For all my joking that my mental age is in the single digits (and, hey, it is, okay), all I really want is to be fourteen again.
I was still two weeks shy of my thirteenth birthday the year I traveled to Pakistan, in the midst of Ramadan, for what would ultimately become an eighteen-month stay. That first Ramadan in the village passed in nothing more than a jet-lagged stupor. We kids stubbornly slept through iftar, and then remained wide-awake following suhoor, bundled up in heavy quilts against the numbing late-February cold, tossing paper airplanes back and forth across the vast, dimly-lit room as a means of passing time. The daylight hours were spent staring shyly, uncertainly at an endless sea of curious faces, fellow villagers who came out to see this family from America.
I was fourteen by the time Ramadan rolled around the next year. The village had become home by then, and that’s the Ramadan I remember most clearly, the one I compare all others to, the one I seek to regain in terms of simplicity and spirituality. The months leading up to that Ramadan were interesting, to say the least. Mainly, I remember the hours spent in learning to read and write Urdu, and learning to recite the Qur’an in Arabic. I remember picking up Urdu with staggering fluency, surpassing my teacher’s and father’s and even my own expectations. And once I ran out of Naseem Hijazi novels and short story anthologies and magazines and poetry, I turned to Urdu hadith collections and translations of the Qur’an. I still recall reading my first set of hadith in Urdu, and the feeling of epiphany that came with it, the sense that I had finally grasped the essential nature of what it really meant to be Muslim, and what was expected of me now that I possessed that sacred knowledge.
During that second Ramadan, I completed the recitation of the Qur’an three times, in Arabic, supplemented with full translation, so that I could understand exactly what it was that I was reciting. But most of all, though, I remember the prayers. I had never been in a masjid, much less prayed in jama’at. That, unfortunately, just wasn’t done in the village. Instead, I used to pray taraweeh, the night prayers, in our long, narrow behtuk, lights dim and door closed, my tasbeeh carefully placed on the chair next to me, a small handful of date pits on the floor next to my prayer rug, to help me keep track of the raka’at. Some nights I’d pray out in the courtyard, on the marble slab created for that purpose. Either way, more often than not, the electricity would go out, and my mother would have forgotten to bring me a lantern, and so I’d be left to pray in utter darkness, which only served to enhance my prayer and make the experience more beautiful.
Six months later, I was back in the U.S. After a year or two, things began to change. I let them. Life got in the way. I somehow let that happen, too.
I sat in halaqa yesterday morning and didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Everything I’ve been learning over the past several years, through conferences and lectures and halaqas, is stuff I already know. Or, actually, stuff I used to know, before I let myself lose that edge of clarity I once took for granted.
And that is the most frustrating thing of all, to know that if I stretch just a bit further, I could perhaps grasp that clarity once more, and to yet also know, at the same time, that I’m just not trying as hard enough as I have the potential to.
Last night, I went to pray the first taraweeh of the month in jama’at at the masjid, as I usually do now. I walked out of there nearly two hours later, with the soles of my feet aching from standing so long and my knees tingling from rug-burn, yet elated at having captured some of that closeness to God. Not every congregational prayer can do that for me. Mostly, I’ve found praying in jama’at to be distracting. What I usually need is solitude, to enhance my level of concentration.
This morning, I prayed fajr in solitude, hearing aids and lamps and overhead lights all switched off, door closed firmly against the rest of the house. I prayed surrounded by absolute silence and inky darkness, and at some point I could feel that sense of peace…not exactly flooding back – that would be too simple, now, wouldn’t it? – but more as if tentatively pressing back against the walls of the room, simply there if only I reached out, concentrated just enough.
Earlier today, driving up to school, I listened to Shaykh Ali Abdur-Rahman Al-Hudhaify’s recitation of Surahs Ya-Seen and Ar-Rahman. Reciting along easily, I was surprised, as always, by how I’ve unconsciously managed to memorize most of those Qur’anic chapters merely through sporadically listening to them on my more stressful days. And I wonder, if I’ve managed to do that much unconsciously, think of how much I could do if I just put my mind to it.
My goal for this Ramadan, then, is to regain at least some of that clarity and focus and discipline from the year I was fourteen, so that my prayers become less routine movements and rote memorization, and more personal conversations with God, just as they once used to be.
Whatever your own goals for Ramadan, I hope you find within you the strength and dedication and drive to fulfill your goals, and to maintain and implement those changes following Ramadan, too. May your fasting become a manifestation of patience. May He accept your repentance and make it sound and permanent, and grant you guidance and success in following the straight path. May He purify your intentions, accept your fasting and tears, forgive your sins, and bless you with mercy and peace during this month and throughout the year. Ameen.