When I was younger, just my community was enough. My needs were fulfilled by it; its logic around faith and history, which were given to me by my family and elders, made sense. The more intimately I understood it as an adult, however, the more I felt it was necessary to gift it, over and over again, the generosity of context, and a world around it. But even with more and more context, the position and agency of my faith community within the wider group of Muslims in America became blurrier with age, even while my awareness of the blurrinesses in other faith communities increased. Observing Ramadan, for me, is a claiming of space for me and my community in the confusion of colors and shapes that is the wider Muslim community, a community that has sometimes rejected us, and sometimes been rejected by us. For me, it is a way to say, “We are here, too; we are of you, and you us.”
On a practical level, I am objectively bad at Ramadan. I have trouble slowing down, I do not retain my patience in the face of want, I sometimes break my fast early, and suhoor is sometimes on time, sometimes whenever I wake up. I do not swear less — I work in a newsroom. More devastatingly, I work in a capitalistic system, so my days, even during Ramadan, are dictated by labor and profit, and not by my intrinsic value as a soul from the viewpoint of the divine. It seems that every Ramadan I observe, I am reminded of how far I am, how far we are, from what a life oriented by the centering of the spirit feels like.
For much of this Ramadan, as part of a youth program I help with every year, I spent my days thinking about civil rights and the history of the Muslim community in the U.S. — from enslaved African Muslims to South Asian immigrant Muslims to Central Asian refugee Muslims to white convert Muslims. We talked about what oppression can look like among immigrant communities, and how hierarchies are perpetuated particularly firmly in South Asian Muslim communities. Most challenging was articulating the complexities of this reality to young people — a way of gently shattering the perfection they wanted to see and showing instead, just as gently, that the existence of blurrinesses in their understandings of their community is a form of clarity, because it is accurate.
Much like how adults respond to blurriness around something into which they’ve invested time, some people embraced these realities and many decidedly did not — a reminder that an instinct toward justice or truth is not magically or automatically higher among younger generations. I felt frustrated. In the early mornings during suhoor, I read parts of the Qur’an.
While the Ramadan of my youth was mostly about breakfast foods at Eid celebrations, the Ramadan of my adulthood has increasingly been about a balancing of two particular ayaat that reflect the frustrations that I have not been able to settle:
“Do not follow blindly what you do not know to be true: ears, eyes, and heart, you will be questioned about all these. Do not strut arrogantly about the earth: you cannot break it open, nor match the mountains in height.” (17:36-7)
The pairing of these ayaat encourage me to “seek a middle way” (17:110) between the necessity of continuous critical thinking and reasoning around the established systems of a community, while retaining an attitude of humility and patience as a form of love toward those around me, if nothing else, as a reflection of the awe a Muslim, a person, can experience toward the divine. The anti-complacency and active compassion this requires — and the grace of this reminder in the Qur’an — is enough for this month.