The word Ramadan comes from the Arabic root word ramad, which means burning, or intense heat. As we fast, we become more and more aware of what our body and soul yearn for. We are better able to focus our spiritual, emotional and physical energy. The physical body weakens throughout the day and increasingly becomes the object of our attention. For 30 days, from sunrise to sunset, we participate in spiritual world-making and world-burning; we burn what we don’t need and build spiritual pathways that bring us closer to Allah. It is a purifying process. Think of it as sensory deprivation, where the metaphysical and physical are having a meeting, fortifying a consciousness of oneself.
Due to the global lockdown, Ramadan in 2020 has meant a fast from physical gatherings — an integral part of Ramadan — as well as food and drink. The difficult parts of the holiday are typically eased by our community. And yet, amid this global pandemic, mosques around the world are closed.
Due to the global lockdown, Ramadan in 2020 has meant a fast from physical gatherings — an integral part of Ramadan — as well as food and drink.
Fasting is an intensely personal act of worship and an exercise of personal integrity and discipline. But it’s also surprisingly policed. A.Helwa writes in her book, “Secrets of Divine Love,” that Allah rigs this month in our favor. It is a time to reflect and be still with ourselves — and yet there is also a pressure to be productive. With the lockdown, this pressure has only increased. At the end of every Ramadan, I feel guilty knowing that I could’ve prayed more, recited more Quran, volunteered more. When in truth I was bartering acts of worship and overcompensating for my shortcomings. Instead of gorging on food when the sun sets, I was gorging on guilt and shame; I was allowing the pressure of external forces to inform my relationship with Islam. Without limits, this can induce anxiety, especially without the help of our physical and spiritual family.
And yet, we have to push back against this anxiety and this instinct to “make the most of it.” The Quran says that “Allah intends for you ease and does not intend for you hardship.” This period of deprivation is not supposed to be a way to prove your endurance, but to glorify Allah. And as Ramadan comes to a close, this lesson is more important than ever.
Without access to the same support systems, food is one of the few resources that remains a comfort. There were days I woke up feeling faint and physically weak; it would’ve been irresponsible to keep fasting. But I also didn’t feel compelled to push myself like I normally do. I’ve been fasting since I was seven years old, but the exhaustion I felt this month was psychological. I listened to my body and broke my fast when I needed to, and I kept a tally of the days I missed and rested. The best way I could honor my time this Ramadan was by honoring the needs of my body. Fasting is for Allah, and I have no one else to answer to.
Ramadan is about world dissolution, but this month our worlds shrunk to the digital perimeters of our screens and our homes. The world only existed in the infinite scrolls of social media, the two feet around me in my bed, or the rush from the car to the grocery store and back. With nothing to do and nowhere to go, all my tension and pain was heightened. Each day dissolved into the next. Instead of trying to unearth selfishness this month, I became acutely aware and obsessed with my own body and how I treated myself. I extended myself the mercy I try to extend to everyone else, and in return found myself becoming less reactive, more patient and empathetic. Ramadan is not supposed to about depriving yourself of food, but it wasn’t until April that I understood what that meant. I didn’t try to focus on repetitive ritualistic acts or try to use my time wisely, I just let myself be.
I didn’t try to focus on repetitive ritualistic acts or try to use my time wisely, I just let myself be.
Ramadan this year has also revealed there is more work to be done, especially when it comes to making communities and houses of worship welcoming to all. Growing up, I spent sundown to dusk with friends at the masjid (mosque), and after I moved from Minnesota, I was lucky to find a new community with other transplants in New York City. We created our own families and traditions, and ignored sleep to imagine a liberated, utopian world. After taraweeh, an optional extra prayer after the last prayer of the day, we’d pair mint tea with mint shisha until we couldn’t keep our eyes open. It is a privilege to have this community, and one not every Muslim enjoys — especially queer, Black and Shia Muslims.
“In Islam, there is a natural tendency to gravitate towards people who give off certain vibes. Meaning, some spiritual personalities are alike, and while others differ. Allah has created such diversity, that we feel comfortable and uncomfortable in different communities — this can tamper with our faith,” says Aamina Khan, social editor at Them.
The Islam my parents taught me, and still preach, reveals a way of lifestyle in which every day acts can be forms of worship. Intention precedes action. As Solange Knowles says, “do nothing without intention.”
Fasts can always be made up. Ramadan is meant for us to foster spiritual closeness to God; it’s a time when we’re supposed to express gratitude and ask God for guidance. My hope is that Muslims have not spent this Ramadan counting down the hours before darkness, but instead have used the time to practice mercy — for everyone, including themselves. I want to train myself to surrender, to rid myself of bad habits, to stay kind to others but also to myself. I want to learn to be loving and softer. To quote Imam Hamid al-Ghazali, “the merit of fasting is not in its hunger, as the merit of medicine is not in its bitterness.”