Ramadan provides a great opportunity to make a personal project out of self-improvement
By Hammad Ali
I have to admit, I love special days, weeks, or months. In a world where we are often overwhelmed by all the demands on our attention and our energy, a special day honoring something is a great way to slow down and be a little more mindful of our lives, values, and whether they are in alignment.
Pretty much any excuse to think about what one has been spending time and energy on, and pivoting as needed, is a good thing in my book. Almost everyone does this on the last day of December, making resolutions for the new year, deciding good habits to develop or bad ones to hopefully drop. Of course, it is probably just as common to hear that most of us fail in our resolutions within the first few weeks of January. Maybe that is further reason why we must hold on to every excuse to mark a day as special, and use it to take stock of our lives.
I have been outside Bangladesh for almost seven years now, but I did get to experience the month of Ramadan in Bangladesh in 2018 during a visit. Of course, that was a little different because I was essentially a guest in my own house and city, and not having to work and commute during Ramadan does make a huge difference. In that sense, my last Ramadan in Bangladesh was 2015. I was teaching in a university, had a part-time job with a newspaper that took some of my time, and of course, there was the never-ending commute to and from work.
Despite all the demands on my time and the challenges of Ramadan during summer months, I recall those days with a lot of fondness and nostalgia. There was just something about Ramadan in Dhaka, something that I have never found anywhere else, and that includes the ones I spent in my hometown of Khulna, leading up to Eid celebrations with family.
We can venture to guess what it is that set Dhaka apart and made it so special. Was it the makeshift street food vendors selling the sort of offerings we can only find for this one month in the year? Was it the heightened sense of one’s spiritual needs and aspirations that this month afforded us? Was it the fact that at least for this one month, family always got to share at least two meals together and spend most evenings together?
Looking from a purely secular and objective perspective, I think the thing I enjoyed the most about Ramadan is how work/school hours were reduced, to make it easier on our bodies to cope with the demands of fasting. While I admit to sleeping a lot more in the afternoons back from work, I also always tried to take this opportunity of reduced demands on my time to pick up some good habits or finish some projects of personal interest.
Initially, most of these projects or habits were spiritual in nature. I have forgotten most of the intense Arabic lessons from my childhood, but one year I decided to use pockets of time after Suhr and before Iftar, and sometimes after Iftar as well, to read a good commentary on the Quran. I got the idea from social media, interestingly, with a nice breakdown of how many pages I would need to read daily to get through the whole text within the month.
While something as vast, profound, and multi-dimensional like the Quran can never really be fully appreciated with one reading, in the following years I tried a variety of other projects. Over time, I read a variety of other books on the history of Islam, biographies of the prophet, and also heard lectures on the core principles of faith.
But I am not claiming that I only used that extra time found in Ramadan for spiritual pursuits. I thought the lighter demands of the month were ideal to experiment with many other things, and over the years I used the opportunity to write more often in my diary, learn a new language, and one year, just go on walks every evening in the neighborhood park. For me, the point was to use the extra time I was given, to somehow add an extra dimension, to bring in some quality practice to my life.
Here in Canada, of course, Ramadan comes and goes without anything around me changing, certainly not the demands on my time. But I remain just as interested in slowing down, marking the passage of time, and doing something to take stock of life and adding something of value to it. Nor do I feel the need for this to be something productive and useful in the more colloquial sense of the word. One year, I marked the month by making more time to talk to family members as well as friends all over the world.
Another Ramadan is here. Another Ramadan that I will be spending in Canada. For all I know, all the future Ramadans of my life will be spent outside Bangladesh. But I will keep my old habit, of taking on a project for this month. So far away from home, a home that has also changed so much, this can be my own little sanctuary.