For the initial years I celebrated Ramadan with my Muslim husband, it wasn’t about much more than the food, and my questions. I learned to cook the traditional meals he grew up eating and fasted intermittently while trying to gain a better understanding of fasting and Islam generally. Once we had kids old enough to celebrate, Ramadan became about establishing traditions to make it special for them. We decorated our house, read special Ramadan holiday books, baked star and moon cookies and crafted garlands, countdown calendars and banners. But all of these efforts were missing something. They were devoid of the essence of Ramadan—the spiritual practice.
Without the spiritual component, I wrestled between the beauty Ramadan inspired and the burden I sometimes felt it imposed, even though I felt terribly shallow and selfish thinking, let alone admitting that. There was the constant cooking of elaborate meals for 30 days, the camping trip invitations declined, the weekend brunches and summer BBQs with friends we skipped. When I talked this through with my husband, he encouraged me not to take part in Ramadan if I felt burdened, as that is not what Ramadan is supposed to be. But to me that wasn't quite the solution. I loved the principle behind the practice—experiencing hunger to better understand poverty and the deepening of one’s own spirituality, compassion and patience through fasting. I wanted to find a better way to embrace it as a non-Muslim, beyond that of a surrogate emptily carrying my husband’s belief.
I began with small changes that have grown into traditions. One of them was to use iftars (the meal to break the fast) as a means to reconnect with each other. Every night after iftar, my husband and I sit in a dim-lit room and just talk over tea or decaf coffee. This may seem like no big deal, but usually we spend every night on our laptops working. Taking some quiet time on a usually busy weeknight for just us to talk, with the kids already asleep, feels like a luxury. Another small change was my mindset around cooking. Rather than feeling burdened by all my time spent in the kitchen, I see Ramadan as a chance to rethink our diets and climb out of the recipe ruts we have fallen into.
Although I was getting closer, I still felt like a curious traveler in this spiritual maze of Ramadan. As I watched my husband focus on his own spiritual development through fasting, prayer and visits to mosque, I longed to find a place within the practice, but it was not clear to me how until I realized something. Traditions are like the ‘how to’ of a belief. But there must be a solid foundation that allows any tradition to flourish. And I had been trying to celebrate through food, crafts and small rituals without embracing the essence of Ramadan. It was like trying to master a bunch of yoga poses while skipping the deep breathing.
I first tried really embracing the belief by going right to the source. I put the Quran on my bedside table (and I own not one but two English translations) for several Ramadans only to not read more than a few pages each year. I also asked myself if just becoming Muslim was the missing piece (it was the obvious one) that would solve my inner unrest. But it was not that easy. Having not had a faith for most of my life, just picking one when I see the beauty in all, is not a decision I’ve been able to come to. All religions have the same principles of love and kindness underlying them. It feels reductionist to me to just pick one over another.
But this year I decided to take a new approach that feels more authentic. I am focusing on my own beliefs within the rhythms of Ramadan by reading books reflective of my spiritual development. Since I was a teen, I have been an active reader of all sorts of spiritually oriented books. Early on, this was Native American spirituality, then it was Buddhism and, for many years, I have been drawn to books from various Indian gurus. This year during Ramadan, I’ve been reading Yogananda. The interesting thing is I see many parallels to Islam. “If you are a slave to your senses, you can not be happy. If you are a master of your desires and appetites, you will be a really happy person.” Fasting teaches you to master your desires and through it, you develop not just compassion for humankind but a deeper sense of happiness.
My approach to Ramadan may be unconventional but focusing on my own spirituality feels right. Maybe I am finally finding my way after all.
Credit: Stephanie Meade
Stephanie Meade is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of InCultureParent, an online magazine for parents raising little global citizens. After many moves worldwide, she currently lives in Berkeley, California with her husband and two Moroccan-American daughters but she’s always restless for the next global adventure.
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