By Rose Thompson
As this holy month comes into its final days, I would like to share my thoughts and offer a perspective that I believe is not common in our Muslim communities, at least not openly. It has taken me 26 days to organize my thoughts and gather the courage to write this post and make it public. InshAllah, I pray for your patience and understanding, but mostly I pray that my meaning is fully understood and not misinterpreted or judged too harshly.
To put it bluntly, I used to hate Ramadan.
More importantly, I felt guilty that I hated Ramadan.
I have tried several times to compose a post without those two ideas, but they unfortunately are my truth and to deny them would belittle my experience. My apprehension and distress this time of year has nothing to do with the restrictions we place on ourselves during the day. Instead and rather unfortunately, I have many negative associations with Ramadan, many of which occurred my first year as a Muslim.
In 2006, I closed my eyes and took a leap of faith into the beautiful ocean that is Islam. I was 15 at the time and naively thought that everything in my life would suddenly make sense and fall into place. The initial elation and exhilaration I felt was quickly dampened with the realities of what it meant to practice Islam in a non-Muslim, sometimes hostile and violent environment. I was always quietly honest with my parents about my beliefs and that honesty led to being alienated and sometimes ostracized by the people I loved most.
I pressured myself into trying to perform all the intricacies of Islamic worship right away and quickly became frustrated at my attempts. While born Muslims have an entire childhood to learn and practice Islam before it becomes incumbent upon them, I tried to force it upon myself all at once, unaware of the futility of that goal. I was initially extremely discouraged as I tried to learn to pray and develop an attachment to Islam on my own without a support system of other Muslims around me. I had a few books, but my main source of information was the Internet, which for the new convert is a giant web of contradictions, misguidance, hatred, and trolls. My only saving grace was my best friend Sana and her mother Nazneen who gently guided me to the right places, being careful not to enforce their beliefs on me but allow me to decide for myself which path to take. But I was shy and often didn’t ask for help when I needed it, mostly because I didn’t want to impose upon them any more than I already did. I carried so many burdens alone out of shame and fear.
After awhile, the seclusion and frustration led me to give up salaah at home because I was too afraid of the repercussions if caught. Every meal was a battle as I declined meat and maintained a vegetarian diet. I feared what was to come as Ramadan approached and I would have to avoid food all day.
Before Ramadan began, Sana prepared me in every way we could think of. She explained all the rules, gave me a time chart so I knew when to begin and end my fast. She even gifted me my first tasbeeh so that I could start doing the little extra thikr and dua that are so common during Ramadan.
I thought I was ready, but the very first day I messed up. Due to a misunderstanding, I started my fast too late. The next day I believed my fast void because of a missed prayer. The next, I accidently ate something and thought that broke my fast. Seemingly everyday I did something that made my efforts invalid. With the month half over, I looked back and thought I had to make up more days than I had successfully achieved. As my knowledge in Islam grew, I realized that I had misunderstood many of the rules, but at the time all I saw was failure and wasted effort. And yet, despite my rocky beginning, by the end of the month I finally got the hang of it.
Then my great-grandmother passed away. She had been an important and much cherished part of my childhood and watching her finally lose her long battle with cancer hit us all pretty hard. After the somber funeral and internment, my whole family decided to go out to eat for an early dinner. As I sat in the restaurant anxiously watching my beloved aunts and uncles who were not yet aware of my conversion, I decided to order food and push it around my plate to give the illusion of eating. I intended to take it home and eat it for iftar later. One of my more perceptive uncles noticed and asked why I wasn’t eating. I felt all eyes turn on me. My heart pounded and my mind began to race. Here was the test: hold true to the commands of Allah (swt) and keep my fast, or eat and give in to my fear of what people would think, say, or do.
As the holy month came to a close, and I celebrated my first ‘eid alone at home, I mourned a terrible first experience and wondered what it would be like when I finally could practice my faith freely without the restrictions in my family home.
The next year was better. By then I had summoned the courage to be more publically open about my religion and found ways to interact more with my local Muslim community. I decided that faith was not something I could put on hold until my situation was better. I needed to push through and focus on what I could and needed to accomplish that day rather than worry about others and their reactions and opinions. In the end, it would just be my deeds and I before Allah (swt). I couldn’t use other people as my excuse any longer. That realization shaped me into the Muslim I am today. Often, the biggest chains that hold us down are the ones we place upon ourselves.
That Ramadan, I looked forward to more freedom to worship as I pleased, but I did not feel any of the spiritual growth I had heard described. I enjoyed praying and breaking my fast with my fellow Muslims for the first time. I even stayed up all night for Laylatul Qadr and joined in reading Qur’an and dua. I listened to speeches about the blessings of this month and heard others sigh in melancholy contentedness at its end. But I felt nothing particularly special and definitely didn’t feel sad at its departure.
