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A couple of years ago, I bought my first bike. I had a bike as a child, but since I inherited it from my sister it wasn’t technically mine. I loved that battered old thing, used to spend long hours finding all the slopes in the vincinity and rushing down them as fast as I could.
Then I grew up and put aside childish things. And that was how bikes were seen where I came from – toys, not means of transport. Cycling just was not something most adults did unless they had to. But here in Sweden, everyone cycles, old and young. And I lived within biking distance from university, and had no car, and buying bus ticket was getting to be too much for a counting-the-pennies graduate student. So I bought my first bike.
Last Ramadan, I put the bike aside for the month, not wanting to make an already very long summer fast more difficult. But in taking the bus instead of cycling everywhere, I felt that there was something missing. This Ramadan, I decided I wouldn’t park my bike and forget about it for the month, I would go out and ride through the woods as I do usually, although not at the height of noon, not for very long and not during the very hot days – even in Sweden, we got some of the heatwave affecting the rest of Europe.
With these precautions taken, I spent much of this month cycling through the woods around my home, and it has brought me more peace and joy than I expected. Unlike my usual ride to and from the university, I wasn’t going anywhere in particular on most days, and that gave me the time to stop and look around me, to watch the birds and the squirrels and the occasional scampering rabbit, to sit under the shade of some giant tree and look up at the clouds and think of nothing in particular. Just for a bit, I tell myself, because I can feel the almost constantly present anxiety of looming deadlines. I’m supposed to be working on revising my dissertation this summer, and my mind sometimes becomes a scrolling endless to do list. But for a few minutes, I manage to hear the blessings.
But listen to me. For one moment
quit being sad. Hear blessings
dropping their blossoms
I’m at a point in my life where I have to confront not loneliness but the idea of being alone. I’ve always had the cacoon, the comforting, at times stifling, caccoon of family and friends, a close knit noisy network of people. This Ramadan, I’ve made some choices that are difficult but I feel necessary. As part of this, I’ve let go of something I’ve been doing ever since I could remember, patching over arguments, soothing tensions, making sure everyone is all there together and happy around the iftar table. Typical middle child stuff. But at some point, you have to let go of all of that management of relationships and the constant work of maintaining that harmony and concentrate on your own life. And in recognizing that it is time for me to do just that, I’ve begun to see this Ramadan as my own.
My simpler Ramadan has led me to think about the idea of zuhd and how it relates to this month of fasting. Usually zuhd is translated as renunciation or asceticism, as abstinence from worldly pleasure, which is related to a rejection not only of excess and consumption but of the world itself as insignificant.
However, many thinkers have described two opposed ascetic modes: one looks at the natural world and rejects it as a deceitful, temporary illusion, while the other seeks to go beyond not to another world but deeper in to this one. Ibn ‘Arabi describes this second mode when he talks what he calls the ‘private face’, al- wajh al-khass, which represents the unique connection each of us has to God.
It’s this kind of zuhd, the asceticism that does not turn away from the world but finds joy in it that I have sought to practice through this month, riding through the forests and taking the time to sit beneath the trees, as I once used to do as a child. And I have found that, although this month has been very different from the companionable fasting and exuberant feasting and noise of most of my Ramadans, it was no less special.