According to Imam Al-Ghazali, every act of worship that we do has an outward form as well as an internal form. When learning about this, it brings forth an image as if every act of worship is a living, breathing thing: the outward form serves as merely the skeleton, and the inward is that which gives the body its full form, and essentially its life. A skeleton is, no doubt, needed. Without it, the body would not be able to stand upright; it would not be able to contain the rest of the necessary components of life. And if it breaks or grows incorrectly, the whole unit suffers. But still, a skeleton without the flesh and skin attached, without the blood flowing through it, and without the breath of life in the deep core of a life’s heart, is merely that: a skeleton.
Today, many of the acts of worship have been downgraded to merely the skeleton. They have lost the soul that breathes into us the actual intent behind our existence: knowing God. When done correctly, every act of worship, seemingly big or small, is actually a means for us to know God. To come closer to our actual purpose in this life. In the Qur’an, God says, “And I did not create the jinn and mankind except to worship Me,” (Qur’an, 51:56). While oftentimes the words “worship me” are understood as merely the physical acts of worship, it is said that the verse actually has the implied meaning “to know Me.” Worship here is mentioned, because it is through worship, that God makes Himself known to us.1
Of these acts of worship that lead us to know God is fasting. Fasting outside of Ramadan, but even more so during the month of Ramadan. There are many ways that fasting can actually increase our knowledge of God, but the one I want to focus on is rooted in the Islamic tradition that is often repeated: The one who knows oneself, knows one’s Lord. And what is Ramadan if not a month-long school in getting to know yourself?
During Ramadan we come face to face with ourselves. The strong devils are chained up, so we cannot blame them anymore. We set out to experience a month-long change of schedule, of pushing away that which is, in any other case, permissible. We do away with our daily coffee fix and our comfort foods when we are upset. We leave our stomachs empty, while still trying to carry on day-to-day interactions. And sometimes, well sometimes that gets hard. Sometimes we get agitated. Sometimes we get jittery. Sometimes the lack of sugar and water causes what feels like brain exploding migraines and off-balance dizziness. And through all this discomfort, we still try to remember what Ramadan is all about. We try to stay merciful. We try not to engage in needless debates. We try not to snap at our family when they too are not feeling so well. We try to continue going to work and putting on a great big energetic smile, that may (especially at the beginning of the month) slide off our faces by the time `asr time (afternoon prayer) comes around.
And through this we realize our dependency. We realize our weakness. We realize how a change in schedule (of eating in this case) can affect us so much. And we realize how much we actually need God in every moment of our lives, from keeping our mouths shut to keeping our pockets filled with enough money to put food on the table. And it is in this moment of realization that we should think of one of the meanings of the name of God As-Samad2 . He is the Eternal Refuge, and one of the meanings we get from this name is that He is unchanging—He does not eat nor does He drink. He does not need nourishment, nor does He change actions based on anything He is dependent on, because He is NOT dependent on anything. He is ever-constant, while we—we are not.
But that is not the only thing we learn about ourselves during this month. We also learn what we can do. We learn that during this month we can push away things that normally would be difficult. We realize that we do have time for Qur’an in our daily schedule, even though we usually think we are just too busy. We realize that we can be nice even when we just want to be mean and rude. We realize that we do have that extra buck to spare for someone who actually needs it. And when we realize this we have to realize why, suddenly, in Ramadan we have figured that out. It is not because we become superheroes during this month. It is not because we make a conscious, active decision that we would do this for a month (even though it may sometimes seem that way). It is because God sends down blessings during this month in a nafaha (divine breeze), and makes things easier for us to do acts of worship and good deeds. And knowing this, we also know that the Lord of Ramadan is the Lord of all the other months. And so if we want our actions, outside of Ramadan, to be just as filled with blessings, we have that option. All we have to do, is ask. Ask the Lord of Ramadan to make all our days like our Ramadan days. To ask the Lord of laylat al qadr to make all our nights like laylat al qadr. Ask the Lord who willed for me to be a companion of the Qur’an inside of Ramadan, to make me the companion of the Qur’an outside of Ramadan. And have certainty that He is capable of all things.
And this is just a brief snapshot of the school that this month actually is. Take a moment every day to think about what you learned about yourself during this day, and then take it a step further. Think about this knowledge you have of yourself, and then get to know your Lord. And remember, again, the one who knows oneself, knows one’s Lord.