28 November 2023

By Aslam Fataar

This is an edited version of an ‘Id al-Fitr Khutbah delivered at Claremont Main Road Masjid, April 2023

Receiving, acquiring and achieving Ramadan

This day of ’Id is defined by our acknowledgement of living within Allah’s majesty and sovereignty, Allah’s mulk. We proclaim Allah’s omniscient presence in our life, which organises our conceptual frames, invests us with spiritual energy, and impacts our daily practices.

In a hadith qudsi, according to Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him), Allah explains the ordering logic of fasting when Allah declares;

‘Every good deed of the child of Adam is for him except fasting; it is for Me. And I shall reward (the fasting person) for it. (Narrated by Abu Huraira and found in Sahih al-Bukhari)

Ibn Arabi explains this hadith as Allah affording the one who fasts the capacity to enter Allah’s divine grace.  It allows us to establish our existence based on living within Allah’s divine presence and submitting to Allah’s command, which requires us to annihilate or evacuate our egos (fanaa) and render ourselves vulnerable.

Fasting during Ramadan accords us with the capacity to engage our deficiencies and to align our bodies, soul, and heart with the Divine.  My views here align with Naasir Bassier’s, whose khutbah last week emphasised heart/qalb cultivation as the key to a connected spiritual existence.

We are invested in Ramadan as an opportunity to address our fear associated with living a heedless life, as Allah explains in ayah 124 of Surah Taha:

Whosoever turns away from My Remembrance, verily, for him shall be a narrow (depressed) life of hardship (Surah Taha, 20, 124)

Ramadan is an antidote to a life of heedlessness or ghafla.  During this month, our prayers, supplications, and dhikr remembrance of Allah strengthened our resolve to reset our religious and spiritual coordinates.

Our acts of worship during Ramadan prepared us for servitude to Allah and Allah’s creation. Such servitude is referred to in this ayah,

And I (Allah) created not the jinn and humankind except that they should worship Me (Alone)” [Surah al-Dhariyat 51:56]

Royce Heights – Website Block Advert
Over 1500 vehicles sold every month 23
Luckys Advert
previous arrow
next arrow

The ayah refers to ya’budun or ’ubudiyyah, a comprehensive concept that includes all those words and deeds that Allah loves and is pleased with, both outward and inward. We do these acts of worship with love for our Lord.

’Ubudiyyah or servitude to the divine involves a personal transformation that positions humans to play a role in societal transformation. We submit that the real enabling power in our lives comes only from acquiring Allah’s divine lordship within us.

Fasting during Ramadan provides us with the spiritual resources to activate our ’ubudiyyah as divine servitude within our being. When Allah’s servants confront their self-importance and ego-driven existence, they render themselves vulnerable. And based on such vulnerability, stripped of their ego, they become open to receiving Allah’s divine grace, mercy and generosity.

Engaging with our spiritual vulnerability is at the heart of our spiritual journey during Ramadan. Ibn ’Arabi calls this engagement during Ramadan a rif’a, an elevation onto Allah’s divine grace.

2. Encountering Ramadan in the presence of our ancestors and dearly departed

The spiritual encounter in Ramadan is also a communion with the memory of our ancestors, deceased family, friends, and especially our parents. Our heightened sensitivity and consciousness tie us to our primordial origins. We become sensitised to how our ancestors moved across mountains and oceans on boats and by foot and converged at the southernmost tip of Africa.

Our convergences, comprised of a mix of genes, language, culture, educational traditions and spiritual connectedness, rendered us a blend of human material. We came out of this mix into Allah’s bayan, speech and language, as Allah explains beautifully in surah Rahman (Q55, 1-4):

The Most Beneficent (Allah)!Has taught (you humankind) the Qur’an (by His Mercy). He created humans. He taught humans eloquent speech/clear expression.

Allah, the most beneficent (al-Rahman), taught humankind the Qur’an and vested them with the capacity for bayan to acquire language and the ability of adaptive and creative speech and articulation.

Our ancestors invented language, education and culture. Their spiritual practices informed religious and social adaptation that rooted us in the African soil, propelling the community forward with pride and fortitude. We live in gratitude to our ancestors for the gift of bayan, and we thank Allah for our ancestral inheritance. 

