For many Muslims, time seems to fly only in the context of Ramadan. For the last few months, I’ve heard countless exclamations of I can’t believe Ramadan is almost here again! and how did the year go by so fast? Behind the lightly-uttered words the emotions are obvious: how will it feel to go through all over again the strict regimens of fasting, praying, and all the little things that go along with them? I’ll be the first to admit that I typically welcome this holy month with mixed feelings… a gratitude beyond words that I’m about to be blessed with opportunity beyond measure but also more than just a little trepidation of how I’ll survive the challenges of going cold turkey on so many things.
Although I consider myself a devout Muslim woman – or at least trying to get there – I still feel an immense anxiety with the approach of Ramadan. It doesn’t matter that my apprehension is based on sound reasoning and experience. After all, my migraines are exacerbated by hunger, thirst and heat (or any combination thereof) and my kids have a habit of trying my patience especially during the summer vacations. So fasting for the last several years has been a mix of happiness and stress, piety and anger, fulfillment and emptiness.
But this year, I’m not worried, because this Ramadan is going to be different. This Ramadan is going to be a great one actually. Why? Because my family is having a 12-year reunion, and I’m the host! Four generations of women from Europe, America and Asia ranging in age from 2 and 1/2 to over 80 will get together this year in an unprecedented assembly that will span all of Ramadan, Eid and afterwards too. The agenda is simple: sharing memories – mostly laughs but some cries because of my father’s death this past year – grandmas enjoying grand babies, cherishing each other, encouraging, reminding and so much more.
Many American Muslims, especially those like me who emigrated from another country and have become used to a lonely existence, have forgotten that Ramadan is in reality a family affair. What better way to start the fast than with parents and children eating together? Sharing a meal is a blessing in itself, how much more so when sharing it with beloved family members? Preparing delicacies for the iftar meal, reminding to pray, supporting each other when hunger strikes, calming each other in the face of anger or frustration: many a times it seems to me that Ramadan is made for families. Whether families of blood or those created though ties of friendship; and of course mosque or academic communities can sometimes become families too.
Yet these days fasting has often become an individualistic, solitary act of worship. The absence of that special air in Muslim countries when everyone is fasting means we sometimes get lost. Taraweeh prayers at the local mosque are often foregone in preference of an early night, or avoided because of the crowd. The truth is that whether I frequent a mosque or not, fasting alone feels unnatural to me. That’s why I am beyond grateful that this year, I can look forward to a Ramadan with all my loved ones around me. When my kids make me want to scream, I can hand them over to someone else. When I feel like making a traditional iftar instead of eating my regular snack food, I can do so because there’s someone to enjoy it with me. Husbands are sometimes not the best companions in Ramadan, but mothers, sisters, nieces and nephews most definitely are.
Most people agree that regardless of the month, family is a blessing all year round. But here’s a thought: what of the countless Muslims who are alone during Ramadan through choice or circumstance? Even though our impending reunion has made this year special, none of my past fourteen years as a married woman in this country have seen me completely alone. So I cannot imagine the loneliness felt by those who don’t have anyone to share this most sacred of times with. Men and women arriving in the land of opportunity to make better lives for themselves, converts trying to make it through their first Ramadan, people without moral support of any kind. Fasting may be for God alone, but it’s still difficult to fast alone.
So this year, I’ll not only be praying for a joyous family reunion, but also expressing my gratitude that I have so many to share such a spiritually uplifting experience with. And if I see someone looking lonely at the mosque I’ll extend my hand and make a new friend. Because Ramadan to me stands for something more than just fasting – it means fasting with family.
Tune in next week for Saadia’s reflections on her first week of Ramadan with her family.