Suffering Through Ramadan in Riyadh

Suffering Through Ramadan in Riyadh on

Naeem Aslam

Originally published in July 2014

I have come to despise Ramadan in Riyadh. True, despise is a harsh emotion, but you may come to join me once you meander through the recesses of my mind…

It all started when we first arrived to the kingdom. We experienced our first Ramadan in a Muslim land – and it was exhilarating. Ramadan was no more a muffled observance by a religious minority – it was a proud experience causing greater society to unashamedly shout out its undying love for the One.  Ramadan ceased to be a state of aberration, with Muslims scuttling to their spiritual outposts in the scant Masjids dotting the American landscape, desperately seeking the company of fellow fasting Muslims. In Riyadh, the streets and shops were abuzz with a celebratory mood most deserving of Ramadan and every corner found a masjid alive with daily iftars and nightly prayers.

It was simply intoxicating.

And as with all intoxicants, the high was short-lived, superficial, and extremely ungratifying.

After almost twelve Ramadans in Saudi Arabia, I’m convinced there is no real understanding of and even less appreciation for this sacred month. Ramadan has become a priceless painting collecting dust in the garage of a cultural boor.

From the Mercy of the One who has no limit to His Mercy, we are presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Every. Single. Year. And this gift is squandered by the vast majority as they simply reshuffle their schedules and adjust their bodies to adapt to the various Ramadan ‘inconveniences’.

Ramadan is supposed to be the month of starving the nafs and feeding the heart. Instead, they pamper their bodies by sleeping all day and indulge their nafs by waking all night.

All year long we have unjustly imprisoned our hearts. We’ve clothed them in the orange jumpsuits of dunya, blinded them with the black hoods of our passions, surrounded them with the walls of our desires, callously scoffed at their requests for (spiritual) nourishment, and severed all ties with their kith and kin (the people of dhikr).

Yet, the Most Loving (subhanahu wa ta'ala) gives us a chance to undo all this damage beset upon our hearts. He has presented before us a succulent buffet of spiritual subsistence and invited our hearts to plunge into it. This, the month of the heart, has been carefully designed by our Lord to help us reenergize our enervated souls while wreaking chaos on our nafs. Allah (subhanahu wa ta'ala) has installed mechanisms to debilitate the voracious appetite of the nafs – no food, no drink, no spousal relations.  Knowing our nature and its addiction to these fuels of the nafs, Allah has instated a month-long embargo as an aid to our developing an alternative heart-based energy; an energy that is infinitely cleaner and infinitely enduring.

And what do my bungling hosts do with this gem? Instead of restraining the nafs, they give it carte blanche throughout the night. Shops are readily available to fancy any and every craving. Restaurants are filled with those filling the vessels of their insatiable appetites. Social gatherings are rescheduled to the wee hours of the night. Coffee shops are filled with patrons chatting away the last thirds of the night.

Starve the nafs?

Nay, this month has become a celebration of the nafs!

It has been transformed into a toothless vestige that is now celebrated like other vile, commercial holidays.

Oh, how urgently our hearts are in need of the REAL Ramadan!

We have failed to realize the nature of our hearts. Like our bodies that we are so quick to titillate with every possible sensation, our hearts too need nourishment. They hunger for a provision that has Divine ingredients. They long to be entertained by passions and joys furnished by their Creator.

Yet, the one time of the year in which the most Merciful has laid out the red carpet, we spurn His favors, choosing instead to find alternative ways to suckle our ever-dependent nafs.

Sad to say, but Ramadan in Riyadh is catered for feeding the nafs, not the heart.  What nourishment does one offer the heart with the endless Iftar buffets lavishly laid out at countless restaurants?  What benefit do the accommodating shopping hours provide to the heart? What value is it to the heart spending all night laughing and playing in an istiraha*? What else but the nafs is fed from the special TV dramas and comedies featured in Ramadan?

Alas, in such an environment, replete with devices designed to anchor down our heaven-aspiring hearts, should not one despise it? Indifference is worse, no? I’ve tried for the past few years to no avail. Maybe you’ll suggest empathy; after all we should feel sorry for the misguided. But would you dare suggest empathy towards an abusive husband? I declare abusing the heart is worse.

Yes, scorn is most fitting.  Not for the people, but for the society. And I fear that my scorn would not be limited to Riyadh if I had but the chance to experience Ramadan in other Muslim lands.

*An Istiraha (trans. 'place of rest’) is a small enclosed park-like facility, usually rented out for an entire day (or night) by a few families. It usually includes separate sitting areas for men and women, an open grass area, a small pool, and a kitchen. Public parks are crowded, unclean, and not private, so an istiraha is the destination of choice for many families.

By Naeem Aslam , 15 Jun 2016

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