Ramadan and the Vincentian Question: Guidance and Inspiration in Times of Challenge

Muhammad ibn Abdullah(1) was a man living in seventh-century Arabia. Coming from a prominent clan and tribe, he traced his own lineage to the Prophet Abraham through Ishmael, the son of Abraham and Hagar (ar. Haajar). That family history was a source of collective pride for the people of Mecca, where Muhammad lived and where a house of worship built by Abraham and Ishmael served as a place of pilgrimage for tribes from throughout the Arabian Peninsula. At the same time, substantive connection with Abraham’s guidance seemed to be lost to most Arabs, except for a few Jewish tribes and scattered individuals who claimed to be followers of Jesus or of a general Abrahamic monotheism. Muhammad’s father died before he was born, his mother when he was just six years old, and he was raised as an orphan by his uncle. Despite his noble lineage in a society wherein lineage was greatly valued, these circumstances meant Muhammad lived a humble life.

Muhammad’s experience as an orphan left him sensitive to the plight of the vulnerable in society. He felt his society did not live up to the chivalric values it claimed to hold dear and which it celebrated in its self-image and poetry. This was especially true when it came to those who were marginalized, which often included women as well as those who were enslaved or without tribal connections. Muhammad felt a call to do something and yearned for specific guidance from the Creator. He began to spend periods of time in meditation and prayer in solitude in a cave outside of the city. It was while engaged in this practice, in the lunar month of Ramadan, that the Prophet Muhammad received the first of what he understood to be revelations from God, which we call the Qur’an.

Muslim communities worldwide, including thousands of DePaul students, faculty, staff, and alumni, will begin observance of the month of Ramadan with the sighting of the crescent moon this week.(2) Muslims will commemorate the revelation of the Qur’an by fasting from dawn to sunset each day for the next lunar month while also engaging in special night prayers and acts of charity. These spiritual practices serve to develop spiritual discipline, generosity, compassion, and connection to the Most Merciful. Ramadan is filled with many different practices and traditions which make it an eagerly anticipated and joyously welcomed time in Muslim communities. Of course, as was the case last year, this year’s observance will be limited by precautions due to the pandemic. Despite that caution and uncertainty however, there is also a hopefulness this year that better times are coming.

Madame de Gondi once asked Vincent de Paul what has come to be known as the Vincentian question “What must be done?”(3) to confront the widespread material and spiritual poverty of seventeenth-century France. Similarly, the Prophet Muhammad sensed that profound change was needed to address the social and spiritual challenges of seventh-century Arabia. Today, we as a DePaul community must ask the same question in facing the challenges of twenty-first-century Chicago. The spiritual practices of Ramadan serve to remind us that the guidance and inspiration we need to address the most profound challenges can come from being open to signs from the transcendent, being spiritually in touch with ourselves, and being socially connected as a community.

What spiritual and social challenges do you see as most pressing from your vantage point in twenty-first-century Chicago? What spiritual and social practices help you to remain committed to addressing them in your life and work?


1) Commonly referred to as the Prophet Muhammad. This of course spoils our narrative as neither he nor others thought of him in that way when our story begins. It is considered proper etiquette for Muslims to say the Arabic formula ﷺ often translated as “Peace be upon him” after the names of prophets and other sacred figures. I will not write the formula in this reflection, but I encourage those who wish to follow this practice to do so as you read.

2) It is expected that the moon may be visible on the night of Monday, April 12, which would make Tuesday, April 13, the first day of fasting.

3) For a discussion of the Vincentian Question see Edward R. Udovic, C.M., Podcast: “The Vincentian Question,” 2 December 2015. At: https://blogs.depaul.edu/dmm/2015/12/02/the-vincentian-question-2/

 

Reflection by: Abdul-Malik Ryan, Muslim Chaplain and Assistant Director, Office of Religious Diversity, Division of Mission and Ministry

 

The Beauty of a Higher Purpose

Virtue is so beautiful and amiable that they will be compelled to love it in you, if you practice it well.1

In the remarkable short letter from which this quote was taken, Vincent responds to news that several of the missionaries would be travelling on a ship with “some heretics.” After briefly expressing his distress at what they may have to “endure from them,” Vincent spends the rest of the letter reminding them that this is God’s plan. He encourages them to use their best manners and “be careful to avoid every sort of dispute and contention.”2 Vincent expresses hope that an example of beautiful character will be “helpful” to all.

Muslims are now entering into the final week of the observance of Ramadan. Ramadan is normally a month filled with fasting, prayer, and charity; it has been this year as well, although in all other ways it has been different with mosques closed and social activity curtailed by the pandemic. In a traditional saying of the Prophet Muhammad (which he sources to John the Baptist) it is said, “the similitude of the fasting person is that of someone who is carrying a sack-full of musk in a crowd of people—all of them marveling at its fragrance (although they can’t see what has created it).”3

The experience of long days of fasting and nights of sporadic sleep risks making one impatient or hard to be around. However, we find that when undertaken with intention and perseverance, a connection to a higher purpose along with increased gratitude and vulnerability reveals a beauty in the fasting person that is attractive to those around them even if they don’t know the source of it. Such a state also increases generosity that rains upon us all, even upon those who may be seen as heretics in a particular time or place.

During times of difficulty and anxiety like those we are living now, it is tempting to be less patient, less compassionate, more selfish, or even divisive with each other, particularly with those who hold differing worldviews.

What are some practices or exercises you can engage in to remain grounded in a sense of higher purpose? Is there a foundational belief or perspective which enables virtue to emanate from you, such that its beauty and fragrance is enjoyed by and helpful to all whom you encounter?

 


1) 3032, To Philippe Patte, In Nantes, [November or December 1659], CCD, 8:209.

2) Ibid.

3) Jami at-Tirmidhi, Kitab al-Amthal (Chapter of Parables), Book 44, Hadith 3102. See: http://sunnah.com/urn/630960

 

Reflection by:

Abdul-Malik Ryan
Assistant Director and Muslim Chaplain
Religious Diversity and Pastoral Care
Division of Mission and Ministry

“Healing Grief, Inspiring Hope: the Prophetic Practices of Ramadan”

iman iftar photo

This is the khutbah (sermon) I delivered for the Eid ul Fitr prayers marking the end of the fasting month of Ramadan at the University of Chicago on June 25, 2017.

In it, I try to examine the reality of grief and trauma as pervasive aspects of the human experience and how true prophetic religion does not seek to cover up or pretend away such realities but rather acknowledges them directly. It also provides individual and communal practices for healing such grief and trauma, while at the same time always inspiring hope in a reality greater than what we can perceive in the moment. Examples of this prophetic methodology are mentioned from the Qur’an and the life of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him!). The worship practices of the month of Ramadan can be some of the best examples of these practices in our community and we should build on that model and work to create real and healthy communities throughout the year.

I welcome feedback and please share with others if you think the message is important.

Peace and Blessings,

Abdul-Malik

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