It’s every Muslim’s favourite time of the year, and one where we may be tempted to fill our to-do lists with lots and lots of tasks focused on external actions. But Islam is a religion of balance, and it’s essential that we work on our internal – nurturing our relationship with Allah and centering Him in our lives – as much as we do the external.
However, the ways to approach the internal work isn’t so clear cut. We wonder how to build a relationship with Allah, if we know Him well enough, or whether we’re even good enough for a relationship with Him.
I sat down with Aliyah Umm Raiyaan, CEO of Solace UK – a charity that helps women who have converted to Islam and find themselves in difficulty, host of Honest Tea Talk show, as well as the recent author of the guided journal, ‘Ramadan Reflections: 30 days of healing from the past, journeying with presence and looking ahead to an akhirah-focused future’. Having purchased a copy (and being a huge lover of the work that she does), I knew immediately that I wanted to speak to her about her journey towards developing the kind of intimate, beautiful relationship she has with her Rabb, and what inspired her to want to share a sort of template with the rest of the word.
Umm Raiyaan and I talk about what Ramadan looks like for her and how this has changed over the years, she shares the best advice she’s ever been given regarding Ramadan, and we have a candid discussion about dealing with fame and decentering the ego.
For those who don’t know, can you share a bit about your book – Ramadan Reflections?
It’s an intimate journal to deepen your individual connection to Allah for the year ahead. With inspiring reflections, practical exercises, powerful quotes and drawing from the spiritual wisdom of the Holy Qur’an and Sunnah, it offers an invitation to…
Although it is titled ‘Ramadan Reflections’, you’re welcome to use it any time of the year, as well as return to it whenever you need to.
Before ‘Ramadan Reflections’ came to life, how did you structure your Ramadan? And how have your plans changed since?
My first ever Ramadan as a new Muslim was simple – it was all about the abstinence of food and drink. I had never fasted before and taking this step, for the first time, was a huge spiritual undertaking. I was choosing to abstain for the sake of my Lord. With that came a fresh innocent spiritual connection with Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala).
As the years rolled on by and the newness of Ramadan began to wear off, Ramadan changed. There was a quantity-focus: how many pages of Qur’an to be read per day; how many rakat of salah to be prayed. Checklists and planners were at the ready. I firmly believed the success of my Ramadan and the ability to attain taqwa was completely dependent upon how much I did.
In little to no time, I felt different. There was this uncomfortable pressure I experienced and it left me feeling spiritually dry and ironically very thirsty for the spiritual closeness I experienced in my early years. I knew something was wrong, and more importantly needed to change. In that moment, I revisited the reason why Allah prescribed Ramadan for us and my Ramadans thereafter began to change. Alhamdulillah.
The purpose of Ramadan is to attain God-consciousness. It is to become aware of Allah and in so doing, know Him more, ‘find Him’ in all situations, increase one’s love for Him and worship Him more fervently.
My Ramadans shifted to that of the heart driving the worship. It was no longer about quantity. It was about quality – intention, presence, purpose of heart and soul. My structure in Ramadan became simple. I was to fast, pray, observe my fara’id (obligatory acts of worship) and in between all of that reflect on life and the Qur’anic messages – bring the Qur’an to life in my life, and push myself towards Allah through worship driven by ihsaan..
I love the reframing of making your Ramadan focus quality, more than quantity. It reminds me of the hadith where the Prophet ﷺ said, ‘The most beloved of deeds to Allah are those that are most consistent, even if it is small.’ Simplicity allows room for consistency. What is your favourite part of Ramadan?
My absolute favourite part of Ramadan is that first sip of water and when my family venture out to go and pray taraweeh in the masjid. I used to pray in the mosque, but in recent years I have made the decision to stay and pray at home. I dim the lights and whilst surrounded by silence, I spend time with my Lord – reading His Words and worshipping Him. It is the sweetest time subhanaAllah walhamdulillah.
