We are now within the final ten days of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, and it must feel surreal for some that this month is ending after all the hype that surrounded its approach this year: “The days will be far too long to fast! Let’s spend the month in a nice Southern country.” Yet with the amount of dinner (or breakfast, depending on your point of view) invites I’ve received this month, it is not so strange that it seems to have moved quickly.
The fast of Ramadan is a peculiar ritual for many reasons. One of the most striking attributes of this month for me is the sheer uncertainty which accompanies it. In contrast to most Muslim rituals which are governed by clearly defined rules outlined in religious law, the Qur’an isolates and describes a night of Ramadan which is of immense benefit to the believer described as “The Night of Qadr”:
The Chapter of Qadr
1) We sent it (the Qur’an) down on the night of qadr
2) And what could let you know what the night of qadr is
3) The night of qadr is better than a thousand months
4) The angels and the spirit come down on it by leave of their lord from every amr
5) Peace it is until the rise of dawn
The Arabic word “Qadr” is often rendered “power” or “fate” in English, yet neither of these grasps the full extent of its meaning as the word encompasses both of these concepts and more. Despite the significance of the Night of Qadr, Muslims remain unaware as to which day of Ramadan it actually falls on. This uncertainty mirrors the mysterious nature of the Night described in the Qur’an. The chapter seems to tease the inquisitive reader, revealing only hints and clues as to what the Night of Qadr is until fully described in the fourth verse. However, even with this explanation the Night of Qadr itself is still unknown in Muslim practice, as it has only been narrowed down to the last ten days of Ramadan.
The lunar calendar is of no help in this respect. The inception and end of Ramadan are characterised by much confusion as Muslims have their own opinions about what “sighting the new moon” means. During Ramadan I am suddenly strangely aware of the changing shape of the moon and begin estimating days through moon sightings while the movement of the sun directs my behaviour and eating patterns. While this may seem a bit impractical to some (at school my friends would often ask me whether I was secretly a vampire or werewolf), I find that this attitude towards time is rather refreshing.
We live in a structured, orderly and rigid society. Most people in Britain work from 9am to well after 5pm. By the time the commute home is complete the best part of the day is gone. I know many who meticulously plan their days just so that they can do something interesting with their time. Yet, what is time if not simply the movement of a large celestial body through space?
In Ancient and Medieval philosophy the earth was conceived to be the centre of the universe, and the movements of the sun, planets and moon the agents of God around the earth governing time and the fate of humanity. Man existed in the lowest spiritual sphere at the centre, furthest away from God who would set events into motion from his seat in the highest celestial sphere.
By contrast we now conceive time as being governed by the movement of our own planet on its own axis, requiring a little less than 24 hours to complete. We still consider ourselves at the centre, only now without any sense of being far from the divine. This modern conception of man at the centre of the universe allows us to see ourselves as masters of fate. It lends itself so easily to a pattern of rigidity which pushes us to become too attached and too comfortable with our routines; providing us with a false sense of security.
In order to function in our societies we must accept a certain conception of time. I do not advocate the destruction of all clocks and calendars, they are a necessity, yet the nice thing about Ramadan is that it temporarily subverts time. Not only are we uncertain about its beginning and end, our daily patterns and routines completely change; skipping lunch and coffee, having dinner at 9pm, socialising after midnight, and worshipping until sunrise as the Night of Qadr approaches. Conception of time begins to be governed by spiritual measures as Muslims worship on each potential Night of Qadr. To me this is different to both the prevalent Medieval and Modern perspectives of time which aim for order above all else.
Instead of striving to maintain order, the believer finds comfort and spiritual meaning in uncertainty, in fluid time where the true nature of the word “Qadr” can be realised. It is both an acknowledgement of the uncertainty of one’s fate, and finding strength and power within the acceptance of such uncertainty.
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