I’ve heard people say that Arabic calligraphy is about the space between the letters, and its spiritual vocal art about the silence between the phrases. Could meaning be found in the absence of things, rather than in their presence? This was a thought I pondered upon during this first week of Ramadan. It feels like the first Ramadan to me. For the first time it’s not merely a struggle against hunger or thirst, but a conscious retreat to less of things, towards an enjoyment of the emptiness.
In the place we live in, I find it very easy to get a little lost in the culture of reaching outwards for happiness. To reach out for something that would make me feel good, alive or simply existing. It could be anything that could mirror my presence, anything that could be enjoyed, anything that could occupy my mind. Eating a delicious croissant, rechecking my mail, watching videos on YouTube, reading articles, listening to just another song. It’s a luxury to have access to all those beautiful sources. Yet at the end of the day I often find myself with very little empty time left to reconnect to what is real and to contemplate.
I’ve been missing the silence and the empty spaces. I remember how I felt it so clearly when I was in Morocco meditating on the roof at sunset, or during the spiritual Islamic ceremonies with the great masters of Quran recitation and devotional songs, or when I was with my grandfather sailing at sea at night.
The coming of this Ramadan was like an invitation, an opportunity not to be missed, to pay attention to what my soul needs. To reserve a space for that purpose, to listen, to be become a little emptier. To rid the house of unnecessary things. I entered the first days of Ramadan with Rumi’s words in my mind:
“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
The beginning of the fast felt like being in surgery, with layers being peeled off little by little. It’s a very interesting process where so many things come to the surface and reveal themselves; sadness, love, tiny frustrations, hope, boredom, peace. All of it, the whole spectrum, uncovered. Sometimes they seem to come out of nowhere. It made me wonder: were they always there?
In the night I try free up my space for silent dhikr and recitation. Many people I know read the whole Quran during this month, or memorise long suras. I hope to do that some time as well. This year I chose something much smaller, yet not easy: learning to recite Ayat al Kursi correctly. I’m a non-native speaker of Arabic, born to a Dutch mother and a Moroccan father, but raised mostly in my Dutch family. It’s not easy for me to pronounce Arabic verses in a way that does justice to the words and their meaning. I’ve recited the verse many times before and knew its translation. So now I was mainly focused on its pronunciation.
Night after night I was dwelling on the ‘Ayn, the Ra, the Qaf and their companions, trying to feel where the letters are rooted, which muscles should be contracted and released, which movements made. It was only after a week that I suddenly realised what I was saying: “Lahu maa fi as-samaawaati wa maa fi al-ard”, “To Him belongs what is in the heavens and on earth”. This phrase brought me back to a moment in my past where the silence and emptiness I missed was so vividly present. It was after a difficult period in which I felt lost. Things I believed in proved not true, things I hoped for appeared not meant to happen. The moment I ceased to struggle, there was an immense relief and peace in accepting the situation the way it was, in saying alhamdulillah. In those moments I deeply realised that I didn’t have anything. That all is His. That nothing is to be taken for granted. All is given. The only thing that was sure, was the moment. It made me more grateful for the present moment. Everytime now during Ramadan when I feel the hunger and do not eat, it’s in remembrance of what I’m given, as an act of gratefulness.
At the same time the phrase “To Him belongs what is in the heavens and on earth”, is also a reminder to me of our responsibilities towards the sources we have access to. Whether food, nature or people, they are not ours to be exploited, used, consumed infinitely, but to be approached with the utmost respect and care. The way we treat things that belong to someone we really love.
During this Ramadan a few people blog about how they experience this holy month. You can find the other texts here.