We salute our deceased family, partners, friends and parents who regularly came to ‘visit’ us during Ramadan in our dreams, our memories and our thoughts. In their lifetime, they transferred Allah-ordained akhlaq onto us based on patience (sabr), hikmah (wisdom) and tolerance (tasamuh). 

Our departed parents were palpably with us during Ramadan, soothing and embalming us with a warmth and a spiritual embrace. We, in turn, are soothed by Allah’s promise of jannah for them by the beautiful salvation ayah in Surah al-Zumar when Allah declares (Throngs, 39, 73):

But those who were conscious/mindful of their Sustainer will be urged on in throngs towards paradise till, when they reach it, they shall find its gates wide-open, and its keepers will say to them, “Peace be upon you! Well, have you done: enter, then, this [paradise], to reside there eternally!

We will visit their graves over the next three days and offer our supplications for our deceased ancestors and family:

O Allah, forgive and pardon them, have mercy on their souls and accord them paradise

3. Encountering the exigencies of the times by honouring our children:

The day of ’Id belongs to our children. Whereas our ancestors and departed link us to our past, our children connect us to their aspirant futures. Living our lives imbued with radical hope is a commitment to securing our children’s futures.

The innocent joyfulness of children was brought home during a recent Sunday Ramadan programme in this masjid; children playing, creating and acquiring etiquette.

’Id is made special for them through gifts and good, clean and beautiful clothes. Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him), on observing a forlorn orphan child after the ’Id congregation prayer, went to him and told him that “if you are crying, Muhammad will not celebrate the day of ’Id”. Muhammad offered to be the boy’s new father. He took the boy, Zuhair Bin Saghir, to his home and provided him clothing and food. 

Saint James Advert
Lake Glencairn
KZN Nov]

Such behaviour underscores the Prophet’s general attitude to children. He affirmed their educational, moral and spiritual development and encouraged their nascent societal roles.

Our young children are the bearers of complex living circumstances.  They are the first generation born into and actively immersed in digital machines via their exposure to smartphones, digital learning and social media, which land on their bodies before birth in their mother’s womb and during infancy and toddler life.

Their bodies are wired into technology, the algorithm and CHATGPT 4.0, which now require understanding by their parents and teachers so that we raise them with a capacity to make critical and informed choices about the use of technology, securing relations with peers, family and friends. Drawing boundaries amid this seamlessness is a crucial challenge.

The virtue of hilm, Allah ordained forbearance and acquiring and exercising judgment is squarely on the table. Cultivating hilm or judiciousness must now be put to work in raising our children and socialising our youth.

Prophet Muhammad (SAWS) was reported to have said,

Verily, knowledge (’ilm) only comes by learning and forbearance/ judiciousness (hilm) comes by being judicious.

The emphasis here is on acquiring virtues through education and literacy building; importantly, ilm is acquired and spread via our behaviour and daily practices. The question then becomes how we put the virtue of ilm to work in our children’s everyday lives.

Responding to our children cannot be placed on the back burner. Like the Prophet’s example, we must enter our children’s thinking and doing space to figure out how to guide them to live their (and our) lives in new configurations of jama’ah, human contact and relational integrity.

We must secure the children’s relationships with their significant others in a world where their digital behaviour may distract them from deep relations. Establishing a moral language, skills and capacity for guiding our children’s educational processes, establishing play routines, getting them involved in the neighbourhood, and doing sport and recreation with their peers are meant to get them away from screens and into the game of relational interaction with others.

They must be given critical dispositional resources and skills to live with integrity. Their human hood must be secured on new terms, mired in the digital, yet understanding the need for balanced living and psychosocial security.

And we have to raise them to establish ethical livelihoods for themselves, their neighbours and the lesser well-off. They must use their skills and creativity to alleviate the societal need. 

4. Towards a Qur’anic exegesis of contextual vulnerability

But what is the role of the Qur’an in the life of a community during complex vulnerable times?  Claremont Main Road Masjid offered stimulating weekly Qur’an tafsir exegesis sessions during Ramadan.  Imam Rashied Omar presented an argument via Zoom for doing tafsir exegesis based on balancing an inter-textual understanding (Tafsir al-Qur’an bil Qur’an) of Qur’anic verses with contextualist readings of the Qur’an.

