It's that time of year again. During the next couple of Friday prayers we will hear that famous ayah recited numerous times -
You who believe, fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may be mindful of God (2:183)
It seems every year we go through the same thing. Ramadan sneaks up on us. We hear a bunch of reminders about how rewarding it is, developing taqwa, feeling compassion for the less fortunate, making sure to stay away from backbiting, and then rushing to the finish line. Then once it's done, we hear a bunch of talks about trying to keep up the good work. It works for a little while (or at least until the new season of House of Cards comes out), and then it's back to square one.
To counter this, we start treating Ramadan like a 30 day transformation boot camp. We shun the New Year's resolutions, but make our Ramadan ones. 30 days of no white sugar. 30 days of fasting+paleo. 30 days of no Netflix. 30 days of deleting social media apps from my phone (read this if you want to do social media fasting). We end up turning Ramadan into some kind of bizarre mix of Lent and a juice cleanse.
The reason for this is simple. We've heard all that taqwa stuff before a million times, and nothing has changed. The life hack of tracking the caloric burn of taraweeh prayers on your Fitbit seems cooler, data-driven, and ground-breaking. We tell ourselves it might actually work, so it's worth a shot.
On top of that, we're already disrupting our schedules for 30 days, let's see what else we can get out of it. So we tack on every new habit or routine we've wanted to incorporate into our lives and throw it into the Ramadan mix. We need only to look back at our own 5-10 year history to see how well all these things have worked and the lasting change we have really gotten out of all those Ramadans.
So what do we do instead?
The answer is maddeningly simple. The challenge, as always, is in the execution.
It is to master the ordinary to become extraordinary.
Going back to the ayah above, the goal of fasting is to cultivate taqwa. Taqwa, according to Ibn Hajr, is to create a barrier between yourself and the punishment of Allah by following His commands and abstaining from His prohibitions. In a more general sense, it is the consciousness and awareness that Allah is watching over you at all times.
In the famous Hadith of Jibrīl, the fasting of Ramadan is identified as one of the 5 basic pillars of Islam. Excellence in performing this worship is attained when the servant worships Allah "as though you could see Him, for even though you cannot see Him, He sees you."
The goal, therefore, is doing the worship, and then excelling in the act of performing that worship. Master the ordinary to become extraordinary.
It is difficult to adopt and implement these simple truths because of the distortive nature of social media. Once we know something at an informational level (taqwa, compassion), we tend to discount it. When we are reminded of those things again later, we cast them aside as cliche or recycled. We instead seek out the new and novel. Whether we like it or not, this mentality permeates into our Ramadan preparation. We assume we'll already check off the boxes for things like taqwa and compassion, and then go looking for new boxes to add to the list that other people don't have.
When we step back and look though, success rarely comes from the novel. It always comes from relentlessly focusing on the basics.
Take baseball, for example. Derek Jeter is one of the most celebrated baseball players of all time. He has fame, multi-million dollar endorsement deals, accolades, his jersey retired by Yankess, and much more. His career batting average was .310. An average player, on an average contract, without the fame and accolades bats roughly .250. Over a 162 game season, with 4-5 at bats per game, the difference between a .250 hitter and a .310 hitter is barely 1 or 2 hits per week. People like Jeter aren't superhumans who have a secret keto diet recipe and bodyweight workout that others don't have - they are people who execute on the basics and fundamentals a little better than everyone else.
This is why in a playoff basketball game, coaches say things like - it comes down to the 50/50 balls, or they need to make sure not to make mistakes on their defensive rotations. A lot of winning comes down to the basics like hitting open shots, and executing the game plan.
Ask a dentist about the key to good oral hygiene. It's not in buying a $100 toothbrush, it's in brushing your teeth and flossing every day.
Want to make your car last a long time? There isn't some kind of secret oil to buy, it's getting your oil changed regularly, and on time.
Aisha (r) once asked the Prophet (s) what was the best deed someone could do? He said that which is small, but consistent.
The Prophet (s) told Bilal he heard his footsteps in paradise because he used to pray 2 rakat every time he renewed his wudu. The Prophet (s) once pointed out a companion as being from the people of Paradise - a man who's only distinguishing action was forgiving anyone who wronged him every night before sleeping.
Small, consistent acts. Basics. Basics executed better than anyone else elevate the ranks.
Want to grow spiritually and come closer to Allah? Pray on time, with concentration. Fast. Give zakat and charity. Go on hajj. Be kind to people. And then keep doing those actions over and over and over again.
Let the fasting orient you toward a focus on developing consciousness that Allah is always watching.
How do we know that we are actually practicing taqwa instead of simply acknowledging it at an informational level?
Have taqwa of Allah, perhaps you will be grateful (3:123)
The more conscious you are of Allah, the more it should make you grateful. How much time do we spend a day reflecting on the blessings of Allah? Thanking Allah is basic. And yet -
If you are grateful, I will surely increase you [in favor] (14:7)
The more gratitude, the more blessings from Allah.
If you want to succeed this Ramadan, have a relentless focus on the fundamentals.
Master the ordinary to become extraordinary.