all these voices disappeared? That is the meaning of solitary confinement. Why do people go crazy in solitary confinement? It is because they are denied sensory inputs. They cannot hear anything, see anything. They go crazy.
We as human beings, we need each other. I remember, in 2009, there was an interfaith conference in Amritsar, India. And I talked about this need that we have for each other. In the interfaith context, it means that a Muslim needs a Christian, a Christian needs a Jew, a Jew needs a Buddhist, a Buddhist needs a Hindu, a Hindu needs a Zoroastrian, a Zoroastrian needs a Muslim and so on. The title of my talk was, “I Need You!”. Why? As the Qur’an teaches us, “Le Yuzrahu ‘alad din e kulli…” (so that I can show it (this deen) in the context of all other deens…” The Dalai Lama liked the presentation so much he invited me to his chambers and spoke to me for a whole hour about the subject. We need that difference to know each other. Without differentiation, we would not know anything. Think of an enclosed cubicle. If all the walls of such a cubicle and the ceiling are painted white, could you tell one wall from the other? No. If you had an army of robots, can you tell one robot from the other? If we all looked alike, how would we recognize each other? We are different, Alhamdulillah. That is beautiful. Look at each other. Enjoy each other’s company. No, we don’t look at each another. It is because of the noise from our senses.
Our senses are corrupt; they do not give us correct and consistent information. Look at the full moon. As it rises over the hills after sunset, it appears very large. As we watch it traverse the sky it appears to get smaller. Yet, we know that the moon change its size from early evening to midnight. Our sight is deceptive. And it is limited. A bat sees much better in the darkness of the night. It senses at wavelengths that we cannot hear. A dolphin hears better under water. It has more developed sonar. So we invent instrumentation to catch up with them. A cheetah is three times faster than the fastest man on earth. So we are limited, and yet we think we are superior.
Ramadan reminds us about our senses. For a brief while, from dawn till dusk, we forsake food and water. The abstention brings forth the reality that was hidden by the noise of our senses. Human beings are prone to forgetfulness. A degree of forgetfulness is required for sheer survival. If we do not forget we may have an overload of data that is unbearable. For instance, if you drive to work, taking the same route every day, the consciousness of which street you took sinks into your subconscious. You drive to work without thinking about the route, taking the turns that you do as a routine. Meanwhile, your mind is free to wander off and think about other matters. Then, if there is some construction going on, all of a sudden the consciousness of the road pops up like a light that is turned on. In the month of Ramadan, Allah sends us reminders. He says: “Think about the rizq that I send you so that you think about why you are here. Think about the water I send down from the heavens so that you contemplate your existence on this earth.” Have you ever contemplated how important water is? The last Ayah in Surah al Mulk says: “Will you not reflect? If the water table sinks deep underground (dries up), then who will bring you clean running water?” This powerful Ayah was quoted at one time by Prince Charles of England who was giving a talk on sustainable technologies to protect the environment. So it is that during the month of Ramadan Allah reminds us about our rizq, food and water, so that the consciousness of His presence pops up before us.
Then there is the Kashaf (curtain) of the mind. These are the noises that clog up and constrain the mind. The first source of noises is rational thought itself. Talk to someone who is a disbeliever about God and he will say, “Prove to me the existence of God”. It is as if you take a wooden ruler and with it you want to measure the temperature in the core of the sun. You want to use a tool, your rational thought, which does not even know its own limits, to prove the existence of the One who is beyond limits?
Humankind is lost because it distanced itself from the presence of Allah. It made that assumption in science and sociology. Hence it doesn’t know where it belongs; it dangles between the heavens and the earth. For instance, a great many western scholars have asked themselves the question: what makes us human? These are scholars who have dissociated philosophy and science from the presence of God. “I think, therefore I am”, is one answer. Some others said, “I will, therefore I am”. Who is this I? Whether you a sufi or a scientist, if you follow the arguments for the “I” you must conclude that the “I” is a myth; it does not exist. So, what is this “I”? Where did this will come from? It came from the Spirit that Allah bestowed upon you. Where did your thinking come from if not from the Light that Allah gave you, and when that Light departs, it will disappear. So, who are you?
The correct way to express will and power is through “Huwa”, meaning, “He” not “Ana”, meaning “I”. The I does not exist. Only He does. That is why in a dhikr we say, Huwa Allah (He is).
Over the centuries, even people of great faith have fallen into this trap of “Anayah”. “the I”. Here is an illustration. Circa the year 14345 CE, in the post-Timurid era, there lived a well known sheikh, Wahiduddin, in the city of Gulbarga, near Hyderabad, India. This sheikh went into retreat for forty days. When he emerged, he said, “Ana al Haq” (I am the truth). People thought he had lost his mind and sent him back into his hut for more contemplation. The following night, the sheikh made a hole at the back of the hut and ran away into the forest. Five hundred years earlier, in Iraq, Shaikah Mansur al Hallaj was not so fortunate. He too said, “Ana al Haq” (I am the truth). People misunderstood him and he was tortured to death. The error that the shaikhs made was this: When you rise up the ladder of consciousness, and get closer to Divine presence, you do not become the Truth, you only become a witness to the Truth. The content must fit the container. The content is to witness the Unity of God. The container is the language. You do not contain water on a flat plate; it needs a pitcher. The correct expression is: “Huwa al Haq”, not “Ana al Haq”. You do not exist. I do not exist. Only He exists.
In the month of Ramadan, when we break our fast, when we think of thatrizq that Allah has sent our way, when we drink that fresh water that Allah has given us, let us think about that Light that Allah has blessed us with. That Light came with the Spirit that animates every soul so that we remember our mandate to know Him, serve Him, worship Him.
In Islam, God does not come down to us from up above. He is always with us, closer to us than our jugular vein. He is there with every atom, every string, every breath, every moment. He surrounds all existence inside and out. It is humankind that erects the Kashaf, the curtains, the noise that separates man from God. So the struggle (jihad) that man engages in from the cradle to the grave is the unceasing struggle to lift the veils, to contain the noise so that the signal comes through loud and clear. It is all about Signal to Noise ratio. Yes, all signal, no noise. Yes, all comprehension, no obfuscation. Yes, remembrance, no forgetfulness. Yes, consciousness, no heedlessness. Yes, giving to other, not hoarding. Yes, rising above oneself, not becoming selfish. That is Ramadan. It is not about food and water. It is about finding the Light in one’s heart.