In the seventh chapter of the Qur’an, translated into English as “The Heights,” God tells humanity that, before Adam’s creation, He gathered the souls of all who would live to ask them, “Am I Not Your Lord?”
When your Lord drew forth from the Children of Adam their descendants and made them testify concerning themselves, [saying]: “Am I not your Lord?” — They said: “Yes! So do we testify!” [This], lest ye should say on the Day of Judgment: “Of this we were never mindful.” (7:172)
It is often called The Covenant of Am I Not, because of the importance of this verse in the Muslim’s sense of purpose. There, gathered before their Creator and Sustainer, all humanity insists that they recognize their Lord. As a Muslim, I must believe that I, too, so recognized God back before I could possibly formally recall, much as I have no memory of my infancy but all the same cannot doubt it happened. That God, the One God, is also confirmed in this moment as humanity’s Lord, and He asks them so that, at the end of time, no one amongst us can claim unawareness. It is a moment when humanity is before God as a mass of individuals, yet all collectively assent.
It is the Muslim belief that the memory of this moment is buried inside of us. Though we do not inherit sin, though we are each born innocent, though no one can be tried for the errors of another, still somehow this memory courses through each of us. It may appear as a flash, a moment of sudden transcendence, as when we see a fantastic landscape, a marvelous setting sun, a beautiful face or take in a rousing and unforgettable score. We are reminded of something higher in us, not that elevates us arrogantly over others — that is a very different emotion — but a memory that unites us and frees us of pains, desperations, worries and anxieties: We were made somewhere better, and have the potential to return there. Our condition here is temporary.
The way the Muslim sees the human being in the world, our mind and heart are prone to getting clouded over. The soul becomes dulled. The mirror, as Rumi might put it, needs to be polished before it can reflect God’s mercy. Persons deeply in awe of their Lord experience, on a daily basis, a sense of peace, contentment and harmony, in concord with all other things that submit to God. That is the very meaning of Islam, and its purpose: to join creation in humble submission to our common Creator. But as Adam and Eve forgot and together ate from the tree and were expelled from the Garden — but forgiven this lapse — so too do we from time to time forget. Some of us more than others. We are always in danger of being overwhelmed by the world around us, consumed by everyday concerns, pedestrian worries and frivolous behavior. So how do we clear it away?
Ramadan is that yearly occasion when God provides a refuge. “The best of all months,” as the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, described it. A month during which Satan is absent, and each woman and man is free to pursue God without the negativity otherwise so pervasive. Ramadan is an opportunity to recharge. For many Muslims, the month is filled with tremendous spiritual energy, such that otherwise lethargic believers (in which category I’d file myself) find themselves with motivation and energy otherwise impossible. The absence of food works backwards: the less we eat, the more we’re capable of doing.
For 29 or 30 days, Muslims abstain from food, drink and sex during daylight hours. At least, we try to. Some of us, for health reasons, cannot. But still, the month is shot through with nightly dinners with family, friends and community; endless exhortations and opportunities for service and charity; and long nights spent in prayer. It’s a chance to make up for previous months, to inculcate new habits and hopefully end negative ones. For those of my readers from other faith traditions and with different beliefs, the opportunity to visit a mosque during a night of Ramadan should not be missed. You’ll take part in the iftar dinner, then have a chance, some time later, to hear a thirtieth of the Qur’an recited in a special nightly prayer, which makes its appearance only in Ramadan. (New Yorkers, check out the Islamic Center at NYU from Mondays to Thursdays.)
As it is, I do not fast. I cannot. For whatever reasons as He has, God has decided not to give me the health to be able to. So excused, my Ramadan seems always a little bit emptier, my eating (and in fact needing to eat) leaving me somewhat hollower. When the sun dips below the horizon and everyone eagerly takes a date and a glass of water, I feel left out. (If you’ve never experienced it, do try: In the mosque minutes before sundown, hunger has its own energy.) It is an odd feeling, in such a sacred time, to feel oneself on the outside, looking in. But I feel all the same the impulse to do more, to try more, to encourage myself to give more time to God and to push out the other thoughts in my way.
I’m 30 this Ramadan, old enough to know that the attitude I take into the month will determine much of how the month treats me. I have squandered Ramadans past, consumed by school or work or whatever other obligations press upon a person. I certainly hope I will not this time. For I have glimpsed, but only for moments, a kind of serenity, a sort of gaze inside myself and beyond myself, to a Covenant that I share with all the persons I walk by on the street, no matter that we have no apparent connection. Many times we’re just shoving past one another to get on the subway. Sometimes, listening to a recitation of the Qur’an, a note holds and breaks and the voice reciting does the same to those of us standing, listening. Perhaps this is the wisdom of Ramadan most concisely put: We must give up in order to gain, and we must pass on the immediate in order to see the permanent.
Haroon Moghul is Executive Director of The Maydan Institute, a consulting and communications project devoted to enhancing understanding between Muslims and the West. He graduated from NYU with a B.A. in Philosophy and Middle Eastern Studies, and he holds an M.A. and M.Phil. from Columbia University in Middle East, South Asian and African Studies. He is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at Columbia, focusing on Islamist political theory in colonial India.
Haroon was Director of Public Relations for the Islamic Center at NYU (2007-09), and has been selected a global Muslim Leader of Tomorrow, participating in the Third Annual Doha Conference. His writings and essays have appeared in a variety of media, including Dawn, The Friday Times, Religion Dispatches and Tikkun, as well as the Tabah Foundation of Abu Dhabi. Through the Islamic Center at NYU new media services, his sermons reach over 30,000 listeners per month in approximately 125 countries.
His first novel is The Order of Light (Penguin 2006; French trans