Ramadan has been in the air as has snow and blossoms of spring in good ol’ Yorkshire this April of 2021. The joy of my favourite season and month have joined forces and it has fallen on the day I turn the heavenly age of 33. Ramadan has come back round to spring after 33 years and there’s something rather romantic and magical about it all aligning on my birthday.
In the West and the subcontinent, spring symbolises a time of rebirth, renewal and openings – full of joy, love, and spirituality. Shakespeare considered April the spirit of the youth, while the Urdu Poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz and others alike describe bahaar ‘spring’ as having elements of happiness, beauty, optimism as well as sorrow which is illustrated in his poem ‘It is spring again’:
It is spring, And the ledger is opened again.
From the abyss where they were frozen,
those days suddenly return, those days
that passed away from your lips, that died
with all our kisses, unaccounted.
The roses return: they are your fragrance;
they are the blood of your lovers.
Sorrow returns. I go through my pain
and the agony of friends still lost in the memory
of moon-silver arms, the caresses of vanished women.
I go through page after page. There are no answers,
and spring has come once again asking
the same questions, reopening account after account.
(translated from Urdu by Agha Shahid Ali)
Here in Yorkshire a little earlier than usual, the flowers have pushed through the earth and have opened in an array of colourful blossoms. The trees proudly showcase their clouds of yellow catkins and cherry blossoms, and we greet them like long awaited guests. This year amongst the guests of spring is the beloved month of Ramadan which synergises beautifully with the nature of spring; a time for spiritual reflection, renewal, openings, and duas.
The cyclic nature of the seasons and nature are felt and seen with a renewed form of intimacy not only in spring, but in Ramadan too. The moon tells us when to begin Ramadan and end it, while the sun tells us when to close and break our fast. This slowing down and conscious observing of the simple yet extraordinary cyclic nature of the sun and moon and its intimacy with me brings a sense of oneness with nature, myself and Him.
And so I turn to the month of Ramadan and spring, saluting it much like the common toad salutes the coming of spring as described by George Orwell in his essay ‘Some Thoughts on the Common Toad’:
“Before the swallow, before the daffodil, and not much later than the snowdrop, the common toad salutes the coming of spring after his own fashion, which is to emerge from a hole in the ground, where he has lain buried since the previous autumn, and crawl as rapidly as possible towards the nearest suitable patch of water. Something — some kind of shudder in the earth, or perhaps merely a rise of a few degrees in the temperature — has told him that it is time to wake up: though a few toads appear to sleep the clock round and miss out a year from time to time — at any rate, I have more than once dug them up, alive and apparently well, in the middle of the summer.
At this period, after his long fast, the toad has a very spiritual look, like a strict Anglo-Catholic towards the end of Lent…”
The hole in the ground for us has no doubt been the winter lockdown in the UK (and the last year in general), and in more way than one, we are as Orwell describes the common toad. We certainly have been inward in our space and spirit and there has already been a significant ‘fasting’ and hibernation which has given many of us time to reflect and declutter different aspects of our lives, aligning and preparing us for Ramadan. I think the lockdown restrictions and the long pause of our usual life gives us this ‘spiritual look’ of the common toad as we head out of lockdown and into the re-opening of our cities and towns, and the spring of Ramadan.
Despite the lockdown restrictions, in preparing for Ramadan, the rituals in my home haven’t changed. My mother likes to have the kitchen cupboards decluttered for the big Ramadan shop, the greasy takeouts have been ordered and eaten by my brothers (and me), my sister plans her weight loss program which we know won’t last more than a few days, and this late afternoon as we welcome Ramadan, the grass was cut.
The grass was my father’s (rahimahullah) Ramadan ritual, he liked to have a neat view for when he sat in the garden at sehri/suhoor and sometimes for iftar too. He liked to have much of his jobs done before Ramadan as is the case for many of us, so we don’t have to bring the usual year-round demands and pressures into the sacred and limited time of Ramadan. A decluttering of my space and mind comes with entering Ramadan too. It’s a month to which worldly affairs are looked at from a reflective and gentle perspective, thoughts and reflections turn to putting affairs right, looking at finances to plan for Zakat, praying for all one’s heart’s desires, as well as renewing and setting new intentions. Alongside fasting and praying, such affairs bring me to a spiritual state that texture into and across the rest of my year.
