Many of you will be familiar with some of my thoughts and sentiments in this post because I’ve shared glimpses of them here before. This piece was written late last week, and first posted on Muslimah Media Watch. Since then, I’ve had time to reflect.
To give this piece some more context: I feel at odds with myself. I find myself saying things like my heart has hardened — but will joyfully sing dhikr with Eryn and Ivy. Even though I go through the motions, I feel that something is missing. An essence or presence that should be there. A gap in the space around me. So perhaps I’m joyful because the song is familiar. Maybe I find fulfillment in entertaining the girls.
And this is disquieting.
A friend of my sister-in-law very suddenly and tragically passed away on Tuesday. This young woman has not left my thoughts since I heard the news. I think of her family, her sister, her mother — and I shatter. I make dua’ for her with more sincerity than I make for myself. And maybe I do so selfishly. Because there is no greater fear than the thought of harm coming to my children. And so thinking about her absence in this world, praying that her good deeds will endure and give her countless blessings, and asking for her entrance into the highest heaven — makes me reflect and imagine her family’s loss… and I ferociously beg God to protect my girls.
It bothers me that fear of losing them is my motivation. Because I might not otherwise speak to God.
The believers are only those who, when Allah is mentioned, their hearts become fearful, and when His verses are recited to them, it increases them in faith; and upon their Lord they rely. [8:2]
The excitement, the struggle of the fast, the security of knowing that every good action is an added blessing, exercising patience and feeling contentment when tested, the thrill of biting into a sweet date at iftar, the peace of sitting in the mosque and smelling the perfumed air, feeling my heart soar as I lay my forehead down to the ground to honour and beseech my Lord for forgiveness — it’s all been missing from my Ramadan experience this year.
I fast. I eat my date. I exercise considerable patience (even with two rambunctious girls jumping on me after commuting from a stressful day at work). I beseech. I go through the motions because that’s what I have to do. But I feel like a spiritual zombie.
We’re told by traditions, Internet articles, and admonitions related through mosque culture that Ramadan is a training ground for the rest of the year. That we should strive in our worship to gain more spiritual benefits, to use the fast as an opportunity for self-reflection, to develop our empathy, and nurture our spiritual selves. That if you only fast from food and water, your reward is only hunger and thirst.
But what if that’s all you can do?
My relationship with Ramadan became tenuous with the birth of my first child. For the first time I couldn’t fast, and as she was born within days of the start of Ramadan, I was so overwhelmed as a new mother, the weeks just flew by and I barely noticed the holy month’s passing. Then I missed another because of nursing my second baby. Then came the realization that as a mother to young children, I was more likely to be caring for them, than having hours available for reading the Qur’an, attending the mosque, or even praying on time.
I carried around a lot of guilt, because even though people told me that every drop of breast milk held countless blessings, or that I could “partake in Ramadan” through other means than praying late into the night, like making dhikr while playing with the kids — I just wasn’t feeling it. Add to that numerous examples of SuperMuslimMoms who raise four children, take them all to taraweeh, home-school with Islamic studies, fast, volunteer, cook for mosque iftars, and finish the Qur’an twice during the month — and I felt like a complete failure as a mom and a Muslim.
It’s perhaps not surprising to see this happen. My first few Ramadans were experienced as a new Muslim — completely wide-eyed and riding a spiritual high supported by a loving community, great friends who inspired faith, and the time to truly contemplate the Divine. But over time, people move, things happen, cracks begin to appear, and time becomes filled with the mundane.
I wish I could just be content with hunger and thirst. But I know that I need to find my heart.
So this year I gave myself a spiritual break. My only goal was to contemplate my love for God. But every time I speak to God, I feel as if I’m surrounded by a wall. My words aren’t getting through.
Some of it is related to being divorced from the Muslim community. Some of it is related to burning out from balancing life, work and kids. And some of it is related to embracing my disappointment in the parts of the religion I can no longer ignore. I’m disappointed that I have to pray behind a barrier. I’m disappointed that racism is rampant in our community. I’m disappointed that we body police. I’m disappointed in every argument justifying patriarchal and misogynist trends. I’m disappointed in myself for not saying or doing enough to change our condition (and mine).
So I tried different things this month: I took a halaqa and live-streamed sacred knowledge into my home so I could chase the girls while learning. I gained a few beneficial reminders, endured a few eye-rolling sessions as gender-based stereotypes were used as illustrations, and thankfully only experienced one short fundraiser hostage situation.
Every time we played Qur’anic recitation I chose a female reciter because to be honest, I find their voices more powerful and soul-stirring. There’s just something about the male voice and the Qur’an that isn’t resonating with me, and that’s something I have to work through right now.
When they were interested, I made sure the girls gave the call to prayer with me — which were lovely and proud moments. And I even made it to a small musallah once for evening prayers, which was nice. But it was just nice.
Some of these simple tactics worked, and like a flash of lightning, I caught brief glimpses of the shadows surrounding my heart.
Now we are in the last few days of fasting — a time where I have previously been nostalgic, already missing the lovely embrace of Ramadan, and looking tentatively to the future with hopes and desires that my spiritual high lasts all year. Only this time, it feels like any other week in the year.
The month may be over, but for me, this is where the real work begins.
So remember Me. I will remember you. And be grateful to Me and do not deny Me. [2:152]