On such a view, a deep understanding of the Qur’an’s inner meanings is applied to our ever-changing contextual realities. The Qur’an is thus brought into conversation with significant changes such as digital disruption, planetary sustainability, and living amid load-shedding exacerbated by a political culture of corruption and state infrastructural collapse.

Another Zoom tafsir contributor, Ebrahim Moosa, alerted us to time as a long multidimensional duration when explaining the concept ‘dahr’ in his tafsir of Surah al-Dahr or Insan. Allah asks the rhetorical question in the surah:

Was there a period of time when the human being was not even worthy of a mention? (Surah Dahr/Insan, 76:1)

This is an uncanny ayah. This rhetorical question by Allah raises whether humans are worth taking overly seriously in the broader scheme of the universe. The ayah suggests the smallness or insignificance of humans in the universe, an ‘afterthought’ avers Moosa semi-seriously during the Zoom tafsir.

‘Dahr’ is worthy of deeper scrutiny. It seems we have to account for the complexity of human existence in the thickness of time and the complex dynamics of living in a specific time and space. This connects to the reading of the Qur’an in its time-space context. ‘Dahr’ or deep duration impels such a time-space specific reading of the Qur’an.

One such a personal dahr methodology was provided by Ebrahim Rasool. He spoke in a Ramadan khutbah about his experience with the Qur’an during his detention and solitary confinement in the 1980s.

What emerged from his memorisation of the Qur’an and study of the English translation was the detainee-exegete inventing his ethical persona in the context of resisting the apartheid state. This is an example of a tafsir reading coming to life in conditioning a human ethical response.

The methodology stands as an example. We must imagine how reading the Qur’an can give power to the masakin, the most vulnerable in society, those orphans, refugees, wayfarers and multitudes who live below the poverty line.

Women, mothers and girl children are especially experiencing increased vulnerability. Violence against women has been exacerbated under conditions of institutional collapse. Household gender-based violence has increased.

Yet, even under duress, women are the family’s maintainers and protectors of society; in other words, the 21st century’s qawwamun (protectors).  Household surveysshow that women are the fenders of their domestic spaces. Not generalised to all males, toxic masculinity either abscond from the scene or plays a destructive role in households. Toxic males fail to pay maintenance or play child-rearing roles.

In this context, we must ask how our Qur’an tafsir readings and Islamic discourses and practices should empower the vulnerable in society in the same way that Prophet Muhammed favoured women and the marginalised vulnerable. Nabi Muhammad (saw) recognised their equal moral worth as the basis for according them their individual rights and dignified lives.

This `Id khutbah calls for a vulnerability-informed rendering of our Qur’anic ethics. Our Islamic discourses and practices must be adjusted and tailored to respond to the complexity of living on the ever-widening margins of society.

The Muslim’s response must be founded on an ethics of ’ubudiya, our divinely-infused servitude to the vulnerable in our society.

A responsive Islamic ethics must confront the devastation meted out to the Palestinians by the ever-evolving evil barbarism of the Zionist Israeli occupation and other imperial machinations in the world’s war theatres.  And, closer to home, Muslims must be encouraged to form intergroup alliances to confront the state’s failure and lobby for a politics of delivery.

We must draw on our Qur’anic ethics to empower the vulnerable to take their rightful place in society. And we must capacitate ourselves and our communities to develop creative educational, research and Science-based responses to leverage social development.

Crucially, we must develop a virtues-infused approach to supporting our children in living their lives amid the compulsion of digital technology and artificial intelligence. My argument today is that these are the material conditions that now define the dahr or time that we live in. And, Qur’anic ethical discourses must respond to the complexity and challenges of these substantive shifts that govern our lives.

Establishing relationships and educational and socialising routines by which children and young people can counter isolated living associated with our times is now a wajib, compulsory for our species’ survival and flourishing.

Our ’ubudiyyah servitude to Allah, cultivated as a profoundly spiritual and ethical response during Ramadan, must work to tie personal spiritual transformation to fulsome ethical expression in serving society.

The ‘ubudiyyah servitude of the sa-im, who established their ’ubudiyyah during Ramadan, must extend Allah’s divine grace to the masakin, the vulnerable in our midst.  

1 thought on “Activating an Ethics of ’ubudiyyah (Servitude to the Divine) in the Encounter with Vulnerability

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.