2013 will mark my 26th Ramadan. If there is one thing I have learned over the years, it is that no Ramadan is quite like another.
My first Ramadan, I was in China, sharing a small dorm room with two non-Muslim roommates. I would sneak out for suhur — the early morning meal — so as not to wake them. All the cafeterias on campus were closed, so I’d open a tin of peaches and make it a meal with a steamed bun saved from the evening before and a cup of boiled water. For iftar — dinner — I rode my bike down to the street vendors from the west of China and feasted on skewers of lamb spiced with cumin and salt. Occasionally, I shared my meal with Chinese friends who were astonished that anyone would choose to fast all day for a month. That year, Ramadan was a largely solitary exercise.
I wasn’t at all lonely or sad to be without community; indeed the very solitary nature of this first fast gave me ample opportunity to develop my spirituality, to become intimate with God on my own terms, something that I believe has served me well in the years since. I didn’t have people telling me the “right” way to do things, no molds that others wanted to fit me into, so I learned to live Islam, to read Qur’an, and relate to God in a way that was both personal and utterly genuine to myself.
My second Ramadan, I was in Vancouver, part of a large community, invited to people’s houses, to Muslim Student Association iftars, to huge dinners at the various mosques in and around the city. I was dazzled by the diversity of my new-found community, enchanted by the variety of foods and customs, languages and dress from Asia, Turkey, the Middle East, North and East Africa. This Ramadan was radically different from my first Ramadan, what with its intense immersion in the Muslim community from intimate dinners at friend’s homes to enormous gatherings at conference centers, from congregations of two or three students for prayers at the MSA to communal taraweeh (late night) prayers that attracted hundreds of worshipers.
This Ramadan had important lessons for me, too. It taught me the value of community, and the joy of fasting with others. It fostered in me a powerful awareness of the diversity within Islam, an awareness that came to underpin my belief that ultimately Islam has to be negotiated by each individual according to her or his own conscience and understanding.
Over the years, as their fasting expanded to a whole day, a couple days a week, and finally the entire month, that bond strengthened and deepened, as Ramadan brought us together again and again in shared meals, in common spiritual devotion, and in a mutual celebration of God’s bounties which encompassed everything from the delight in pure, clean water to the enduring joy of loving relationships. In a day and age when parents and children are pulled apart by work, school, and extracurriculars, the never-ending crush of activities and responsibilities, Ramadan brought us together again and again for the meals on either end of the day, for times of stillness and family fellowship. It not only forged parent-child and sibling bonds, it reinforced them, and reminded us over and over how truly blessed we were to be able to share our life and our faith with one another. Even now that I am the one who is not able to fast the entire month, Ramadan teaches me over and over how precious family is, as that bond remains strong through shared meals and love of God, even though I may have eaten between shuhr and iftar.
Here in the beginning of another Ramadan, I wonder what new lessons and new bounties Ramadan will have to give me this year.