And so it continued, even as I moved away and into a Muslim environment. Ramadan would approach and I would listen to the excitement of my friends and feel apprehensive that I felt nothing. I felt I belonged with those the Prophet (saws) warned about that benefited nothing from fasting except hunger and thirst.
I began working in 2011 as a preschool teacher and fasting became a whole new experience for me. Everyday, between the broken sleep, summer heat, long working hours, and daily Masjid attendance, by the end of the month I was over-exhausted. With each passing year that I worked, it became more difficult. I began to resent the fact that I could never get enough sleep. I hated that my head and back hurt everyday and there was next to nothing I could do about it. I mourned that I couldn’t do extra salaah because just managing the required prayers was difficult enough. I was so tired that every time I attempted to read Qur’an I would fall asleep. I hated that everyone else was so happy and could do so much worship and I couldn’t. I hated that everyone else cried because they were so moved by dua and I cried because I was exhausted. I hated that other people would tell me that I was getting more reward for fasting under that intense pressure rather than doing all the mustahaab things and then turn around and talk about how important the mustahaab things were. I hated that everyone else seemed closer to Allah (swt) and that I was failing and slipping farther away. I was relieved when the month was finished, yet unbelievably heartbroken because nothing had changed for me spiritually. If anything, the stress of the month left me distant and broken.
As the years passed, I reached a point where the thought of fasting under those conditions was terrifying. I knew that I couldn’t do it again and something had to change.
Alhamdulilah, I found a new job this year and I began working from home. The idea of Ramadan no longer terrified me and I faced this year with renewed hope that maybe this could finally be the year that things turn around. As the month began, I settled into the first week comfortably and content. Finally, I could do salaah, read Qur’an and dua and spend time with friends at the Masjid without feeling completely miserable. I thought that I had found the key to making this month special and moving. This was finally it! Things were turning around!
But then, on the 7th day of Ramadan, I received the news that my grandfather was in the hospital and they were not hopeful he would make it through his illness. A trip was planned, and within two days I was back in my hometown quietly sitting by his side waiting for him to complete his trip back to our Creator. A week passed and his difficult journey was finished. To Allah (swt) we belong and to Him we return.
After all the final arrangements were complete and I said my last tearful goodbyes, I came back home and struggled to situate myself back into the comfortable Ramadan routine I had established. At first I was angry. Why did this happen right when I was finally on the right path toward a spiritual connection? Why did Allah (swt) take now two beloved people away from me during this month and establish that association? Why all these challenges and sufferings? Why?
And the answer came as clear as the bright shining moon. Allah (swt) guides everything to happen precisely and exactly for a reason. As most people know, things almost never work out exactly as we humans expected or planned.
And that’s the point. We develop expectations for everything in this life and I’ve learned that expecting and imagining something is different from feeling and experiencing it. I developed expectations that Ramadan would lift me out of this world and away on some spiritual high by way of salaah, Qur’an, and dua recitation. I expected Ramadan to be all about calling Allah (swt) to myself, but that’s not the case. He was already calling me, I just shut my ears and wouldn’t listen. He was in the children I chased on hot days without water. He was in the Masjid as I cried in exhaustion. He was with my grandfather as I stroked his hand and read prayers for him. He was there when I went to bed after the funeral too drained to even think about reading a single ayah of Qur’an. Allah (swt) put those steps in my path to either elevate or trip me. I tripped so many times because I was looking for a different set of stairs that He hadn’t provided for me yet. I think I’ve finally realized that and taken a step up, inshAllah.
I heard once that there are some scholars who get upset if they notice that things in their life are going too smoothly. They look forward to tests and therefore steps to elevate themselves closer to Allah (swt). Spirituality is not in how close you think you are to Allah (swt), but rather how you recognize His presence and purpose in every moment of every day. If we expect Ramadan to be anything, we should expect it to be a test, even if it isn’t the test we thought it would be. Will that test take us higher and closer to Him or trip us up?
So, no I do not hate Ramadan anymore and have found peace in it. Allah (swt) says in the Qur’an, “The month of Ramadan is that in which the Qur’an was revealed, a guidance to men and clear proofs of the guidance and the distinction…and (He desires) that you should exalt the greatness of Allah for His having guided you and that you may give thanks. And when My servants ask you concerning Me, then surely I am very near; I answer the prayer of the supplicant when he calls on Me, so they should answer My call and believe in Me that they may walk in the right way.” [2:185-196]
He is calling, especially during this month. We must be sure to answer.
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