The other day, I was tempted to tell my mother that I don’t fast anymore. We were having the same exchange that usually goes along with the start of Ramadan: dread over long summer days, the great debate over start dates, and sadness that I wouldn’t be a part of the month’s buzzing social activity. Since I don’t live in the same city as my family, it’s only these conversations, and various posts on social media that remind me that I haven’t been fasting.
But this time also reminds me of a bigger question that I continue to wrestle with: where does Islam fit in my life?
Fasting became one of the cast-offs from a checklist of faith-based practices that we all seemed to use as indicators of religiosity. Ramadan was always one of my favorite traditions: I completed my first Ramadan at six years old, impressing my peers and parents. Itikafs and Taraweehs opened up a magical time of after-dark dinners and social activity. It felt final, in many ways, to distance myself from a tradition that mattered so much to me.
Ramadan was part of a world that was crucial for me growing up — the masjid. As the child of immigrants, I sought refuge in our local Muslim community, as it was the only place that seemed to accept me entirely. I wasn’t entirely Arab or American, but I wasentirely Muslim. My first heroine was Islam’s mother: Khadija. In my Islamic studies, I had my first lessons in equality and social justice.
But inevitably, religion clashed with my own personal world view. I avoided that clash for as long as I could, vainly praying for faith to eventually kick in. It never did.
It eventually became clear to me: Islam was never about religion as much as it was about identity for me. With the endemic rise of anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States, I clung more to my religious identity. I’m also hesitant to “come out”, because I’m worried about accidentally validating a narrative that I’m passionate about battling against.
I’m also worried about “coming out” to my family and community — but not out of fears of honor-based violence, or whatever other scenarios the Spencers and Gellers of the world would cook up. My parents are deeply religious, and I just don’t know how they’d take it. But perhaps realizing that I don’t share their worldview is a necessary part of making them realize that I’ve grown up. Maybe I’m also afraid that by saying it out loud to them, there would be a certain sense of finality that I’m just not ready for yet.
So what does Ramadan mean for someone who is more of a cultural Muslim than anything else? I’m still not sure. One thing that never seemed to enter my Ramadan-related agenda was self-reflection and improvement. And perhaps, this will be my one way of marking Ramadan each year. It’s often times strange for me that my knowledge of religion seemed to increase after leaving Islam.
My conversations with my mother this month will continue to be tinged with that same guilt, but I hope that someday, I can be open about these things with her. After all, I think that it’s important for more non-believing Muslims (who also condemn Islamophobia), to bring their perspectives to the table. But until then, I’ll be careful to avoid posting photos of food before sundown, and I’ll continue to nod sympathetically through grumbles about the day’s length. But I think, practicing or not, we’re all working out what this month is really about.
This piece was written by Inas Jaber, whose identity – upon request – has been kept pseudonymous.