Oh Ramadan, where’s my spiritual retreat?

Posted on August 18, 2011

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Forget the blogiday, we need to talk. I need to express myself. Is it me, or are you having a rough time this Ramadan too? I mean, I thought I did everything right. I cleaned the house two weeks in advance. I gave up TV months in advance (see posts on Tennessee). I even decorated. But I’m just not feeling Ramadan this year. And I can’t help but think that either I’ve done something really wrong for which I need to be purified for or Allah is showing me how much He really loves me because I’m sick, and all I want to do is curl up in the fetal position and be entertained.

No, I didn’t need any help from the shayateen this Ramadan. My nafs had it all worked out. Undisciplined tyrant! Trying to seduce me from my true self! And what’s more, I’ve been blessed to have extra tests this Ramadan which I’m sure I failed initially. Why, oh why, is my dear, sweet Noora getting into the spirit of terrible twos during Ramadan? Why is she teething? And most importantly, where is my spiritual retreat?! All I’ve seemed to accomplish this Ramadan is whining, complaining, and being an overall grump. I’ve been through it all this Ramadan–negative thoughts galore. I thought we caught the evil eye. I thought I was dying (no joke). And to top it off, if I had been fasting as a normal person was, I surely would have broken my fast from all that fuss. Why am I having a hard time connecting this year?

The Prophet (saws) said:

“Never a believer is stricken with discomfort, hardship or illness, grief or even with mental worry that his sins are not expiated for him.” (Sahih Muslim)

“There is nothing (in the form of trouble) that comes to a believer even if it is the pricking of a thorn that there is decreed for him by Allah good or his sins are obliterated.” (Sahih Muslim)

Sure, I started out good during the first week. Even held a couple of iftars. My feet got swollen from the cooking and cleaning, so much so that I didn’t want to stand to pray, but still stand I did. I was very excited before Ramadan entered, but then I started thinking, oh, if I could have a break from these 16 hour fasts, and the break did come–but now my break has turned into a dependency on Tylenol cold, an antibiotic, and family to keep on keepin’ on. And I’m behind on my juz. But what I’ve learned the most this Ramadan through all my woes is that I’ve depended on everything and everyone but Allah, and He’s the Only One who’s really able to help me. So I say, hasbiAllah wa n’imal wakil.

Don’t get me wrong. I want to feel the Ramadan spirit, and I did for a week, but then after having the requirement of fasting taken away coupled with impatience on the part of a two year old, things slowly started going downhill and now I’m left with pieces of a Ramadan that still could be if I put them back together in time. The celebratory spirit comes and goes. Right now, it feels like a match. Ramadan: 70, Whittni: 7. Those are arbitrary numbers by the way–I just feel like I’m running a losing race. It’s now the middle of Ramadan and I’m still seeking my spiritual retreat. But at least it’s not the end of Ramadan yet…there’s still hope. Right?

You see, I’m not someone who takes “no” as an answer very well, and my Lord has told me No in so many ways this month. I kept asking “why?”, but I already knew the answer. Because my Lord decreed it as such. Because He said so. The better question to ask is, “how?” How am I going to change, adapt, and grapple with the changes that I now have to make?

I think it’s hard to connect to the spirit of Ramadan when you’ve been denied the ability to fast. I received a guide on health in Ramadan a couple of days ago–what a joke! I needed that pre-Ramadan. And what about those who have chronic ailments–when the emphasis has been placed so much on the requirement of fasting, those of us who are out of its grasp for a time often get thrown for a loop. You see, we often forget that eating, drinking, talking, cooking, and sleeping can all be done for the sake of Allah if we make our intentions as such–and what better sake is there? A whole day can be turned into ibadah if our intentions are there.

Subhanallah, in the middle of Ramadan, an epiphany. Behold, there is blessing in everything Allah wills, and He is the Best of Planners. He is more Merciful than a mother is to her child; there is a mercy in everything He does. Which of the favors of our Lord will we deny? Alhamdulillahi ala kulli hal. Rabia al ‘Adawiya (ra) said contentment with Allah is when you feel the same joy in periods of tribulation as what you feel during periods of blessing. So at last, I’m content. It took about 15 days to get it through my hardhead, but at least I got it. There is a mercy in choosing whether we fast or not, and there are many ways to reach Him and reap the benefits of this month. Sawm isn’t the only ibadah. What is best for us in all of our states is to be equally fearful and hopeful, while being grateful and patient. And when we are ill, hope is purified. See? With weakness in movement, perhaps I can now focus more on Qu’ran–and actually accomplish my dream of reading the whole Quran this month–a goal I’ve never been able to successfully complete. And now I’m actively planning my first-ever itikaf space in my home. While “no” is the answer for some things, there is a “yes” for other things. While some doors are closed, I can still peep through the windows, and perhaps jiggle the lock to get a whiff of the blessedness inside.

My intended i'tikaf spot, my office (subject to change).

