Ramadan began two weeks ago, and across the world, Muslims who are observing the month abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset for thirty days.
For those of us who fast, readiness is a layered concept. For some of us, it’s the physical component that is difficult to prepare ourselves for. Denying yourself food and drink during the daytime hours is difficult. It’s particularly difficult for those of us who don’t live in a country or society that adapts its rhythm to the Ramadan rhythm.
In the US, meetings happen over lunch; conditioning and training for sports happen during daylight hours; workday hours remain the same, regardless of how lethargic you are. Trust me, it can be a mess. I’ve been fasting for over three decades – the physical doesn’t bother me as much. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t days when I feel like I’m wading through gravy. I have many individual days where 2:30 PM hits and I can’t remember what I did two hours before. But, when I have a difficult day like that, it doesn’t affect my overall Ramadan experience.
For some of us, myself included, it’s the spiritual component that is difficult. Ramadan is a highly favored month in Islam. It’s a time for spiritual reflection and a contemplation of divine relationships. Ramadan is a month full of potential: potential forgiveness, potential gratitude, potential connection. Some observing Muslims increase their prayers; some make it a goal to read the entire Qur’an throughout the month. Both of these things are traditional undertakings that come with a whole raft of blessings. Some observing Muslims make other types of spiritual and lifestyle goals to strive towards, like abstaining from social media, abstaining from gossip, and focusing on making the five daily prayers. In essence, Ramadan is about more than just fasting.
These spiritual strivings are harder for me to prepare for and complete when I’m not in close proximity to a community – however defined – that I can connect with. And, as a queer Muslim, and as a Black American Muslim living in a white state, it’s sometimes difficult to find that community. Community isn’t just about accountability; it’s also about the validation of seeing yourself reflected in someone else. It’s about personal growth through affirmation, the beauty of sharing your triumphs and failures with someone with whom they resonate. For me, not observing Ramadan within a community means that it’s easy for my self-determination to wane, and it’s easy for me to lose motivation.
Every time Ramadan comes near, and I make the commitment to observe it, I set my resolve to reach my spiritual goals. I am not always successful (even with a community), but I find that I feel more connected to my Ramadan practices when I can first affirm myself, and then surround myself with others who affirm me. Here’s what I’m trying to focus on this Ramadan.
1. Not Shaming Myself
This can be a hard one, but I think it’s the most important to remember. No matter my intentions, my plans, and my determination, I will inevitably fail to meet a spiritual goal at some point during the month of Ramadan. I will sleep through the pre-dawn meal (suhoor) and the pre-dawn prayer. I will stop reading Qur’an one week into the month. If I’ve made a goal to try to keep my tongue in check, I’ll end up cussing some disrespectful person out on day three. Hell, there will be days I won’t fast at all. My resolve will waver; I will become careless; I will become unmotivated.
What follows any of this is a spiral of shame – self-imposed, but also an internalization of messages that I’ve received most of my life about what it means to be a “good” Muslim. This talk tends to get ramped up during Ramadan. There’s a lot of all-or-nothing rhetoric that can make me feel like if I don’t do everything perfectly – the fasting, the spiritual work, the intentional execution of all religious actions – then I am somehow not going to reap the benefits of the month.
I can’t control the external messages I’m receiving about what I should or shouldn’t do during the month and how what I do will be reflected in the blessing I do or don’t receive. What I can control are the messages that I tell myself about my capacity, my failures, and my intentions.
Two years ago – a year when I wasn’t fasting for various reasons – I came across a Facebook post by Maryam Amir that resonated so deeply with me. It may not resonate with Muslims who aren’t focusing on spiritual connections, but it served as a reminder to me that this month doesn’t have to be about all-or-nothing thinking. To quote Amir: “Instead of feeling guilty and angry over your inability to fast and spend this month in the masjid or your lack of preparation, find creative ways to reconnect with your Creator.” One of my goals this Ramadan is to accept what I have to give for this month, and to love myself unconditionally through the month.
2. Inviting Folks to Break Fast With Me
When you’re not observing Ramadan within a community, the fast-breaking meal (iftar) can end up looking like a rushed handful of peanuts while clinging to the kitchen counter to steady yourself from a blood sugar drop. When I am not fasting in community, sometimes my iftars are not intentional, not purposeful. Sometimes this is okay, but sometimes I want to share this moment with people who have either experienced a day of fasting or understand the experience of fasting. I want to be able to stop in that moment, reflect on the day, and reflect on the world around me.
Iftar is a moment of transition, and I’d sometimes like to recognize it as such. If I am breaking my fast with other people and I’m able to do a check-in with them, no matter how small, it helps me feel like I wasn’t just going through the fasting motions of the day in isolation. Even something as quick as “Were you hungry all day?” is helpful.
3. Finding Other Muslims Who Share My Values and/or Identity
Sometimes the desire to be in community during Ramadan might lead us to join up with groups of Muslims who don’t affirm our identities. For queer and trans Muslims, this means hiding our sexuality or our gender identity. For Black Muslims in non-Black Muslim spaces, it may mean bracing ourselves to deal with overt or covert racism. For unmarried Muslims, it may mean hiding our dating partners and dodging questions about spouses. Rather than fractioning pieces of myself off just for the sake of community, I try to create my own Ramadan gatherings with Muslims who share my values and/or my identity. Depending on where I’m living, this may mean it’s just me and one other Black Muslim or one other queer Muslim, but that’s something.
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It’s even okay if I end up gathering Muslims who don’t observe Ramadan to come hang with me, because it’s important for us all to remember that not all Muslims observe Ramadan. And if we’re working on not shaming ourselves or labeling ourselves a “good” or “bad” Muslim for what we’re able to do in this month, then we really need to work on not shaming other Muslims for what they are or aren’t personally doing this month (as long as they’re not engaging in practices that oppress and hurt others, of course!).
[Featured Image: Portrait of article author Samaa Abdurraqib. Samaa is pictured in a sepia-toned photograph smiling and looking to the side while wearing a jean jacket, striped black shirt, hijab, and glasses. She appears to be in front of a house.]