I have just returned from Scotland and the Outer Hebrides, which have left an indelible mark on my spiritual canvas.
I am home and after Sehri (Ramadan breakfast at dawn) and Fajr Salah (dawn prayer) I begin to trim the dead plants on my deck. It has accumulated a combination of burnt leaves from the 100-degree Fahrenheit weather in my absence and some plants, which are still gasping. They seem like they may have given up but I want to give them another chance.
It begins to rain while I work outside in the early morning. I am drenched, as I clear the dead leaves and the mud on the deck. It is a surreal Ramadan. I feel I am spanning three continents. Pakistan in Asia, Scotland in Europe and my home in North America.
A click of the keys takes me to Pakistan. A train lies partially submerged in a muddy river in Pakistan where a bridge gave way. Neglected, the bridge grew old with no reinforcement of supports. There has been no care or encouragement for it to carry on bearing the weight of the thundering train that passes over it everyday. The train carries people packed to the gills, fleeing the heat of Karachi, where people are dying like flies. It is a surreal Ramadan. 117-degree Fahrenheit heat in Karachi with no electricity for many hours, killing friends and strangers alike..
Meanwhile in Scotland it is cold and wet on the mainland and the flowers have just begun to bloom, after a long harsh winter. In the Outer Hebrides It is three days of glorious sunshine. The birds are busy nesting to start a new generation. Where the wind blows so hard that a human being like me standing on the cliff above the sea can be blown into it with a strong enough gust.
The Outer Hebrides: the domain of raw Nature, where man is an insignificant interloper, kept in check by the harsh winds and uncompromising, unpredictable weather.
Where a castle of an opium Lord lies derelict, who grew his fortune on the back of the unsuspecting Chinese by providing them Opium. Where greed overcame the love and compassion of people and was written in history with one word “The Clearances”. Where Allah SWT levels the playing field after lengthening the rope of repentance for a long enough period. Where unrelenting cold winters purify the land every few years. I am here witnessing it. It is a surreal Ramadan.
I return home and the plants are scorched, stamped by the heat while I was gone. Now it begins to rain and the temperature dips from 100 degrees Fahrenheit into the 50s and I am transported back to Scotland where Ramadan began.
Sunshiny days interspersed with cloudy; rainy days in Scotland feel cold to my Pakistani skin that has still not acclimated to the western climes nor the immodest exposure of skin
Ramadan for me has been ushered in with three days in the Outer Hebrides, or the Western isle of Scotland, which are surreal.
A place where The Divine rules with an impregnable Hand. Where I learn that no matter how much you plan, you have to let it all go and accept what Allah (SWT) puts in your way, every day.
Traveling up the ribbon roads through the mountains on the Isle of Harris, I realize that Life is like these ribbon roads.
The intense awareness of what might happen if I lose attention even for a split second keeps me on the road till it brings me to my destination.
In real life, the road is the Siraat e mustaqeem (The straight path or the road to ultimate happiness, close to The Divine). However unlike the straight easy, smooth, fast highway that I envisioned it to be, it is not.
These ribbon roads have mountains on the inner side with sharp loose rocks in minimal shoulders. On the other side is the steep fall into the clear intensely blue waters of the Loch shimmering in the sun that beckon seductively. The water is so far down that I cannot see the rock that went careening down by contact with the wheel of my car. Staying on the road is a challenge, both here on the ribbon roads of the Isle of Harris and life itself.
In Life however Allah SWT instructs us about the road and how to drive on it to reach our destination of Happiness.
He introduces us to Taqwa, which is defined as an intense awareness of His Divine presence in our life, guiding us, on this ribbon highway of life. It is a lifeline to prevent falling off the cliff while looking at the beauty of the water (temptations) and or smacking against the harsh mountain (harsh mistakes) by taking my attention off the road (The road to happiness), which would drop me in a ravine (painful consequences)
He mentions Taqwa 80 times or perhaps more in the Quran.
Taqwa is defined as awareness on my part that He in His infinite Wisdom, Love and Majesty is watching over me. No matter how hard the road, to survive intact I must remain connected to Him (SWT), fear Him, love Him and be conscious of Him at all times.
Even in moments of desperation I have to remember His promise in the Quran:
Translation by Asad:
And unto everyone who is conscious of God, He [always] grants a way out [of unhappiness],
Back on the ribbon roads of the Isle of Harris, it is this high level of focused awareness that allows me to maneuver the car to the ever changing contours of the slim road. I carefully avoid the mountainside, which is rife with sharp rocks of all sizes. These include small ones that could spin the wheels of my car and send me careening into the side of the mountain or across the road into the gleaming waters of the Loch, car, me and all.
As my little fiat climbs a hill and comes to a point from which the road disappears into the top of the hill and its continuation is no longer visible, a surprise waits for me.
Just as I should be paying most attention to the road as it suddenly drops and veers to the right I am stunned by the beauty of the panorama that unfolds like a cinemascope live movie in front of me. In the middle of nowhere, turquoise waters, white sandy beaches and mountains standing at the edge hold down the canvas wet with the brush of the Al Musawwir (The Artist).
The beauties, which may be perceived or real, and the dangers of the mountain, which seem innocuous at first pass, represent the distractions of life, both pleasant and harmful. These may take us off the road of Life or injure us irrevocably.
Thus the training for Taqwa has to come before one launches onto our life journey. This is where parents come in, followed by personal responsibility with frequent consultation of maps, weather report and most of all vigilance when all information is cut off. As Sheikh Maghraoui says everyday there should be “a regular diet of Ilm” (Knowledge of Deen), to boost our knowledge of what lies ahead.
This is the preparation for my Ramadan! Focus! Allah says to me “ Focus!” not only what I gave you but also focus on where you are going, and all the impediments and distractions on the road. Focus! Focus! Focus!
My Ramadan prep from Allah is all about Focus, and living in the present.
This Ramadan is not a race like previous ones. I am not racing to complete x number of siparas and finishing the Quran X number of times. It is not about listening to others explain superficially what the Quran means in a tafseer limited by their intellect and background. It is not about standing in taraweh to compete whether one lasts 6, 12 or 22 rakahs, and then fall into an exhausted slumber.
This is a Ramadan of feeling, and living it, in timelessness. Having said that, the timelessness is not without milestones: There is the opening and closing of the fast, which sometimes is overtaken by sleep of jet lag. There are the five prayers and the recitation of the Quran; these are the milestones of the day. In between Allah unfolds what He wants to show me and it is unique everyday……………
What about obligations you may ask? As I walk this Ramadan almost in a trance, I ask which of these obligations will serve me on the Day of Judgment. Slowly and surely I shed my perceived worldly obligations one by one. Just as a person on a boat going out to sea sheds weight till the bare minimum needed is reached. I have not reached that yet!
However the inner dialogue continues, “How well are you performing your tasks? Are you in the present?
Somehow it is a “Feeling”, “Doing” Ramadan. First feeling then doing. The feeling comes like a torrential rain and takes you down the river or down the ribbon roads of the Isle of Harris and you witness unimaginable beauty paired with unimaginable danger of being plunged into it irrevocably and you think…………..Just Focus, Just Focus, Just Focus…and feel this Ramadan, don’t fill imaginary To Do items in this Ramadan. Let this Ramadan be unique, it may be your last one! Allah knows best.