Existential Sunday School, Ramadan Style

Existential Sunday School, Ramadan Style July 13, 2015

Photo from Flickr Creative Commons, user "Runs with Scissors"
Photo from Flickr Creative Commons, user “Runs with Scissors”

This is Day 26 of Altmuslim’s #30Days30Writers series for Ramadan 2015.

By AbdelRahman Murphy

Pizza and basketball. Those were the solutions for my generation’s struggles of being a Muslim adolescent. Deeper questions about existence and identity were either ignored or vaguely answered.

Needless to say, times have changed.

As I begin my 10th year serving community in a working capacity, I’ve come across three common hurdles that stand as obstacles between young Muslims and their being at peace with their faith, along with ways that Ramadan and its practices can help alleviate these challenges.

1. Glad tidings to the strangers.

One of the silent tensions that you may feel in your life as a Muslim young person is the fear of being different. Your uniqueness weighs down on you like social sandbags on your shoulders, at times too much to bear. Living as the “other” can be emotionally, physically, and spiritually draining for anyone, but particularly for young people.

Changing names to simpler versions, explaining religious holidays and moral codes as “something my family does,” and squirming whenever the topic of Islam comes up, are all ways the youth attempt to cope with the intersection between Islam and the need to fit in.

My advice to you is to embrace your difference — celebrate your “otherness” with compassionate principle. The ability to grow in your uniqueness is something that will only serve you well as you grow older.

Besides, America loves a rebel.

How Ramadan helps: Ramadan is a month of spiritual symmetry — that is, for 30 days, we live our lives closer to the path that Allah wants us to be on. We generally pray more (or even at all), we fast, we give charity, we refine our character, reconnect with Quran and spend time with the community. The sweetness that Muslims feel in Ramadan is there despite being different. That’s the sweetness of celebrating your otherness, which in this month in particular, brings you closer to Godliness.

2. Uncontrolled desires will be your downfall.

There are two ideas that are prevalent amongst young Muslims that may give them the wrong idea about their spiritual capacity. The first comes from contemporary culture: That the self (analogous to the psychological id) has the inherent capability of knowing what is good and what is bad for you, and that the energy of our desires is good to follow because it’s part of staying true to yourself.

The second is that Shaytan (the devil) has any and all responsibility for the mistakes that we make. If we ever fall, we can blame Shaytan — he’s the one who whispered it to me, he’s the one who made me do it.

Unfortunately, these two ideas will lead you far away from understanding one of your greatest enemies, and that is your Self (nafs). The Self is a tricky thing, with the sole goal of seeking pleasure and satisfaction. The good news is that it can be trained to seek that which is what Allah is pleased with — prayer, fasting, etc. This is one of the reasons why people enjoy beautiful recitations of Quran, for example – because their Self has been trained to enjoy it.

The bad news is that it’s extremely stubborn, making it difficult to train.

Most importantly, know that uncontrolled destructive desires from your Self (not Shaytan) will be your downfall. Youthful aggressiveness in opinion coupled with sophomoric naivety is a combination that can put the health of your heart, soul and faith dangerously close to spiritually terminal.

How Ramadan helps: Narrations from the Prophet Muhammad [saw] teach us that during the month of Ramadan, the shayateen (devils) are chained up for the duration of the month. Their influence is removed, so we are left to our own devices when it comes to our desires. This is both a relief and a sharp wakeup call. Many of us begin to realize who we really are, noticing the flaws that we once attributed to an outside evil influence still remaining in the month where that influence is removed.

The fast, however, is a remarkable tool against The Self. In essence, we are abstaining from things that are not only permissible, but are good for us (food and drink). This practical spiritual exercise gives us the proof of our own abilities to fight off our desires. If we can stay away fromthings normally halal then we’ve shown ourselves we have the ability to stay away from things that are haram. You can do it. This whole month, you’ve proven you can.

3. You are going to have to accept Islam for yourself.

This one might make your parents angry:

Every person will have to accept Islam for themselves. Being born into Islam will not end up giving you the strength sufficient enough to weather the storm of doubt and desire that can shake the roots of your belief.

And parents, if you can’t meaningfully articulate the whats and whys of Islam to a young person who isn’t a Muslim, then I can almost guarantee your Muslim young person doesn’t quite get what or why, either.

At an earlier and earlier age, you will have to be able to articulate what you believe and why you believe what you believe to audiences who will look at you like an intellectual Neanderthal. The confidence and swagger to handle that comes from two things: The first is sincerity in belief, which comes from understanding why Islam is beneficial for your quality of life. The second is actual philosophical understanding of your religion from qualified scholars.

Attempting to accept Islam for yourself without those two qualities will almost always lead to confusion, sometimes beyond repair.

How Ramadan helps: Fasting is the only act of worship and devotion to God that is truly private. That is, no one knows if you hid in your house and scarfed down a sandwich in the afternoon. Private good deeds nurture sincerity like a water and sun nurture a plant, and fasting this month is the height of privacy for a good deed. Use that sincerity boost and seek to understand what you believe and why you believe it in this month. Be careful not to conflate community experiences with theology, and seek counsel from qualified individuals. Ramadan is the time to do it — there is, in fact, no better time.

AbdelRahman Murphy is an Instructor with Qalam Institute, an educational organization that provides Islamic education of the sacred sources in a modern context. He also serves as the director of the Roots Program, a Qalam project aimed to grow, tend, and mend the sociospiritual health of young Muslims. He can be reached at @abdelrahmanm on Twitter.

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