I’m not a very good Muslim. Not just because of my general laxness around the rules and practices, but perhaps more importantly because I question some of the fundamental foundations of the religion. Yet I didn’t hesitate to mark myself down as Muslim on the census last month, and after a few lapsed years I am starting this month of Ramadan alongside millions of others around the world, with the intention of feeling a bit more spiritual.
It might be that we’ve been in lockdown for too long, but on a personal level the timing feels divine. Just as the UK nations are starting to open up, a holy month begins that centres on discipline, restraint, community and charity – a welcome antidote as the floodgates of consumerism reopen.
Religion has become incredibly unfashionable in recent decades. But lockdown has made a lot of us think a little harder about the big questions. What’s it all about and how can we be happier, better people? How do we decide what we value and then live in a way that might protect the things we hold dear?
One thing that has been consistently in my mind this year is the overarching importance of intention. An intention is different to a goal. It is like the energy that guides you in a process: the objective that continues even when the goalposts move, or that can overcome the challenges or obstacles you encounter along the way.
In Islam, intention is known as niyyah, and is an essential factor in what you do: “Deeds are [a result] only of the intentions [of the actor], and an individual is [rewarded] only according to that which he intends,” as the hadith goes. In other words, if you do something led by self-interest, which inadvertently benefits other people, that means less than going out with the primary intention of helping others. As a journalist I like this because it feels like a pushback against PR and spin, giving a sense of clarity. As a Muslim I like it because it means that even if you fail, or make mistakes, it still counts for something.
Right back at the beginning of the pandemic my intention was to nourish my mind with things that would inspire me. At the time I had just wrapped a frenetic season of work (the second series of Modern Masculinity). I was burnt out, unconcerned about optimising my time in lockdown. Instead, I tried to be more present for those who needed me, and for myself, instead of forcing myself to do things in order to feel some sense of validation. The world really doesn’t just need more content and louder voices. It just needs better, kinder people.
Several times this year I’ve deactivated my Instagram account and come off Twitter because social media feels like the antithesis of intention-setting. You scroll aimlessly and allow whatever you see to affect your mood and energy, often as a result of boredom, or trying to make sense of what is going on. Reading is the obvious answer to this. As you pick up a book, you make an intention – whether it is escapism or knowledge that you are reaching for.
These ideas make me recall some of the lessons at the weekend Islamic school I used to attend as a child. We learned about waking up at sunrise for suhoor, the meal before the fast, then setting our intention: broadly speaking, it is for God, but beyond that it is to develop discipline, gratitude and self-awareness. I didn’t really like going to the school at the time – all the teachers had slightly different takes on the religion, which was confusing to me. But ultimately, as an adult, it’s been helpful – allowing me to understand that, as long as you know your intentions, that is all that matters. This has served me pretty well in moments of darkness this year.
Many Muslims this month may be fasting and reading the Qur’an, but I know others who will just get off social media in order to focus on spirituality and family – and that sentiment can be shared with people who aren’t of any particular faith. As we head out into the world again, setting an intention could prove important to avoid being overwhelmed by our feelings.
Things don’t necessarily turn out as we expect. Muslims might put that down to God’s will; others could say fate, the universe, or sod’s law. But setting an intention can keep us feeling centred, which is something that I think could help all of us right now.
Iman Amrani is a Guardian multimedia journalist