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Music in my Soul

May 5, 2020

‘No, I’m not fasting.’

Hard words for me to say. An admission of not practising my faith in this Holy Month.

I want to say this first week has had a considerable impact on my life; a delicate veil of listening more deeply, a silent dhikr/ a remembrance of God’s infinite wisdom, of prayer and reflection, modelling rituals to my children, sharing these with my mother, who thanks to COVID is stuck here with us!

This would have been my first Ramadan when I’m not pregnant or breastfeeding (both of which exempted me from this part of the practice), and so far, strictly speaking, I’ve not been ‘clean’ to fast (thanks to my intense monthly cycle). And regardless, I do not, right now, feel in the right place to truly slow down, to turn my gaze inwards, to switch off and float, as I’ve enjoyed doing during this Month for most of my adult years. By the time I graduated from university, my family had all left the UK, so fasting become a solitary practise for me, my eccentric way of tuning inwards, of letting go (physically and spirituality) of basic needs. I’d practise Kundalini yoga, alongside silent dhikr at home, a Sufi circle or the occasional tarawee7 in the mosque. I also made sure that at least a handful of times, I invited friends over for Iftar, regardless of whether they shared my faith or practise, to share in the spirit of Ramadan. This was my past practise, when I had my support system in place, when my responsibilities were different, and life felt more steady and stable.

Right now, I need my strength, my clarity of mind, my feet strongly rooted to the ground, to anchor myself, to be present to my current reality. I have a myriad of reasons, beyond COVID, to say that I do not want my faith to be a burden, but a support. How can I support myself with God firmly in my heart? 

Ramadan is not simply about eating, or not, it’s generally agreed that the practice is deeper than the physical, but why is variations on fasting disregarded so quickly by other Muslims? Any variance is viewed, at best, a joke, at worse, an insult. A taboo at both ends. This judgement is subtle and familiar.

‘Fasting’ as far as Muslims are concerned is not eating or drinking from sunrise to sunset. Simple. If you choose to have water, that’s not fasting. If you smoke, that’s definitely not fasting- and I have personally silently judged smokers who claim they are only ingesting air! But I’ve admired those who say they will only drink water but not eat, or have a banana with their medications in the morning and continue until sunset, fast half the day, like we did as children… these creative modifications strike me as people choosing to find a way into their faith, fitting themselves into a practice that can otherwise seem unattainable. Can they not say they are ‘fasting’? 

Similarly with reciting the Qur’an. A woman is not to recite to a mixed audience. Anyone reciting has strict rules to adhere to, like which vowels to elongate and how to clip particular consonants. Do not make the recitation akin to singing! Although musical, this is not music. This is the word of God. No one is to recite with any mistakes. A mistake is near blasphemy, an insult on what is perfection and inimitable. 

I recently recorded a short chapter from the Holy Book, and when I played the recording to my mother, she looked concerned: ‘There are two mistakes!’ I was aware of one of the mistakes, but I was glad to have recorded something in-the-moment, that’s alive and connected. I wanted to share with friends, the unconventional way I choose to vocalise God’s words to my children every night at bedtime. There will be mistakes, because I learned these chapters by heart as a child, and to my ears, this is music, because to me that is not an insult, but the highest praise. 

‘The same archangel Gabriel who visited our Prophet (Peace be Upon him)’, my grandfather used to say, ‘visited Mozart and Verdi, because their music is divinely inspired.’ 

A blasphemous statement to many Muslims, but to me, this was an enlightened man, whose love for God was echoed in all that he loved and what enriched his soul, from nature to music. 

My experience last Ramadan was torturous attempts to connect with a man who attended Friday prayers and did not eat from sunrise to sunset, but who chose to punish and deny me the pleasure of sharing iftar with him, to leave our home ten minutes before his first and final meal of the day, knowing the peace and pleasure I have in cooking for those I love. Alas, how we adhere to our faith is not in his or my judgment, but in God’s infinite wisdom, His ability to see beyond the surface, into our heart and soul.

When I questioned my grandfather as a child, asking why all our household fasted except my grandmother, he immediately defended her:

‘Whether your grandmother fasts or not is between her and her Creator. Besides, your grandmother looks after you, she prepares a sumptuous meal for us, puts up with our low energy and short temper, even our stinking breath! Perhaps to God, her actions have more value than our fasting, because we fast for ourselves, but her actions are for us all.’

Islam places a lot of value on niyya, or intention, as that is the essence of our thoughts and actions. Practise without intention is misguided, but to those following the petrified shell of religion, rules are paramount.

To those of us who choose the malleable, subtle, inner workings of our faith, we carve our path to the Divine, and do so with music in our soul. 

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