By Hamza Yusuf.
As Ramadan moves along, we realize the rapidity with which the month travels. The word “month,” derived from “moon,” essentially measures one lunar cycle: the roughly 29.5 days it takes the moon to circle the earth. A lag time is involved due to the earth’s spin and its own movement around the sun. The Qur’an tells us that fasting is prescribed so we may learn to ward off evil, and then reminds us of the “limited days” (ayyaman m’adudat) before fasting comes to an end (2:183-184). The plural form used for “days” is known in Arabic morphology as a “plural of paucity,” meaning the number is not large. In other words, Ramadan is a limited time of spiritually powerful days.
During Ramadan, one can achieve spiritually what would take far longer during other times of the year. But restraining our zest for food is a prerequisite. In his book Hujjat Allah al-Balighah, Imam Shah Wali Allah al-Dahlawi explains that our faith provides special times of blessing that have enhanced spiritual power, and only a receptive soul will experience great openings during such times. To prevent the openings from blockage, he recommends, among other things, ensuring that the stomach is not sated. This advice is in the prophetic tradition. The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “The worst vessel the son [or daughter] of Adam ever fills is his [or her] stomach.” He also said, “It is enough for the son of Adam to eat a few morsels that will maintain his back’s uprightness. But if he must add more to his stomach, then let it be one third for food, one third for water, and one third for air.” The Persian scholar Sahl al-Tustari was asked about a man who ate once a day, and he replied, “This is the way of the prophets.” Asked about someone who eats twice a day, he said, “This is the way of the righteous.” Finally, he was asked about someone who eats three meals a day, and he replied, “Build for him a trough!” Abu Madyan al-Ghawth, who laid the foundations along with Imam al-Ghazali for the way of Shaykh Abd Allah al-Haddad of Hadhramaut, remarked that his own path was one of hunger.
Ramadan is an especially opportune time to reflect on the blessings of food and satiety. When we eat less, our stomachs shrink, and we feel full after a few bites at the end of the day. Fasting allows us to experience once a year what many throughout the world experience almost daily. Hunger, for them, is not a choice; it is simply a fact of life. Currently, Somalia and other parts of East Africa are gripped by a devastating drought, and the lives of millions of men and women — and sinless children — hang in the balance. Such tragedies make some people ask, “Where is God?” But God may very well answer with a question: “Where are you?!” After all, these catastrophes are avoidable. A recent study of global food wastage indicates that we waste millions of tons of food each year. Even a portion of that would ward off any potential famine.
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Somalia has gone through great tragedies of late. We should not forget that in the not too distant past, Somalia was a wonderful pastoral society of profoundly spiritual people. The occasional clashes of clan and feuds over water were usually resolved by the elders without bloodshed. Somalis had an irenic culture largely bilingual due to their love of Arabic and immersion in a classical training in the Yemeni tradition of islam, iman, and ihsan. They were people who would wake before dawn to call on their Lord before setting out for a rural day’s work. I know this both from my own elderly Somali friends whom I cherish, and also from my time in a very similar society in West Africa. In fact, the Somali of Mauritania are descendants of Somali migrants from East Africa. Some of the most brilliant scholars I met in Mauritania are from the Somali people. In the San Francisco Bay Area, our own dear Shaykh Abdar Rahman Tahir, a brilliant scholar of Arabic from Somalia, was a student of the great master of Arabic, Muhyiddin Abdul Hamid.
Somalia’s recent history has unfortunately been one of political upheaval and the collapse of civil society and functional government. As it emerged from the weight of colonialism, it fell victim to Cold War politics and international intrigue due to its important strategic spot in the Horn of Africa. Now the persistent poverty has been compounded by drought and famine, even as internal violence makes everything far worse. Yet Africans in general are always low on the so-called world community’s list for help. Higher up on the list are the bailouts of Wall Street firms or the financial institutions of Greece or Italy or Spain because those have consequences for people in the West. But when it comes to starving Africans, one hears the refrain, “When are they going to help themselves?” That is the thinking of Iblis. The Qur’an quotes the mentality of such people; they say, “Shall we feed those whom had God could have fed if He willed?” (36:47). The Prophet, peace and blessings upon him, said, “You are aided by aiding the weak among you.”
Somalia deserves to have the aid of all of us.
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It is Ramadan, a time when our own self-induced hunger should bring us a bit closer to those whose hunger is caused by circumstance, not choice. I am in the Emirates now and have seen the generosity of the government and its people here in coming to the aid of Somalia; they have sent about 900 tons of food and have begun well-drilling operations. But much more needs to be done. The Red Crescent is extremely active there, as are other charitable organizations.
Charity conquers the greed of our souls and actualizes the solidarity of humanity, as those who have reach out to those who have not with love, compassion, and faith. Let us all remember them tonight at iftar as we break our fasts and pray for them. Let each of us find it in our hearts to do something, no matter how small, to address the problem. And let us not forget to pray for our brothers and sisters in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan, whose Ramadan is filled with trials and tribulations, while most of ours are filled with relative ease and comfort.
In this blessed month of Ramadan, let us do what we are able for those in need, whose hunger and pain is likely to outlast this brief month.