Originally published in July 2013.
One of the blessings of Ramadan is that it is a boot camp for the soul. Imam Al-Ghazali, in his work, Kitab Riyadat al-Nafs from the Ihya, describes the process of disciplining the soul and recommends building a fortress to keep the soul safe. This fortress is based on four things: hunger, wakefulness/sleeplessness, solitude and silence.
These are the four pedestals of mujahada (striving), the process of restraining and training our souls. And in Ramadan, these elements are automatically built in to our experiences in this month. We fast (hunger), we pray in the night and are awake before dawn (wakefulness), we retreat to the masaajid in taraweeh and 'itikaf and make a concerted effort to watch what we say (solitude and silence). The framework of the fortress is there, but it is a work in progress. Only if we are vigilant in strengthening its foundation will that fortress be able to withstand the harsh elements that it will face when Ramadan ends.
In increasing our efforts in the last ten nights, we are not just preparing for future challenges on the horizon, but also preparing our heart to be ready to receive the immense Divine gifts that shower upon us in these nights. One of the best ways to prepare ourselves and help us roll up our sleeves is to continue to focus on those four building blocks:
We have made it through over 20 days of fasting. All the anxieties and concerns we may have had about these long fasts and short nights are long gone. We might even say it is fairly easy now, almost routine. But when things get easy, then it time for us to challenge ourselves more, like a weightlifter incrementally adding more weight to the barbell to continue to progress in strength. As sages of the past remind us, the benefits of fasting cannot be optimized unless our hunger is more than what we are typically used to, to prevent our lower impulses from emerging. Keep up on the simple iftaar and suhoor, and try to eat less than we have been so far to reinvigorate the benefits of hunger—eat according to your needs, not your nafs (lower self). And don't forget, the less time spent eating, the more time available for worship.
This can be tough. Fasting tends to gets easier as the month goes along, but the sleep deprivation takes its toll, especially if we need to maintain busy schedules at work or with the family. The practice of sahar (wakefulness) is anchored in being vigilant in worship and reflection in the last portion of the night, which becomes all the more challenging as our sleep deprivation increases during the month. Sleeplessness teaches us about our own frailties and limitations, pointing us towards our utter reliance on Allah. Think of the times that you have implored Allah all the more greater to help you get through the day or to wake up on time for prayer or work.As the body tires, the heart awakens to new realities that it may have been veiled from under normal circumstances.
If you've been given the opportunity to take time off during the last ten nights, even if it is just one night, try to sleep less on those nights and spend time in different acts of worship, mixing it up to keep you fresh. Drowsiness is like hunger a lot of the time, it comes in spurts and sometimes just standing up or doing another activity will help you push through it.
If you have to maintain your usual work schedule and cannot stay up through the night, try to make an effort, if you have not been yet doing so, to pray through the entire taraweeh with the imam, including the witr, to receive the benefit of being considered to have prayed the whole night. On the other end, try getting up a bit earlier than your usual suhoor time. Even if it's just a few minutes earlier, spend that time in dhikr and du'a. There's no greater time for du'a than that period, in the last third of night.
In the last ten nights, retreating to the masaajid in 'itikaf is even more encouraged, so if you have the ability to do so, spend as much time as possible in the masjid. Even if you can't spend the whole night, spend more time than you have been previously, with that intention of 'itikaf. The key to remember is that 'itikaf is for a spiritual retreat, to minimize the external stimulation and distractions and focus the heart on its relationship with Allah. It's not about sleeping over in the masjid, but about starting over, starting a new chapter in your spiritual life, using the masjid as a vehicle to facilitate that transformation. Find a place where you can reflect and not be disturbed. Try not to intermingle more than necessary, while maintaining the necessary adab and courtesy for others as needed. For women who cannot attend the masaajid, some of the madhaahib (legal schools) allow for women to do 'itikaf in a specific place in their home, for even a brief period of time, and gain its rewards.
As the Prophet ﷺ said, "Let whosoever believes in Allah and in the Last Day either speak good or be silent." The agitation of our external tongue is intertwined with the internal agitation of our lower self. Bringing about quietude to our speech and environment goes a long way in calming our souls, while also promoting the atmosphere of fikr (contemplation) necessary to purify our hearts. Minimize the idle talk and chatting as much as possible and give the phone and social media a break, not just during the nights but during the workday. In those opportune moments where you find yourself alone at your desk or at home when the children are asleep (finally), contemplate deeply on the Creator and engage in spiritual reflection. Remind yourself of your shortcomings and of Allah's mercy and plead for Him to rectify your condition, with the supplication our Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him and his family) encouraged us to say in these last ten nights:
اللْهُمَّ إِنَّكَ عَفُوٌّ تُحِبُّ الْعَفْوَ فَاعْفُ عَنِّي
"O Allah, You are al-Afuww (The Eraser of Sins and Pardoner) and you love to pardon, so pardon me."
The beauty of this supplication is that we invoke the Divine characteristic of Al-Afuww, which is greater than forgiveness, for it completely obliterates and erases the sin off our permanent records, whereas in His Forgiveness, Allah conceals those sins on our record.
We ask Allah for both, and as we do so, let us also strive in these last ten nights to be forgiving with others. All too often, as we engage in our deeply personal worship in these ten nights, repenting to Allah and seeking His forgiveness, we forget that one of the essentials of repentance is that we resolve any violations we have committed towards others. Ramadan is a time where we see more of the Muslims than at other times of the year, at communal iftaars, taraweeh and other activities. We will see those who we have wronged or those who have wronged us. Just as the process of fasting, taraweeh and 'itikaf naturally facilitate the disciplining of the soul in Ramadan, the social light of this month, bringing the Muslims together, gives each of us an opportunity to heal past rifts and move forward. The last ten nights are a chance to bury old grudges and forgive one another, so that we can together invoke Allah on the Night of Power to forgive all of us for our violations towards Him.
The best example for us in these nights is our Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him and family), who, on the 20th of Ramadan, when entering Makkah in victory, forgave all those who had harmed him and his followers. It was an act that was the epitome of the Prophet's grace.
May Allah grant eternal success to the ummah of Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him and his family) and may we learn to emulate the Prophet's grace, both in Ramadan, and outside of it.
"O Allah, You are the Eraser of Sins, and you love to pardon, so pardon all of us."
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