I’ve heard elders talk of this type of decluttering, crossing off the to-do list, and dealing with one’s worldly affairs when one is close to their passing away. My grandfather (rahimahullah), amongst many other things, asked for his birds to be freed and to give to so and so charity. “He knew!” they said. My grandmother (rahimahallah) knew too and called for her favourite granddaughter (my sister) to sit with her. A wise woman told me her father did the same when I told her that my father had left with majority of his jobs done like finally getting round to ordering that new fridge on Friday night, as well as a few new tools for the garden, including a new lawn mower.
Cutting the grass is symbolic of Ramadan preparation (not to say that this is the only time of the year that the grass is cut), a ritual that continued with my father just hours before his passing to the other realm, as he had mowed the grass for the last time just the way he liked it on that late hot Sunday afternoon. My father cutting the grass specifically before Ramadan and on Eid, and then hours before his passing has taught me that the preparation for and the observing of Ramadan can be seen as a metaphor for preparing for our return to Allah. Ramadan is an inward time, a spiritual month in which we fast for an intimacy with Allah much like the way we yearn to meet Allah in our death and thereafter.
I recently heard a teacher say “we are experiencing death all the time, it[life] is a process of death, resurrection, death, resurrection, death, resurrection”. This cyclic nature of the process of death and resurrection can be seen in the month of Ramadan, perhaps not as dramatically but metaphorically, there is a subtle death and resurrection of our habits, hopes, fears and love.
The same teacher reminded me of the intimacy between time and death as ‘death is measured by time’. That is, it is a process. Interestingly, the meaning of death in present day English doesn’t include this sense entirely. While this type of process is reflected in the etymology of death: the word comes from Old English dēaþ which comes from Proto-Germanic *dauþuz. The latter is traced back to the Proto-Indo-European stem *dheu- which means the ‘process, act, condition of dying’.
The word death isn’t used in informal social contexts as it is deemed as taboo which really is felt when uttered. Depending on my recipient, I stop myself and try to replace it with something that is more easily digestible, since words carry energies, culture and ideologies. So, searching for a palatable synonym for death is expected and it certainly reflects the Brit in me.
I also learnt that in Arabic there are three separate words for understanding the nature of time: waqth, zaman and dahar which all translate into English as time. Waqth refers to a time that is ‘in the moment’, zaman refers to a period of time, while dahar refers to absolute time. Absolute time encompasses waqth and dahar which belongs to the knowledge of Allah since He is Time, as quoted by the class teacher via the following hadith:
Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Allah Almighty said: The son of Adam abuses Me. He curses time and I am time, for in My Hand are the night and day.”iii
Source: Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 4549, Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2246
Interestingly, in this, Allah uses the word dahar for time in “I am time” which has the roots d-h-r – this root forms several different meanings and amongst them is ‘eternal continuance, eternity’. Time from this perspective is eternal, when one returns to Allah, they have merely left the time as we know in this world and entered another time that too belongs to Allah which will continue and continue, and God willingly a time in which departed ones are reunited with loved ones.
This will be our second Ramadan without my father, his love of Ramadan and his preparations for it are missed by us all. It was his month; he was born in the month of Ramadan and his family name was inspired by the month of his birth: sabr/sabir ‘patience’. The Arabic root letters of sabir are s-b-r which underlie and form a number of different meanings. Amongst the meanings that come with the English meaning of patience are found for the Arabic sabr: to be patient, be forbearing, have patience, take patience, persevere. However, what is not conveyed in the English patience that is rooted in the Arabic sabr is that patience is to console, to comfort, and to give solace. The forbearing of fasting consoles the soul — it is in the hardship that there is ease, solace, comfort. This is capitulated in the much recited verse ‘verily with every hardship comes ease’ [94:5]. The difference senses of sabr give an insight into what is meant by patience and how it can be embodied in Ramadan since it is the month in which patience is practiced and learnt.
I hope to embody the different senses of sabr with our special guest of spring — Ramadan. And so like the common toad of Orwell’s essay, I salute spring in Ramadan, as I did when I entered my first home in Ramadan in spring as a newborn 33 years ago.