On the Journey: A Ramadan Reflection--Part 1: Cultivating a Selfless Society

By Imaan Javeed


Abu Huraira (Allah be pleased with him) reported Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) as saying:

“Every (good) deed of the son of Adam would be multiplied, a good deed receiving a tenfold to seven hundredfold reward. Allah, the Exalted and Majestic, has said: With the exception of fasting, for it is done for Me and I will give a reward for it, for one abandons his passion and food for My sake. There are two occasions of joy for one who fasts, joy when he breaks it, and joy when he meets his Lord, and the breath (of an observer of fast) is sweeter to Allah than the fragrance of musk.” [Bukhari, Muslim]

An irresistible journey. This was the title of a recently published episode of The Thinking Muslim, a podcast that had been recommended to me several times but that I had not explored until this Ramadan. I am now an avid listener to Muhammad Jalal’s podcast, which features deep conversations on topics ranging from spirituality to global affairs from a cerebral, critical, Islamic lens. Dr. Sohail Hanif, Chief Executive of the National Zakat Foundation spoke of the “irresistible journey,” and his talk  was the inspiration for this reflection. 

Putting the Self Last

Islam means “submission”; therefore by definition, a Muslim is a person who submits to God. The idea of submission might seem uncomfortable to a modern-day person, but the reality is that human beings submit their will all the time – the only difference is in the quality of their submission: to what, or whom, and how, they submit. Most leftist ideologies seek to liberate the worker from exploitative economic relationships, so that they can be free to self-actualize. An Islamic worldview goes farther: in addition to freedom from external oppression, it seeks to liberate the human being from the chains of their own ego, or their nafs. In fact, Ibn al-Jawzi, a classical scholar of Islam, said, “I reflected over jihad (struggle) against the ego (jihad al-nafs) and realized it to be the greatest jihad.” Several other scholars and greats of Islamic history echoed the importance of jihad al-nafs. It is no surprise, then, that Salaheddin al-Ayubi, waited until his army was voluntarily engaged in the night prayer; struggling against the allure of their beds and the chains of their fatigue, depriving themselves of sleep purely for the sake of God, that he felt his army was ready to liberate Jerusalem from the crusaders. 

There is no greater time when the battle lines are drawn between a person and their nafs than in Ramadan, when they are asked to give up their most basic desires and sustainers, including food, water and sleep. While this may seem challenging on its face, remarkably, it sets the stage for a greater commitment to being a Muslim; that is, living a life of submission to God’s will rather than to one’s own will (the nafs). In doing so, as Dr. Hanif expands on in the podcast, the person realizes that in Islamic teachings, if one is to follow the example of the Prophet (ﷺ), the self, and self-satisfaction, is on the bottom of the hierarchy of a Muslim’s priorities. Their family, guests, and even their neighbors have priority over them. There are many examples of the Prophet’s (ﷺ) selflessness, lifestyle of complete minimalism, and prioritization of others’ needs before his own. 

This spirit ripples out into the Sharia, which seeks to model a society on these principles of collectivism and harmony, via the Zakat and beyond. A community made up of individuals all seeking to put themselves last and others first, especially if it finds joy and excitement in doing so knowing that the portion of themselves that they give away is the only portion that will follow them to their graves, uplifts itself through a high degree of mutual concern. Through concern for others and witnessing others’ concern for them, solidarity develops naturally.  When actualized, this community solidarity becomes a force eager to both design and implement positive social change. Both secular and religious leftists would agree that a major barrier to achieving the society of their dreams is often a people’s nafs-tinted worldview – a short-sighted, hedonistic, comfort-seeking inclination that stands in the way of wider progress, sustainability, and community care. Perhaps, then, this pillar of Islam, that seeks to shed this worldview in favor of increased taqwa (often translated as “God-consciousness”) should be on the minds of all who seek to work for the greater good.    

Imaan Javeed is a medical professional in Ontario, Canada

Image credit: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images