I love praying Taraweeh alone in Ramadan, as well. I find that it allows me to connect better with my Rabb, and take as long as I need to during sujood. What’s the best Ramadan advice you’ve ever received?
Many years ago, during a lecture I attended, the speaker advised that when you give a date to a fasting person, knowing that you will get the ajr (reward) of feeding that person, before you do so, pause.
Pause and speak to your Lord. Say, ‘Rabbi, this is for You.’ Then give the date to the fasting person. The depth of beauty of such simple advice transformed that particular Ramadan but also my relationship with Allah. It reminded me of the importance of WHY we worship and that the WHY transforms the HOW of our ibadah. With a simple pause to reconnect all that we do, with the One whom it is truly for, we will find a sweetness of faith that can only feel like a prelude of what we may experience in jannah.
That’s great advice! I’ll keep this in mind throughout this month in shaa Allah. We never know which deeds of ours will earn us the favour of Allah, and this brings me nicely to the question I’ve been wanting to ask – what do you hope to achieve with Ramadan Reflections?
Oh, subhanaAllah so very much.
For many years prior to being approached by Penguin to write a book, I’ve been making the du’a: ‘Allah grant me the honour of writing and publishing a book before I die; a book that will draw hearts and souls back to You. A book where the reader will know everything is possible with you, ya Allah. A book where the reader will understand that it is okay to be human in their yearning to become a stronger and better believer. A book that will teach them that the solution to everything lies in their relationship with You. A book wherein they recognise, this dunya is real – we are living it, passing through it, experiencing it — but it is temporary. It will end, and there is an eternal home far more amazing to look forward to and work for.’
I took your advice in the ‘Introductions’ to wait until the first day of Ramadan before getting into it, and now I’m even more excited to get started on the journey of nurturing my relationship with Allah. How easy or difficult is it to take your advice from the journal?
Ramadan Reflections is a journey. It is part memoir, part reflection, part journal. I wrote it with the intention of it not coming across as ‘advice’. Rather it is a book that encourages readers to think for themselves, to ponder over my messages, to look at their circumstances and to connect all of that to their individual relationship and journey with Allah.
So, all that I have written in the book comes with an element of freedom to apply whatever resonates and ‘fits’ for the individual regardless of their circumstances. The journal belongs to the reader, and the book provides light on whichever path the reader chooses to take.
My only advice is: As you read the book, trust that your Lord will bring you what you truly need.
Writing about Allah Almighty can be such a daunting task, how did you manage to de-centre yourself when writing about Him?
Quite simply by focusing on Him and prioritising Him. This book was about Allah and for Him, azza wa jal. Seeing myself as simply a vehicle to drive home the important message that He and our relationship with Him is our priority was made easy when I continuously renewed my intention that this book was for Him – an act of worship I pray He accepts.
Ameen, I pray it becomes a form of Sadaqatul Jariyah for you. With authorship comes a whole lot of publicity. How do you deal with the effect of ‘fame’ and front-facing work on your heart and nafs?
Quite honestly, since the book has launched, I have found this to be rather unsettling. My reasons for this book are very personal to me. The fame that is coming with this book is not something I desire at all. I understand it comes with it, but I feel uncomfortable because this book, though written for people, is very much about my quest to be forgiven and accepted by my Lord. I am constantly having to check my intentions and how I feel when someone praises me or the book.
Alhamdulillah for family and friends who are constantly reminding me to renew my intentions and to redirect the success back to Allah. I also must mention that I am grateful to Allah for a disconnect I have experienced since the very first day my publisher approached me. I struggle to put it into words but I feel somewhat detached from the book. The book came from my heart but it has not entered my heart. I believe this detachment is a response to another du’a I made – ya Allah, assist me in sincerely writing this for Your Sake. I pray He accepts.
Sis, you are a Muslimah, mother, CEO, speaker and now, author. How do you handle all the hats you wear and know what to prioritise?
