x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

In run-up to Ramadan, focus on the meaning is lost

My culinary preparations are lagging behind, and my spiritual planning is further back still. It shouldn't be like this.

My local supermarket in London has recently mounted a large banner across its railings, which commands: "Stock up for Ramadan now!" With just over two million Muslims in Britain, mainstream grocery outlets have become wise to the copious shopping of the Islamic month of fasting. With three weeks to go, the frenzy to supply the fasting faithful is rising.

The aisles are packed with traditional fare for Muslims who hail from a range of ethnicities. There are dates, chutneys and halal samosas.

Last year, I got overexcited by the buy-one-get-one-free offer on the tins of chickpeas and bought 24, most of which still languish accusingly in the bottom of my larder.

The delight and saliva the Ramadan shelves ought to arouse quickly transform into painful little bubbles of guilt. Guilt about spending too much time thinking about food. Guilt for not cooking up little treats to store in the freezer in advance. Guilt for the iftar invitations I ought to have issued already. Guilt for prioritising feasting over fasting.

Whenever I meet other Muslims, we exclaim "Ramadan is so close!" as though the 12-month calendar is a shock to us. And then of course: "I'm not ready!"

My culinary preparations are lagging behind, and my spiritual planning is further back still. It shouldn't be like this. I should be better organised, but I can't help but feel hopelessly human in that my aspirations eclipse my achievements.

I ought to be writing about my well-constructed plans for Ramadan: Quran recitation (Muslims should attempt to read the whole book during the month); more ritual prayers, and prayers prayed in a timely fashion; and, of course, planning lots of good charitable activities to help those around us and make our own spirits grow (selflessness is one of the foundations of spiritual growth).

And yet here I am, fraught with self-flagellation that my preparations amount to zero. The paradox is that my pathetic lack of planning will be met with an abundance of blessings and rewards simply for turning up and participating in Ramadan.

Ramadan is a bundle of paradoxes. While each minute passes slowly - and the minutes later in the day pass slower still - the month races past. I reflect on the metaphor for how life drags us down with its minutiae, yet our years gather speed until old age when we look back with regretful sentimentality at the time lost to the mundane.

The hunger pangs make concentrating on work and spiritual devotion challenging. And yet the suppression of the physical self in favour of the spirit frees up time, and mental space, and grants an ability to reach out and connect to others as our bodily selves seem to disappear leaving the "who" rather than the "what" we are.

And here is the ultimate paradox: the less we worry about physical food, the more Ramadan feels like a magical epoch when time stands stills, and we float on clouds in the meadows of the divine.

Three weeks to go? Bring it on, I'm ready.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at www.spirit21.co.uk