Riotous Nafs

In this month of clemency, our Lord sent us a mercy in the form of a man who refused to fly into an unholy rage when his son was torn away from him in the midst of the anarchic disintegration that had seized a nation in the preceding hours. He has become an example for a nation; a light. Commentators on the Left and Right have hailed his humble, understated words as the voice of reason in a sea of chaos. He has been an embodiment of this holy month.

Every year in the weeks before Ramadan, strange thoughts flutter into my mind, planting a seed whose roots push far enough down into my heart that it will begin to sprout just as the fasting month begins. As my pious brethren set about welcoming the month of mercy, this soul heeds another call. It has long been clear that while the transgressions of the tongue derive from the whispers of the cursed one, these indiscretions come from within; from the soul of the self.

And so, even as I abstain from food and drink from dawn to dusk, the riotous nafs come into bloom. Each year the ailment is the same, provoking the same reaction, the same visions, the same plots and plans, sometimes at the beginning, sometimes at its end. This year: in the first then days, when sensible believers are found seeking the Mercy of their Lord. Instead of imploring my Creator to forgive and guide me, I was found harbouring an argument within: between the soul that cherishes righteousness and the soul that prefers rebellion. The first was weak and feeble, petitioning unconvincingly of an imminent end; the second was brazen, unheeding and arrogant. In the conversations within, it was the seditious soul that appeared to be on the ascendency.

We might find that these long summer fasts in the northern hemisphere are a great mercy, though they may not seem that way as our stomachs growl and shrink, as our frames become skeletal, as our eyes droop with sleep. For where the long nights of the winter fasts provide broad avenues for feasting and misdemeanour, these long days and short nights seem to curtail the conspiracies of the mutinous soul. As the sun sets there is no return to normality, no recuperation for the dissenter within; there is time for food and then comes that heavy fatigue, from which there is apparently no escape.

A week ago there arose strange contrivances, demanding strategies for the weeks that will follow this blessed month, when we will believe ourselves free from the restraints that impose self-discipline upon us now. But suddenly — whether due to the du’a of a friend or stranger or to the exhaustion that accompanies us as the month wears on — those erroneous designs have left me. Now that brazen soul has become feeble, whispering when it can for a return to its plots and plans, but even it is unconvinced. The righteous soul is still nowhere to be found, resigning to the intervention of this weary hunger instead.

My pious brethren strive in this month; they stand their nights in prayer and whenever their nafs petition them to act upon their lowest calls, they turn their backs and pray some more. This soul can only look on in awe, for it is tiredness that restrains it now; not piety, not righteousness, not religious purity. This is a soul that would sin through a month of immense mercy, were it not for the constrictions of a summer fast.

Mine are riotous nafs, which would tear down all that is good for short term gains, of little worth or value. I have not been wronged, I remind myself, but I wrong myself. And England lost its senses last week, not for the call of the devil, for the devils are chained in Ramadan, but for the calls of a nation’s nafs. It took one man — a mercy from above — to remind us of a higher calling, of a better way. He was Ramadan incarnate, the word made flesh. For the Muslim, it takes these long thirsty days, these parched throats, this heavy sleep, the aches and pains — all of this — to burn away our unholy desires, to overcome our riotous nafs.

My first Ramadan

January 1998: this was my first Ramadan, half a year before I came to believe in Islam. It was an experiment, an experiment that went badly wrong. Around November I had stopped eating pork, telling everyone who knew me that I didn’t like the taste. The first phase of my experiment. In the popular vocabulary of the non-practising Muslim it is said that eating pork makes you unclean. So my first hypothesis: if I stop eating sausages, bacon, ham, gammon and pork chops it will make me a better person. No luck there for the selfish idiot remained; but I sustained the boycott any way. I persevered, just as I did with the Bible when I hoped to discover my handed-down faith.

Christmas came and I returned home, eventually. All of those questions I had to ask, but which I didn’t have the courage to articulate. I sidled them away instead. I was too embarrassed to ask that most fundamental question, for it was the pillar of our faith. Perhaps things would make more sense, I thought, if I knew that crucial answer. “Who is Jesus meant to be?” “He’s the son of God.” “Yes, but what does that mean?” No one ever answers in definite certainty. My holidays over, no questions asked, no questions answered, I returned to London with a prayer. A prayer for guidance and a prayer for help.

But a prayer in private, though I had no religion, somehow felt like hypocrisy. Like mocking words, I thought I should prove my sincerity. So Monday morning, breakfast early, I prepared myself to fast. One day became two, and then two became more. Dawn until dusk, a secret fast, concentrating and focusing, fighting to honour God. Wednesday, words recited all day, “In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful…” All day and an animated prayer at midnight. No religion, but imagining I was getting there. Thursday feeling focussed, then discussions about my thoughts. Twice in the evening, finally a late night, all night talk; admissions and confessions, and advice given, “Just keep on reading.” Friday morning, two new books, perspectives by non-Muslims. Now a final, smashing blow, from a Christian perspective on Islam, everything I came to know crumbled to the ground. Little trust in the words, but the fragility of my faith seemed an indicator of my error. No more prayers, just anger, and the buds of faith diminished like cities to dust.

No sleep in the night, I felt foul, perhaps deluded. As though I had committed a crime, I was distracted. No thoughts of God, I just felt angry, hoping that the night would take me away. The following day, nowhere to turn, a confession had to come. A telephone call home, itching conversation, my semi-confession at last arose. How I had been studying the Bible, attending church, trying to understand. How I had been reading, but none of it made sense. Genuine questions, full truths, but only half the story. Please explain this and this to me, I don’t understand this and that. Surprising acceptance, but no answers, more mysteries and confusion. Got the problem off my chest, but wondered how on earth it would help.

Fasting because of habit now, no more prayers to say, even my unreligious belief in God was quickly dissolving away. Down to the bar, I may as well drink; didn’t, but I thought about it. Hiding away from my advising friend, telephone switched off, smoke-screen around me. Off-putting characters making me detest what I respected, though perhaps that was only an excuse to justify my failure. Searching for the truth, I only learnt to despise my open mind. Midday Friday, the second week, my fast ended with a Mars Bar eaten, hidden in the Brunei Gallery. But by that time, already, the fast meant nothing at all. All faith had been crushed and destroyed, and not even a thought of God could be found. Fallen further than before, my faith was lost and gone.