Many people identifying with the Islamic faith are aware of the unmistakable and inspiring spirit that characterizes the month of Ramadan.
As we refrain from food and drink, which can become luxuries we unconsciously take for granted, greater time is spent in quiet concentration, reflection and prayer to God in an effort to de-clutter our minds and revitalize our faith. Since the entire month centers on expressions of worship, namely fasting, prayer, dispensing charity and better guiding our emotions, Ramadan offers a kind of spiritual reboot that helps us "force quit" the numerous complications that muddle our minds. It invites Muslims to re-visit the source of their faith by sidelining various distractions and clearing up as much spiritual space as possible to nourish our relationship with the Almighty.
Islam is Arabic for Submission, or Complete Devotion, to God and can only be achieved through a human's free will. It embodies a state of mind whereby consciousness of God, or Allah in Arabic, guides all of our actions. We integrate different acts of worship into everything we do, such that expressions of remembrance and gratitude to God become the goal of each activity. Submission places in a human's grasp peace of mind. It offers a level of understanding that positions human experience within the greater design of existence; where all realities have divine input and purpose.
For most of my life, I was only anywhere near achieving this state of mind during the 30 days of the Holy Month of Ramadan. While I loved and believed in God, during the other 10 months of the Islamic year, my thoughts would turn to Him only at times of distress and I did very little to express gratitude.
A couple of years ago, I realized that my general avoidance of God was contradictory as it's not possible to be partially faithful, so I endeavored to nurture my bond with Him. In the process, I found the best way to achieve this was to carry aspects of Ramadan with me throughout the year.
During this auspicious month, we're reminded of the tools to honor God throughout the year. Rather than reboot one time a year, consistent maintenance is good practice for the spirit and contributes to the productivity of our spiritual operating systems beyond Ramadan. Below I describe 10 ways I keep the spirit of Islam's holiest month turned on all year long.
Worshippers gather at a mosque in Malaysia
1. Praying on time, all the time
From the busier-than-usual prayer rooms and mosques, it is clear that Muslims spend more time praying during Ramadan than other times of the year. Regular prayer is the single-best way to continually renew my relationship with God, and keep consciousness of Him at the center of my attention at all times. Islam ordains five prayers each day on believers, spanning from the crack of dawn until the dark of the night. Like everyone, I work and run errands, meet friends and family, cook, clean, shop and travel. But five times each day, like clockwork, I pull myself away from whatever activity I am doing to kneel in devotion to God in prayer. It is comforting to have this consistency in my life; it takes the sting out of a bad day and reminds me to be grateful on a good day.
2. Fasting regularly
The benefits of fasting regularly are applicable throughout the year, not only during Ramadan. The act of fasting for spiritual prowess makes us more conscious, not just of food habits but of how we think, behave and interact through out the day. That consciousness of consumption encourages patience and carries through to how we communicate and handle our daily interactions and mishaps. I strive to fast from dawn to dusk at least one time each week on Mondays or Thursdays, a practice rooted in Prophetic teachings.
3. Giving generously
Other than zakat, an obligatory act of dedicating 2.5 percent of our assets each year to charity and often dispersed during Ramadan, I offer voluntary alms known as sadaqah, virtually every month. Charity is mentioned in lockstep with prayer throughout the Quran, which calls on believers to do both "regularly." There are endless online charities and many people in need in our communities. Giving to these causes privately and publicly is both a valuable practice in paying it forward and immensely rewarding on a personal level. Each time I give, I imagine that the wealth I am distributing first passes through the Hand of God. This helps me give with greater humility.
4. Reading from the Book
During Ramadan, it is favorable to read Islam's holy book from cover to cover. For the rest of the year, many of us may spend hours each week reading articles on politics, science, human rights or business, and peruse fiction and non-fiction books with fervor, while our copies of the Quran are left to gather dust. Translated as The Recitation in English, the Quran charts out the path individuals should take to strive toward eternal peace and escape the spectacles of modern life. These lessons that are always applicable so I try to read the Quran four times a year at least, which is feasible if I spend time quiet time reading it every few nights and on the weekends. Each time I read the holy book's 114 chapters I take new and different points of wisdom from it.