I attended the online webinar “Making the Most of Ramadan–Itikaf: A Woman’s Spiritual Retreat” by Ustadha Shamira Chothia Ahmed, Hanafi fiqh scholar and co-founder of The Rahmah Foundation. In it, I learned that itikaf means “remaining”. It’s a spiritual retreat where we seek closeness to Allah and distance ourselves from worldly distractions that prevent us from proximity to Him. We were advised to take full advantage of the mercy Allah gives us as women to make itikaf in our homes. And to make our itikaf spots clean, perfumed (incensed), and special, as they are our masjids while at home. We should wear our beautiful clothes to prayer and fully resemble the angels in itikaf, as they always remain spiritually connected to Allah. We learned that the angels of rahma are very shy–and that when we are unclothed, they run away–so covering ourselves, perfuming ourselves and our spaces, and using the siwak draws them near because angels love pleasant smells. Subhanallah, we learned how to make a masjid of our homes…down to entering our itikaf space with the right foot and leaving the smart phone and computer behind as well.

We also learned that itikaf doesn’t have to be only in Ramadan–it is a general nafl act recommended at all times for both men and women. We can do itikaf at any time, even for a brief period of time–we just have to intend it. We can listen to lectures and even have a friend do itikaf with us, whether in the masjid or at home (as long as they don’t distract you from the higher things). We can do anything related to the deen and while it is best for food to be brought to you in the itikaf space, we can leave itikaf to relieve ourselves and then come back. A great tip for getting itikaf the whole year around is to set aside a space for prayer–a musalla in our homes and intend itikaf every time we enter that space. And the back of the house is better than the front or middle of the house. And no worries if we fall asleep or eat in our itikaf space, it’s considered worship. And we can take small breaks to rejuvenate ourselves, too, and for necessary responsibilities and obligations in, around, and out of the house. There’s no age limit on itikaf either–children can do itikaf with their parents and it will count as a nafl act for them inshAllah. There’s also no minimum time of remaining in itikaf. And if a sister finds herself 0n her menses (being free from major ritual impurity is a condition of itikaf besides intending it), she can still have the benefit of itikaf. Clean yourself, do a symbolic wudu, and sit in the prayer area of your home and remember Allah for the amount of time you normally would to make salah. The great Hanafi scholar and jurist, Allama Ibn Aabideen (ra), said that remembering Allah in this manner during menses could be akin to one’s best prayer. And Ustadha Shamira reminded us that the fiqh principle is: “If something can’t be done completely, it shouldn’t be left completely”… I asked if I could make my kitchen my itikaf space (that way I could renew wudu, eat, and everything all in the same space)–but I was told it’s better to have one space away from everything. Truly retreat. Go lock yourself in a closet if that will make you remember Allah. Just remember that the goal is to remember Him.

And for the brothers out there, while you cannot make itikaf at home with your wives, it is a communal sunnah for at least one man to make itikaf for the entire last 10 days of Ramadan so that the community isn’t blameworthy. And every time you enter the masjid in Ramadan, you should also intend itikaf and leave the dunya-related. Just go be with Allah…and let you wives be with Allah, too.

All I know is I don’t want to be of those who the Angel Jibreel made a du’a against:

The Prophet Muhammad (saws) said: “When I was climbing up the pulpit, Jibreel (as) came to me and told me: O Muhammad (saws)! Anyone in your nation who manages to be alive when Ramadan comes and yet cannot get his sins forgiven, then may he perish in the fire of Hell. Say Ameen.” So the Prophet (saws) said Ameen. (Ibn Hibban)

Perhaps next year inshAllah I would do well to read Qur’an well in advance of Ramadan, so that when I inevitably fall behind with the trials and tribulations of life, catching up won’t be so hard. And I’ll already be in Ramadan-mode, and maybe less grumpy!? I stumbled across these verses today which are so befitting to my condition. In Surah Al Ghafir (The Forgiver, also called Al Mu’min–The Believer), Allah Almighty gives us the words of His righteous servants, “I consign my affair completely to Allah. Truly Allah watches over His servants.” (40:44-45). Truly, He is the Cause With No Cause, and one way or another, The Educator was going to teach me self-restraint. Alhamdulillah.

Allah Almighty says, in a hadith from our Prophet (saws) transmitted by Anas (ra), “O son of Adam! I will forgive you as long as you call on Me and have hope in Me, no matter what you do. Son of Adam, I do not care if your wrong actions reach to the clouds of heaven and then you ask Me for forgiveness, I will forgive you. Son of Adam, if you were to come with sins equivalent in weight to the whole earth and then meet Me having not associated anything with Me, I would come to you with the same amount of forgiveness.” (at-Tirmidhi)

The Messenger of Allah (saws) also said: “By the One in Whose hand is my soul, if you did not commit sin, Allah would dispense with you and create people who would commit sins then ask Allah for forgiveness, then he would forgive them.” (Sahih Muslim)

Subhanallah–what can I say? We are blessed in our hardships! And verily, after every difficulty, there is relief. Embrace your faults and rise above them. Our Lord knows us better than we know ourselves, and He truly Knows what is best for us. He perfectly created us imperfect. Make the most of what is left of this beautiful month, by whatever means you can. As RasulAllah (saws) said in his welcoming khutba of Ramadan, “It [Ramadan] is a month of patience and the reward of patience is paradise[…] It is a month whose first is mercy, whose middle is forgiveness and whose last is freedom from Hell.”  (Sahih Ibn Khuzayma)

May we be granted the reward of patience, mercy, forgiveness, and freedom of Hell this Ramadan–Amin. Pray for me…Whittni: 70–sins forgiven, restrained in spiritual retreat, and Ramadan duties completely fulfilled!