Between the Coronavirus & Ramadan: On Vigilance & Building a Better Now
I pray that, as we continue to lovingly welcome and vigilantly discover the blessings inherent in Ramadan upon us, we awaken to all the moments and especially the moment that Allah has chosen to place us. A quotation from Charles Dickens, the opening to one of his novels, is worth reflecting on: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The current culture caused by the coronavirus brings this statement into a dramatic and sharp focus. In truth, being suspended between the best and worst of ourselves is always our situation, at every moment of time—not just a time and space filled with concerns about the pandemic, which affects all of humanity, the world over. For in this very moment, our Heart chooses whether to see the moment as the best of times or the worst. The choice is always ours. And the choice of Iman (faith) will always be God, which means that we are always in the best of times and have the best of opportunities. According to a Hadith: “Every moment of the affair of the Believer is filled with good.” How do we find the good in apparent difficulty or hardship? How do we find hope amidst apparent distress, even despair? How do we live well, in a state of safety and wellbeing (aafiya) in a world and a time that vigilantly threaten this state of being in so many ways?
Speaking of vigilance, it would be opportune to notice how vigilant the world has become. Especially for those who are on the front lines of treating this virus and serving others in various ways, we cannot but be vigilant about vigilance. From the moment we wake up, to the moments at work, and the moment we return home, and the moments before sleep, we are aware of the importance of keeping clean and pure and guarding our physical limbs from the potential harm of a virus that is contracted and spreads often without signs of any infection, and that can be lethal to those with challenged immune systems. Such vigilance with our physical health and wellbeing, and guarding of our bodies from harm, is not so far removed from a spiritual vigilance and a ritual purity (tahara) that seeks to religiously guard ourselves from bodily impurities and harm, as well as impurities or harm on the level of the mind and the heart. Such vigilance is termed Muraqaba in Islamic teachings. Its essence is Taqwa (God-Consciousness).
Muraqaba is considered to be the very cornerstone of Islamic Spirituality. When the Prophet ﷺ was asked about ihsan (spiritual beauty), he replied with the definition, “Ihsan is to worship/serve God as if you see Him, and if you do not see Him, (know) He Sees you.” To be vigilant with God’s ever-watchful and Loving Presence (hudhur) is the very definition of ihsan, the third dimension of our Religion as defined by the Prophet ﷺ—the first being Submission (Islam) and the second, Faith (Iman). It is the dimension of our Religion that gives depth to the breadth of our faith and practice. Ihsan is also found to be the very goal of muraqaba, of vigilant awareness, viewed as an orientation to practice, or a particular practice. And we, as does every human being, now find ourselves forced to be vigilant (raqib), or to have muraqaba of ourselves and our surroundings and those we interact with. What a beautiful lesson God is teaching us through one of His servants: the coronavirus. Along with vigilance in our awareness of things, and with our energies of attention, there has been a shift of intention to the essential in our lives. We have been forced, ultimately by God, to essentialize our proclivities, tendencies, interests, and energies, all for the sake of our safety and the wellbeing (aafiya) of others. We have resorted to the time-tested practice of social isolation or quarantine, in order to protect ourselves from harm. This is not unlike the intention, attention, and orientation given to the practice of isolation (uzla/khalwa) in Islamic spirituality. For the purpose of such isolation is to avoid harm: a harm coming from ourselves and then others. This purpose serves the ultimate purpose of isolation, which is to spiritually isolate and retreat inwardly for God. In order to discover God’s ever-present Presence in our inner beings and outer lives, it is important to turn all or most of our energies of attention and intention inwards, towards the spiritual heart (qalb), in order to contact, awaken, and discover God’s Presence hidden and veiled by the attention we usually give to “everything other than God.”
It is this very inwardness, found through solitary retreat, meditating on our lives, and remembering God, through the recitation of His Noble Revelations and invoking His most holy Name, which opens that “gateless gate” of the spiritual Heart through which we find safety in Intimacy with God, whose Knowing-Presence suffices. It seems with the coronavirus we are halfway there: halfway into the potential and potency of a spiritual solitude in isolation and an inwardness that allows us to discover God as The Inward (Al- Batin), so that we may find anew His Presence as the Outward (Al-Dhahir) in the lives we live and the roles we are given. Yet, we must see with eyes of faith and feel with our hearts the Divine invitation and pull (jadhba). The renowned Scholar and celebrated Friend of God Shaykh Ibn Ata’iLlah Al-Iskandari al-Shadhili, states in his Hikam number twelve: “Nothing benefits the heart more than a spiritual retreat wherein it enters the domain of meditation (maydan fikrah).”
Human beings are not alone in benefitting existentially from our necessary vigilance, essentiality, and inwardness. In appreciating the universality of God’s concern (inaya), all of God’s creatures, from the animals in the seas to the world of the trees, are finally taking a breath of fresh air, as the involvement of our egoic (nafsani) energies are re-directed to “more needful” and important pursuits. In its own way, nature’s temporary benefit from humanity’s isolation has shown indirectly, the grand significance of humanity’s role as God’s vicegerent (khalifa) on an earth—a role which has been abused by humanity’s ego. This process has called forth an important and necessary “contraction” (qabd) of the desires and acts of our ego (nafs), with the hopes of an expansion of that which constitutes a more holistic and wholesome dimension of our Being—that is, our Spirit (Ruh). According to another renowned mystic and celebrated Friend, Abu Yazid Al-Bistami: “When the Heart (qalb) contracts, the ego (nafs) expands; when the nafs contracts, the qalb expands.” Perhaps after years or decades, even centuries, of expansion of the worldliness of the modernity of the global ego, it has become a “hidden Mercy” to appreciate the value of egoic contraction on a contemporary worldwide scale.
What is left for us is to discover the expansion of the spiritual Heart (qalb), one soul at a time. Such opportunity for discovery is upon us now. That opportunity is Ramadan. If there was ever a sign from God to work on egoic contraction and spiritual expansion, and to see the work of His Beautiful Wisdom in apparent difficulty, it is now. This now is truly the now of every moment, but in particular the now of our coronavirus moment, and the now of the descent of His Mercy, Forgiveness, and Salvation as tasted in Ramadan. As Allah (subhanahu wa ta'ala) states in the Holy Qur’an: “Verily with(in) every hardship, there is ease; indeed within every hardship, there is ease” (94:5–6). In its own special way, the coronavirus is showing global humanity how inevitably inter-connected we are. This is both alarming, in light of health complications, and beautifully true, in light of the recovery, hope, and goodness that has come out of this illness. Such a pandemic is a reminder of how powerful the effects of “the unseen” really are. We cannot see this virus—or any virus or microbe, for that matter—yet its effects are seen and experienced. God is also “unseen,” but is the “Unseen Seer,” whose Loving Presence is more Real and pervasive than any pandemic could ever be to our direct experience—if only we are available, through the activity of faith and the stillness of reflection, to see it. All this is a good reminder to isolate ourselves for God and the greater good, while vigilantly working on ourselves to build a better “now,” so that our world can benefit from a safer and healthier “then”, with the Permission of God (bi-idhniLlah). May God’s Moment find our hearts open through gratitude (shukr) and vigilant surrender (taslim), this moment of Ramadan. Ameen.
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