On Loving God and Dreading Ramadan

On Loving God and Dreading Ramadan August 1, 2013

I started fasting when I was 13 years old. My first Ramadan I was so excited and so proud of myself for being able to do so. I would go to school (where I may have been the only Muslim), even go to gym class, all while fasting. Year after year, I fasted religiously (pun intended), making sure never to miss any days (except those from which I was exempt). Growing up Ramadan was always an important part of life for me and my family. Getting up in the morning for seheri (suhoor) with everyone, my mother making us all parathas and eggs, making sure to get our caffeine fix for the day, and finally saying fajr prayer (something I rarely did outside of Ramadan).  I grew up in a small, close-knit Muslim community that always made sure to share plenty of iftaar dinners during the month. Growing up, Ramadan was a beautiful community- and family-oriented time for me.

Then I came to grad school. My first year at grad school Ramadan went very well. I was lucky to have a wonderful Pakistani family living a few doors down from me who lovingly expected me to join them for iftaar dinners every day. They were new to the country, and I was new to the city, so we newcomers shared our Ramadan. The next year, they moved away and I moved to a different neighbourhood, on my own. My classes, scheduled class work, and practicum kept me busy and social during Ramadan, making the month go smoothly.

It was my third year in grad school when things began to change.  For the first time, Ramadan became a lonely and depressing experience for me. When I fasted, I became depressed.  When I didn’t, I was happier. And at first I could not figure out why. In fact, that year my roommate was Muslim, though our different stages in school and life circumstances kept us from spending a great deal of time together. Nonetheless, it confused me. But eventually, I figured it out.

Although I’m an introvert, I need to have a good dose of human interaction in my life. I have very few Muslim friends, so I did not have anyone to share Ramadan with. I also no longer had many classes as most of my work became independent, as it is wont to happen when you’re doing a PhD. This meant that I was not seeing people in my department very much. To balance this out I had gotten into the habit, as so many countless lonely grad students do, of working in cafés. (We do this because we’re lonely and would otherwise never leave our homes. And probably never shower either.) However, working in a café is not feasible during Ramadan. My only source of social human contact was gone. If I was unable to work in cafés, that meant I had to work in my apartment. By myself. In my room. Just me and my computer. Alone. In my apartment. In other words, I would have to isolate myself.

Ramadan was isolating me. It felt like Ramadan was imprisoning me in my home. I had no Muslim friends to share iftaars with. I couldn’t go to cafés. My non-Muslim friends were either busy with school or 2000 kilometers away from me, where my family was as well. And that isolation was depressing me. So for the sake of my mental health, I stopped fasting.

I didn’t fast that year, or the year after that, or the year after that. In fact, I didn’t fast again until six years later. And each year I would dread Ramadan. I wanted to fast, but the thought of it depressed me. The thought of being stuck in my room for the whole month depressed me.  Once I even tried having iftaar with the local MSA, but their strict gender segregation and cramped “women’s area” turned me off. It’s hard to eat comfortably when you’re seething with anger. So I never went back there.  And I went back to not fasting.

And to be honest, I’m not ashamed of admitting it. I don’t know how spiritual or religious I could have been in my depressed state. Isolation is a powerful force for depression and difficult to overcome as long as one feels isolated. I asked for God’s forgiveness and understanding and decided that I needed to pay attention to my mental health.

And I know I’m not the only one.  Not everyone enjoys Ramadan. I’m not the only one who had that feeling of dread in the days leading up to Ramadan. I’m not the only one who hated seeing all those posts on Facebook about how excited people were because “Ramadan is coming!” And I’m not the only one who felt really horrible about feeling that way. Ramadan is, and has always been, important to me. Those years when I was not fasting, I always wanted to fast. I wanted to be home with my family to share Ramadan with them. I wanted to have Muslims friends to break the fast with. I wanted to be privy to the spiritual experiences that people always talked about. But I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. And I couldn’t tell that to anyone, except a few select people who I knew wouldn’t judge me, including my family. I knew the judgement would come my way from others though.

“If you really wanted to, you could. You’re just making excuses.”

“God has commanded us to fast if we’re healthy. You’re perfectly healthy, so you’re just being lazy.”

So I kept it to myself. I didn’t want people to think I was a bad Muslim, or worse, that I didn’t care about God and Islam. I do. I always have. And most people who have these feelings also do. In fact, it’s because we care about and love God that we feel so horrible. If we didn’t care about God or Islam, we wouldn’t care, or even think, about Ramadan. We’d have no cognitive dissonance and mental anguish. We’d have nothing to worry about. But it’s precisely because Islam is dear to us that we feel the dread that we do, the sadness that we do. And we should be able to share that without judgment. We should be able to participate in other aspects of Ramadan without being made to feel like hypocrites. We should be able to have honest conversations about why we don’t fast.

I only started fasting again, and enjoying Ramadan again, when I got married. When I got my regular, daily, human social contact back, I got my Ramadan back too.

For more on MMW’s Ramadan series, and to read the rest of this year’s Ramadan posts, click here.