I don’t believe I handle it. I just get on with all that I am required to do. I mention in the book, I am often overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work and responsibilities on my plate. I am often very tired. Many people tell me, ‘I don’t know how you do it!’ The truth is, neither do I.
But what I know is this: My Lord, Most High, has made it possible for me to do all of the above. And I know, when Allah wills for something to manifest, there is a beautiful reason behind it – for He is Beautiful. So my answer can only be: it is only by the bounty and permission of my Lord.
This really hits home for me because I get this question all the time – though I’m not a mother, I wear several hats –, and my response is always, ‘It’s Allah.’ Knowing that Allah will always show up for you when you need Him, how did you find the actual process of writing the book? What did your writing days look like?
In all honesty, as a mother of four, three of whom are home educated, and a very busy role as CEO of a charity, my writing days were far from picture perfect. Strangely, I could not write at home. My eyes would catch something that needed doing, or the children would require my attention. And so my writing time would often mean taking myself and my laptop to a nearby coffee shop or the mosque where I would sit sometimes for hours writing away. Knowing that I only had a set number of hours at these places, I felt a pressure to make the best use of that precious time.
My goal was always to write a certain number of words in each sitting. Sometimes I was in flow and I achieved my goal. Other times, I felt completely stuck. I took so many lessons from these experiences of sometimes being in flow and sometimes feeling stuck – a metaphor for what we experience in life. One of the chapters in my book was actually born out of this very experience.
Even though writing is such a lonely and personal experience, it does take a community to make a book. When you received the first copy of your book, who were you most eager to show it to?
My family and close friends. The book would not have been possible without their love, encouragement and support. They have journeyed with me throughout the entire process from when I first received that message from an editor at Penguin and was in disbelief that I had been headhunted, to receiving my physical copy of the book in the post. I feel emotional at the sacrifices they have made and are still making. I wanted to show them not only what I had achieved by Allah’s Permission, but that they too had a full share in that achievement as a result of their support. May Allah love them. Ameen.
Now that the finished product is out in the world, I wonder if you ever think about changing anything in the book – can you ever be truly satisfied with your writing when it’s about a topic so much bigger than yourself? How does this affect your perception of yourself as an author?
Can we ever be truly satisfied with an act of worship we have offered to Allah? The answer is no because that act of worship is never about us. It is about Allah azza wa jal.
Everything we do – be it cooking a meal for our family or writing a book, is and should be a means towards our Creator and our journey to our Final Home. And so, everything is bigger than ourselves. There can and will never be a sense of satisfaction. Because everything we are and do is accompanied with a yearning for it to be accepted by the One it is for.
And so, I write for Him. I keep writing with His Help. And my heart yearns for acceptance from Him. I am just a means. So how do I see myself as an author? A soul who has been given a pen by Allah azza wa jal who decreed that I should write. I am only a means and I submit to His Plan.
Something I need to ask on behalf of everyone: do you see yourself writing another book in the future?
The golden question! I am asked this everywhere I go and my answer is always the same. Though I was making repeated dua for this, I didn’t go searching for it. Allah azza wa jal, in His Perfect Knowledge brought it my way. I don’t think I will ever stop writing. Can you stop breathing? That’s how I see writing – it is my way of traversing this dunya. It is my release. It is the way I make sense of the experiences that unfold in my life. Will I ever write another book? If Allah wills, then yes I would love to. But for now, I am looking forward to some downtime, good sleep, a cup of tea with a good book and quality time with my Lord and my family. Alhamdulillah.
Suad Kamardeen is a British-Nigerian Muslim writer, editor, engineering graduate and a Creative Writing Masters student at the University of Oxford. She is also a founding editor at WAYF journal. She is committed to documenting histories and cultures, as well as impacting people’s lives positively through storytelling. Her young adult novel, Never Enough, won the SI Leeds Literary Prize 2022, and her adult novel was shortlisted for the Stylist Prize for Feminist Fiction 2021. Her writing has also appeared in Bad Form Review and Sapelo Square. You can find her on Twitter/IG: @suadkamardeen