Fasting in a jungle of concrete: Experiencing ramadhan in the west.

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New York, Summer 2016

Standing at the corner of one of New York’s busiest intersection right across Penn Station, I found myself contemplating the city like one ends up analyzing a complex composition in a Museum Art Gallery. It is difficult to describe in words the vibe one feels when standing still amidst a stampede of workers, especially right after working hours. But whether you’re from London, Paris, New York or any other metropolitan city that has a business district, I am sure you can relate to what I am trying to describe.

‘Saturation. That’s the word I was looking for. The continuous stimulation of the senses to the point that they cannot relay any meaningful perception to the self, a state where ‘more’ and ‘less’ feels just quite the same.’

With a rosary in hand and making my way out of this concrete mess, I found an oasis of peace in a small park right in the middle of the city. I was fortunate enough to grab a chair and a table and gather my thoughts again. I thought about how exhausting and depleting this walk had been both from a physical and spiritual standpoint and how I thought evolving around areas of extreme density could somehow affect one’s quest of spirituality and balance. If God was to be perceived by our senses, implored with our tongue, sought through our eyes and experienced in tranquility, I wondered if it was even possible to find such a God when the soul was suffocating amidst such an effusion of sounds, lights, motion, conversations, people, colors and emotions.

And because this conundrum wasn’t really a question of ‘if’ such a God could be found but rather ‘how’ such a God manifested in this urban chaos, this led me to formulate the main question around which this essay is articulated: How can one find peace in the absence of peace? How can one find the Unity of Allah in a world seemingly devoid of any harmony? And consequently, given the nature of the month coming of Ramadhan coming ahead of us, how could one welcome the month of Allah, fasting in a jungle of concrete?

Ramadhan and the spiritual geometry

As a child living in Europe, I met a lot of people who would travel during Ramadhan. Most of them would either go back to their home countries in areas vastly populated by Muslims, or they would visit Holy places for Ziarat or Umrah. In both cases, the idea was to ‘experience’ Ramadan and its spirituality, an experience that somehow seemed either impossible or highly difficult when staying in the west.

If one was to visit any metropolitan area of a largely populated city in Northern America or Europe, anyone would argue that this assumption might have been, on the surface level, an accurate one. After all, how could one experience God, and fast properly in a environment devoid of any spirituality per se. How could one experience Ramadhan when when fasting alone at work or amongst friends at university? How could one fast and stay focused on Allah when everything around one’s surrounding, be it people eating in restaurants, ‘not so mahram’ billboards, constant advertisement driving one towards materialism? And pushing the rhetoric a bit further, how could one ever reach any kind of Zohd (islamic asceticism), living in a city which is defined by the absence of it.

Part of the answer to this question comes from a better understanding of our purpose of life and perhaps, from a better understanding of the attributes that surround Allah’s unicity. From a theological perspective, the unicity of Allah implies that he is one and indivisible. And because His existence is not bound to time and space, Allah is everywhere. He is as much present in the Kabah, as He is on wall street. And this realization brings us back to one of our original question : How can one experience God in an environment which is devoid of Him?

If we follow our argumentation, we soon realize that the question we’re asking is a contradiction in itself. There is no environment that is devoid of God. If we’ve established the fact that God is everywhere, the only thing that can happen, is that we might feel that God is absent, but this feeling is a function of the self, of our own imperfection, not of Allah’s absence in any case. Therefore, one must conclude that in spiritual geometry, even if there are seemingly great distances that might separate a soul from its creator, the creator is never far from its creation. We might not perceive him in our vicinity, but even then, he is closer to us than our jugular vein. And from this perspective, there is no reason why on theoretical level, one cannot experience Allah while fasting regularly and following an urban routine we have known while living in a place in which things do not seem drive us towards towards Him.

Now that we have established the fact that Allah is present everywhere and that it in fact impossible to dissociate ourselves from him,  one must conclude that it is indeed possible to fast and attain higher realm of spirituality during Ramadhan even if one to fast in the tallest building of a financial discrtict or any other symbol of capitalism, for it would be against Allah’s Justice to create a Human being at a given time and space and not give him the opportunity to actualize its purpose of creation which is to strive towards Him and his perfection.

The question that remains unanswered though, is how? how could one fast while being fed materialism from the streets? How could one constantly think of the month of God in a society that seems to have forgotten God? How could one pray the the lord of the skies standing in Manhattan, when skies are actually what you couldn’t see?


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