And struggle for Allah with the struggle due to him (Quran 22:78).
The Quran says that fasting has been commanded to Muslims as it was commanded to all other faith communities prior to them (2:183) in order that the believer becomes God-conscious. The purpose of fasting is to make the awareness of God and the relationship between the human self and the divine more acute and more conscious. It is indeed one of the most demanding of all the five pillars of Islam, as it mandates the disciplining of the body, the mind and the spirit.
Indeed, I believe that Ramadan is the battleground where the greater Jihad must be fought.
In order to understand this we need to understand the essence of Ramadan and the meaning of greater Jihad.
The month of Ramadan has two critical components: One is the goal to abstain from doing anything that makes us heedless and forgetful of God, and the other is to pay greater attention to his guidance — and that is the Quran.
The entire purpose of the month of Ramadan, indeed of Islam itself, is to bridge the existential gap between the created and the Creator. As long as the created asserts her individual being, she remains distanced from the true Reality of being. The ultimate goal is to annihilate (Fana’a) one’s own self in order to be united with the ultimate and the universal self. Indeed the sense of longing for a taste of the Divine is never felt more acutely than it is in the month of Ramadan. In Ramadan we control our appetite for the created things with the fond hope that desire for the Creator will finally be satiated.
So we fast, we abstain from food, drinks, sex, anger, jealousy, conflict and hate. And then we pray, more often and for longer periods than usual. We perform extended and intense remembrance of God (zikr). Many pray the taravih prayer that combines the two elements of Ramadan, worship and Quran. The Quran was revealed in this month, and as a result Muslims pay extraordinary attention to it in Ramadan. I hope that rather than focusing on just reciting and listening to it, Muslims would perhaps study, reflect and discuss it to understand it and its application in our time and place.
The Greater Jihad
On the way back from a battle, according to a tradition, Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him) remarked to his companions that they had arrived from a lesser Jihad to a greater Jihad. When asked what was the greater Jihad, he responded, Jihad al-Nafs. Jihad al-Nafs is the struggle against one’s own soul. It is the effort to systematically and consistently discipline one’s soul. It is the ultimate and eternal battle within the noble instinct and the lower appetites, both of which reside within the human soul.
But how does one engage in this greater Jihad? Well the best opportunity is in the month of Ramadan. In fact all Muslims who are engaged in fasting and worship in the month of Ramadan have already launched a major battle against that aspect of their soul that is susceptible to worldly temptations. One must view one’s self as the greatest enemy and challenge and make oneself the object of revival and reform.
One begins this month in a state of narcissistic heedlessness. Focused on the self and oblivious to the Divine. And with each sacrifice of favorite food, favorite drink, favorite pastime and sexual pleasures (during daylight hours), one begins to de-center one’s self and slowly shed the shackles of narcissism. And, as one then begins meditating on the nature and the reality of the divine, one slowly begins to bring back God to the center of one’s existence. Fasting, charity and constant remembrance of God is the goal. The poet Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi expressed this idea, as only he could:
Who are we, O Thou soul of our souls,
that we should remain in being beside thee?
The true Jihad is ultimately the overcoming of the self. This is what is due to God. Indeed for the Sufis it means that it is the annihilation of the self (Fana’a) in order to remain in a state of emptiness (Ba’qaa) that is ready to be occupied by nothing, except Divine reality. I conclude as I began with the Quran.
Indeed she has truly succeeded, She who has purified her soul (Quran 91:9).