Tuesday, July 04, 2017

My Ramadan experience 1438 Hijri, 2017

This essay on Ramadan was sent as part of a newsletters intended for the volunteers at the organization I currently work at. I thought it would be nice to share it with a wider audience. All pictures attached are taken by me in Cairo and NYC. 

What is Ramadan?

Fasting for the Holy month of Ramadan is an obligation upon every physically and mentally capable Muslim adult. The fast begins before sunrise and ends with sunset. In the United States Muslims will be fasting for about 16 hours everyday during which they don't eat, drink, smoke, or engage in any talks or acts which dissatisfies God. Muslims are also encouraged to do as many good deeds as possible such as feeding the hungry, helping the poor and the oppressed, speaking words of truth. Reading, studying, and trying to implement the Quran is the essence of Ramadan's worship and is highly encouraged. Breaking the fast or Iftar with family, friends, or in a community gathering is a very special occasion for reconnecting and boding with each other. Voluntarily night prayers (Taraweeh or Qiyam) are also held in mosques after the last obligatory prayer of the day. 

This will be my 3rd Ramadan outside of Egypt and my husband's 4th Ramadan in his whole life and that comes with a lot of mixed feelings. 

Ramadan in the Muslim majority world vs. otherwise: 
Ramadan and religious holidays are a central part of the spiritual and cultural fabric of Muslim majority countries. When it is Ramadan or Eid in Egypt for example, the whole country re-arranges its schedule around it, both the public and private atmospheres transform dramatically to welcome and accommodate the Ramadan experience.In Egypt, as in many other countries which are Majority Muslim or have a significant Muslim population, you can smell Ramadan in the air and see it visually through the thousand years old traditional lanterns and decorations which fill the streets, you can see it in the free Iftar tables that are set out in public squares to feed thousands of people who can't afford to break their fast otherwise. 

Thus, it is very challenging when you leave your entire family behind and move to a country where the Muslims are around 1 to 2 percent of the population, where you might be the only one observing the month at work or school, and when you can't tell if it's Ramadan or not until you step into a mosque or remember you can't eat. I know that what a lot of immigrants and refugees miss the most from home during Ramadan is sharing an Iftar meal with their family and extended family members. 

This year I had to work at night and break my fast at work for the first time in my life, my husband was bringing Iftar meals and driving to the office most of Ramadan. It was very different from everything I was familiar with, challenging and yet very rewarding. We shared our Iftar meals with several Muslim ESL students who are enrolled in the evening classes as well as other non-Muslim students and teachers who're interested in joining in and learning. This was an eye-opening opportunity for students and teachers who're coming from a different cultural background. It also gave my fast at work a more meaningful dimension. I wasn't as lonely as I expected to be.

Spirituality vs. culture and folklore:

I've developed a more spiritual perspective to my Islamic practice after having spent my 3rd Ramadan in the United States. I came to love and appreciate how diverse the Muslim population is in the US and in Philadelphia in particular, how I can walk into a mosque where I might be the only Arab, North African, or Egyptian and still be able to join the congregation and feel very welcome. It's an incredible experience to line up in prayers or break bread next to an African American, an Uzbek, a Senegalese and an Arab, all at the same time. In one of the mosques I attend in Philadelphia, I was told that the attendees speak about 31 different languages. It's amazing to me to witness firsthand how spirituality can bring such diverse groups of people together in one place. 

There is a lot more reward and accountability to yourself when you are observing individually, whether fasting in Ramadan or abiding by any other religious practice away from home and community. I came to realize that observing on my own is a test for my spiritual sincerity and strength, something I'd have never had the opportunity to experience If I was back home."

You might ask how can I support my Muslim friends and neighbors in Ramadan. They will certainly appreciate receiving a Ramadan greeting from you. Some might invite you to join them on Iftar. Mosques are always in need of funds to sponsor Iftar for the hundreds of Muslims who come to eat after sunset, some of which are very much in need of these free meals. These are ideas for this year and the years to come.