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10 responses to “On Loving God and Dreading Ramadan”

  1. Great piece. Thank you for sharing! As someone who cannot fast for medical reasons, I struggle with dreading Ramezan plenty, too.

  2. I can relate to your feelings. I think this isn’t an uncommon experience for converts, as well — and generally here in N. America where Ramadan isn’t a public holiday.

    Ramadan does mean totally changing your schedule and is isolating since a lot of social contact is around food. If you aren’t near your family or your family isn’t Muslim then it can just feel like isolation and deprivation without the excitement and festival feeling that a lot of Muslims, especially in Muslim countries seem to experience.

    It’s also a really hard observance to explain to non-Muslims who often think that we’re extreme in starving ourselves and depriving ourselves of sleep (usually resulting in illness at some point during Ramadan) and social contacts for a month. This is even more so now with the fasting happening during long summer days.

    For me, it’s helped to make Ramadan about something and to set some goals rather than to only fast or to focus on the deprivation of it (which is otherwise easy to do). I try to prepare for it beforehand and figure out what I think I can gain from it (other than the obvious blessings) — something I want to learn, a clean eating regimen, etc.

    Having children to whom I’m trying to transmit the good of Ramadan has also helped – though if I’m honest, I cannot say that it’s a time filled with joy – though it is a deeply (ascetic) spiritual period.

    In saying all this, I’m not critiquing your experience, just sharing my own experience.

    • Thank you for sharing your experience. I didn’t read it as a critique at all 🙂 I’m happy that you are able to find a way to make it better for yourself 🙂 It isn’t easy for many of us and I think it’s perfectly fine to be honest about that. That in itself might begin to make it a little easier.

  3. I just realized that this sentence “And I couldn’t tell that to anyone, except a few select people who I knew wouldn’t judge me, including my family” may be misread – due to my own mistake. The importance of the proper use of a comma!

    What I meant to say was that my family were among those select few who I could share this lack of fasting with. They were always very supportive.

  4. Thank you for this post. It’s not easy to talk about coping with depression and how that can make it necessary to scale back on commitments to yourself. It’s great to read that you’ve made it through that difficult period, and that you’re able to reflect back on what made it difficult.

  5. My mother always says that it’s hard to worship Allah when we are sad. It’s rather true. I’ve dealt with depression and I empathize with your struggles. I admit that fasting was not an issue for but some other acts of worship were. Compassion helps so much more than judgment in these instances. Thanks for sharing your story.

  6. Forgive me for intruding; I am an introvert Christian. What you experienced, on both ends of the spectrum, is not unlike what I experienced as a young Catholic. I truly adored, in my endless innocence, everything about my faith.
    The truly sacred and wonderfully human aspect of your extended religious experience and troubles is this: “When I got my regular, daily, human social contact back, I got my Ramadan back too.” That, to me, is the Nut. The Holy Nut. The cannot-do-without-Glorious-Nut. It allows God to be as truly Big as in our best imaginings. No great God would be without this Nut. Without this Nut, God is nothing.
    If we want to insist that The Nut is walnut or pistachio or peanut or pecan or whatever, fine: as limited, finite beings, we can be excused our silly prejudice and highly filtered POV. There are no and never have been any adults in our entire history: we are all little children. The moment we abandon our essence and know, with certainty, what is the truth, we are no more than that laughable charade of youth walking in oversize shoes and clothing modeling an imagined grown-up. I am ready to be killed for that view.

  7. Asalamelekum Sobia,
    Thank you so much for sharing. I have been Muslim now for about 11-years. When I first became Muslim I was excited and nervous about Ramadan. I was able to fast a one to two-weeks until I had severe side effects from low blood sugar. Every year I would try fasting doing a few days here and there. I always felt guilty inside because I would see Muslims all around me fasting and even the new Muslims. I felt like my faith was not as strong as theirs. Once I was pregnant and breast feeding from having children with my second husband I was not able to fast. When I was able to fast again I didn’t. Mind you this was when the fasting times were getting longer and longer moving into the summer months. This month I only fasted one day. And another day up to almost Asr time. It is very hard for me. I have anxiety/panic disorder and depression at times. I also have three little boys. My oldest boy now is four-years. My twin boys are three-years. I have been told by my local Imam I can just pay the ransome or also known as Fidya for the missed fasting, but I still feel guilty inside. Here’s the thing. The night before I want to fast the next day. I have sahoor, but in the morning when it is crazy with my boys, the idea of going all day without food, water, or coffee depresses me. I do not feel like I can take it. I just cannot do it. Because of this reason I feel depressed during Ramadan. To make matters worse, when I have a serious issue I need to talk to the Imam about or a friend they are to busy to talk to me or respond. I am so lonely sometimes. My husband works lots of hours and during this month he is very tired because he is fasting. Most of the time if he gets our early from work or even later he goes to the mosque to pray. I do not see him much. I am so happy I am not the only one who feels bad about not fasting. I feel terrible a lot of times.

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