The Muslim month of fasting, Ramadan, is over. For me, as for other Muslims, it has been challenging, and beautiful. But the purpose of the month—retreat—is not meant to last forever. It is meant to be inspiration for action.
Perhaps the most well-known story in Islam is Muhammad’s pilgrimage to a cave on Mt. Hira in the year 610 C.E. It was there, during a period of intense prayer, that Muhammad was gripped three times by the Angel Gabriel and, just before he was totally overwhelmed by fear, found a message from God emerging from his lips. It was the first verse of a revelation that would continue, on and off, for 23 years, and that would ultimately be compiled into the Holy Quran.
Ramadan is the month that Prophet Muhammad went on retreat. It is the month that Muslims commemorate the revelation of the Quran by following the practice of the Prophet during his retreat. We fast, pray, and give alms.
I remember hearing this story when I was young, and one point in particular was always impressed upon me: Muhammad was a regular on that mountain. He made an annual pilgrimage to the cave of Mt. Hira, where he would fast, pray, and give alms to the poor. In other words, Muhammad was selected by God to be a prophet precisely because he removed himself from the world to focus on worship.
That felt difficult for me. Ever since I can remember, I have wanted nothing more than to know and love the world, in all its jazz and war. And while I felt a longing for God throughout my adolescence, if connecting to the divine meant removing myself from real life, I wasn’t quite ready to make that commitment. I chose the world.
But there was something about that decision that also left me half full. However far I traveled, however many I served, I felt a hunger for the cosmic. It was a gnawing need I couldn’t ignore, and it sent me on a quest that ultimately led me back to a more serious study of Islam. In my reading one night I discovered a story that I had never been taught.
Once he was touched by the Heavens of Faith, Muhammad lived the rest of his years in the Harlem of Life. He married and had children. He preached and he counseled. He brokered peace between warring clans and prepared for battle when he had to. He loved the world, and he lived his life in it, and he did it on the command of God. And after receiving revelation, Muhammad never returned up the mountain.
In fact, in the Holy Quran, God makes it clear that this was his intention for all human beings. We were made to be his servant and representative on earth. As God tells Muhammad in one of his revelations, “You were sent to be nothing but a special mercy upon all the worlds.”
When I read these words, I felt like the curtains had lifted, like faith and life were no longer separate, like there was a bridge between Heaven and Harlem—the bridge of service. As my mind started to wrap itself around the connection between faith and service in Islam, I discovered a similar connection in other traditions. Service is not only a bridge between the cosmic and the concrete, but also between Islam and Judaism, Christianity, and Buddhism. The diverse community that is humanity can be united on the common ground of service.
And I realized that just as Muhammad’s retreat prepared him for a life of service, the month of Ramadan does the same for me. Ramadan is preparation for action in the world—for building bridges.
Eboo Patel is founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core and author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation.