This article comes on Day Two of our special Altmuslim/Patheos Muslim Ramadan #30Days30Writers blog project, in which we are showcasing the voices of 30 Muslim leaders, activists, scholars, writers, youth and more (one on each day of Ramadan) as part of our commitment to own our own narratives and show how we are one Ummah, many voices. To demonstrate how our Ramadan experiences are shared yet unique to each of us.
I performed my first Ramadan fast when I was 25 years old. I’d embraced Islam, spoke the words of the Shahada and learned my prayers with enthusiasm; but as the holy month drew closer on the calendar, I prepared for it with trepidation. Fasting for 30 days, even with the allowances of eating and drinking during the nighttime hours, was a daunting endeavor.
That first year I lasted for about a week and then gave up the fast in total dismay. It seemed impossible. I live in a country where the majority of people around me are not fasting. Our work schedules don’t change just because it’s Ramadan. We’re required to stay as sharp and focused as our not-Muslim co-workers during the day. We also do our own domestic chores. Cooking, cleaning and laundry don’t go away just because it’s Ramadan. The discomfort and exhaustion I experienced during those first fasts was completely opposite from the spiritual high I was hoping to achieve during this holiest of months.
Yet, I would look around at other Muslims and see that they were successfully fasting while maintaining a positive attitude. Rather than inspiring me, seeing other Muslims with a “Ramadan Glow” made me mad. I resented people who seemed to truly be enjoying the experience while I struggled and failed again and again to keep the daily fasts because of hunger, thirst, headaches and exhaustion. Surely they must be faking it, I thought.
Aside from the logistical issues of Ramadan in the U.S., fasting is, in every sense, a spiritual discipline that requires all the things I struggle with: patience, consistency, focus and self-control. Still, in spite of the challenges Ramadan presents, each year for the past 14 years I have made preparations, set my intentions and began the fast, praying that it be pleasing to Allah (SWT).
About three years ago, however, I had a Ramadan Breakthrough. It was a simple revelation that suddenly brought everything into perspective. You see, fasting sucks. And it sucks on purpose. It’s supposed to be a challenge. That’s why we do it! I realized that the joy that many of my Muslim friends were experiencing from fasting was like that of a marathon runner who, despite the physical discomfort she experiences, stays bolstered with every mile she completes on the course. As she nears the finish line and her dedication and perseverance pays off it makes the aches and pains, blisters and exhaustion all seem worth it.
If you look at it objectively, it seems almost insane that a person would get up out of bed on a Saturday morning and attempt to run 26 miles; continuing to run even when she is exhausted, near dehydration and in pain. Not-Muslim friends and family often look at our Ramadan fast the same way. Why would you subject yourself to that kind of torture? But any runner will tell you that there is no feeling like crossing the finish line, and any faster will tell you there’s nothing more satisfying than that first sip of water and a date after a long day of abstinence.
These disciplines –physical, mental and spiritual — that we humans engage in cause us to transcend our comfort and, sometimes, even logic. We do these things precisely because they force us out of our comfort zones and challenge us in ways that we inherently understand are important; especially in a culture like that of the U.S., where we are constantly seeking new ways to be comfortable. Every new product or service promises to make our lives easier, more fun and help us feel better.
When we intentionally make our lives harder and allow ourselves to experience discomfort, we gain valuable perspectives and allow our mettle to be tested. The reward is the confirmation that we have the ability to overcome our own weaknesses, which is even more satisfying in the case of Ramadan when we’re doing it for the glory of the One God.
These days, I look forward to Ramadan. I’ve also become a runner. I don’t think these two things have happened coincidentally. They are both a sign that I’ve matured and have learned to appreciate the purpose of self-discipline in different areas of my life.
When I first started running, a friend of mine offered me a great piece of advice. He said, “It’s your race, your pace. Running is a competition against yourself. Pay attention to your unique needs, understand what your body requires to meet your goal, and forget about anyone else.”
Every year, millions of marathon runners sign up to run in races that they know they won’t ‘win.’ Sure, there are a handful of elite runners who are there to try to be first across the finish line, but most marathon runners aren’t competing against anyone but themselves and their last race time. The goal is to simply finish the course and do better than you’ve done before.
In the same way, fasting is not a competition between you and anyone else. It’s a struggle against your own nafs, a challenge that you must meet on your own. Sure, you can ask other Muslims for advice on fasting, but find the way that works best for you. Maybe you need to do unconventional things to be able to manage your schedule or juggle your responsibilities during Ramadan. As long as you are sticking to the basic requirements of the fast, that’s ok. If you fail, just get up the next day and start again.
Islam is not a destination. It’s a path — a ‘straight path’ that requires a lifetime of perseverance and dedication. Ramadan is a blessed part of that journey, and the only way you can ever really “lose” at it is to just stop trying.
Amanda Quraishi is a writer, interfaith activist and technology professional living in Austin, Texas. She currently works full time for Mobile Loaves & Fishes, a non-profit organization that addresses the issue of homelessness in the U.S. She also leads a populist-based interfaith initiative at InterfaithActivism.org, and blogs about the American Muslim experience at muslimahMERICAN.com.