5. Embracing family time
Ramadan draws families together as we meet for the meal to break the fast, known as Iftar, and gather in the early morning hours for the pre-fasting meal, Suhoor. Besides worshiping and loving God, Islam teaches that very little is more important than consistently acting toward one's parents with respect and warmth. There is a Hadith, or saying of the Last Prophet, may God bless him and grant him peace, that describes how "Heaven lies at the feet of your mother." Well, my mother loves my foot massages, so I often joke that if Heaven lies there, imagine the reward I may get for massaging those feet. Remembering our bonds of kinship, and honoring them throughout the year in our unique ways, will always draw us nearer to God and gain His mercy.
6. Remembering to remember
If we are to be Muslim -- that is, to be conscious of God at all times -- we should be thinking of Him throughout the day, not just at prayer times. It's easier to do this during Ramadan, but takes more of an effort at other times of the year. Zikr expresses the idea of "remembrance of God" through repeated recitation of supplications, or dua. There are phrases that I recite routinely throughout the day which help me quietly focus on my invocations and remembrance. At several points in the day I will say, in Arabic, a supplication that translates as: "Oh God, I ask You for Heaven, and the word and work which bring us to it. I take refuge with you from Hell, and the word and work which bring us to it." Such supplications bring me peace of mind and certainty that my actions will, with God's will, be rightly guided.
7. Attending communal prayers
In Islam, it is up to each individual to form and solidify her/his relationship with God without an intermediary. Much of what we do to nurture the bond is, therefore, inherently personal and private. One of the beauties of Ramadan is the communal feeling of sharing the process of fasting and worship with the entire community of believers. It's possible to replicate this throughout the year by attending Friday prayers at our neighborhood mosques. There's beauty inherent in bowing down in worship with rows of other believers. It reminds us of our intrinsic equality -- no matter our wealth, social status or academic achievements, all worshipers stand side by side performing the same action. We're all on the same path and will all be returned to the same Creator in the end.
8. Putting patience into practice
Ramadan helps us hone our patience because, by refraining from consumption throughout the day, we learn the benefit of refraining from gratifying each of our desires in the moment. One of the greatest consequences of embracing Islam for me has been discovering the patience that's inherent in the state of mind. By internalizing the idea that every step we take is exactly as God destines, and accepting that we don't always know what chain of events would be best for us, I've learned to become more patient at all times of the year.
9. Enjoying nature
Spending time in nature is a great way to keep remembrance of God at the heart of our spiritual practice throughout the year. The perfect balance of nature is described superbly in the Quran, which teaches that by watching, reflecting on and understanding nature, we can gain certainty of God's signs and be receptive to His message to humanity. By spending time each week outside of the concrete buildings we so often find ourselves locked in, we can marvel at the miracles of nature only God could have created, whether by listening to the drops of rain that enable vegetation to grow, traversing vast sand dunes in the desert, sailing on the open seas or just walking in the park.
10. Feeling compassion
Don't let the corporate world and the challenges that life throws your way make you hard of heart. Don't let them siphon your compassion and courtesy. Being kind to family, friends, colleagues and strangers; being honest, loyal and sincere in our conduct; keeping promises; responding to e-mails and messages promptly and with equal courtesy -- all of these good deeds will be rewarded by Our Beloved, who multiplies the rewards we receive for the good we do not just during Ramadan, but all year round.
"Do you not see how God compares a good word to a good tree? Its root is firm and its branches are in the sky, it yields its fruit each season with its Lord's permission -- God makes such comparisons for people in order that they may take heed. But an evil word is like an evil tree torn out of the earth; it has no foothold." --Quran, Abraham, 14: 24-26
Follow Daliah Merzaban on Twitter: www.twitter.com/DaliahMerzaban