As Ramadan 2016 draws to a close, I find myself, as usual, wishing I had spent more time knelt on the ground, with my forehead and nose pressed against the floor, whispering my innermost feelings and thoughts to God. But as I continue to reminisce, I find myself breathing a sigh of relief that these thirty days, filled with terror, grief, and panic, are finally over and Muslims are no longer in their most vulnerable state. Ramadan is the holiest month in the Islamic lunar calendar. This is the month we believe God sent the Holy Book, the Qur’an, down to us, specifically on Laylatul-Qadr, or the Night of Power through the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). As commanded by God, Muslims are decreed to fast for thirty days, from sunrise to sunset. During this time, not only do we abstain from food and drink, we must also abstain from that which we consider haram, or forbidden. That includes sexual relations, cursing, bad thoughts and actions, etc. This month is meant to purify our souls and cleanse our minds, bring us closer to God, slowing down to appreciate what we usually don’t have the time to, as well as to help us understand the plight of those less fortunate than us.
But, as we began this month, I found that the peace and contentment that usually descended upon what seemed like the entire world was not there. Only a few days in, I found myself posting status updates and Twitter moments grieving for nearly 50 people dead in the deadliest mass shooting in American history, not too far from my own hometown. A couple weeks later, the Islamic State claimed responsibility in a bombing of the Istanbul airport, resulting in 42 deaths and hundreds more injured. And just two days later, the Islamic State took responsibility for an attack in the capital of Bangladesh, Dhaka, leaving 28 people dead. Over the weekend, nearly 130 dead in a bombing in Baghdad. I wish I could properly convey to you the lingering feeling of alarm that all of this has left behind. Every year, I look forward to one month and one month alone: Ramadan. Usually, this means I go to the mosque every night and break my fast surrounded by people I love and leave to go home with my legs and feet burning after standing for so long in prayer. This means in the last ten days, I stay up the entire night and pray, dedicating every minute to the only thing that matters in that moment, and to the thing that means the most to me in my entire life: Islam. This means at the end of a fleeting 30 days, we get together and celebrate Eid al-Fitr, one of two holidays during the Islamic year, in which we cover our hands with henna and stuff our faces with endless foods.
We can’t even curse in Ramadan, let alone kill people, which, Ramadan or not, is considered one of the worst possible sins in Islam. Still, I found myself terrified to step out of the house following the attacks in Orlando. Our mosque began to lock its doors once we began prayer, and asked the local authorities for police reinforcement on our grounds to help us feel safe. As I leave the masjid in the morning after long nights in prayer, I sadly wave to the officers, knowing that their well-meaning protection means the rifts in America are far deeper than we choose to acknowledge.
Yet, I’m happy with what I’ve learned this Ramadan. My resolutions in the beginning of this month were to be a better person by the time Eid arrived and to appreciate what is in my life more often and more deeply. While I’m not sure the former is true, the latter certainly is and one of the things that I found myself thinking about was being an American Muslim. Last December, I was in Bangladesh for my sister’s wedding. One morning, I woke up and scanned the landscape from the window of my aunt’s apartment. Below the floating clouds of smog and canopy of growing mango trees, women in loose hijabs casually walked through the streets, sometimes pausing to say salam to their male counterparts and be on their way. Before every prayer, the athan would ring through the city, calling the citizens to prayer, and on Fridays, the khutbah, or the weekly lectures before our midday prayers, would be heard playing on the loudspeakers on every street throughout the massive capital. It was truly a beautiful thing to be in a Muslim country. I didn’t have to worry about hateful looks or words directed my way, and I didn’t have to constantly be on my best behavior and making sure to smile at any strangers, hoping as I walked away that they didn’t think I was associated with a terrorist group. I could go to any restaurant and eat anything, knowing that the food was halal, or permissible for Muslims, and the shopping malls were full of modest clothing and other products specifically tailored for Muslims. I was in the majority of the population in Bangladesh and it felt wonderful. I imagine that to be in Bangladesh during Ramadan would give me a similar free feeling. My fundamental freedom to fast according to the dictates of my conscience would be celebrated and had a path laid down so I could walk it without worry.
Unfortunately, around the world, many authoritarian governments ban Muslims from fasting, and others impose it. The former problem is acute in China. The Communist government of the People’s Republic of China has laws in place banning students, teachers, and civil servants from fasting. Many workplaces and schools require students and employees to eat under the watchful eyes of government workers, making sure that food and water passes the esophagus and effectively rendering any fasts invalid. The government says they institute the ban because of health reasons and to prevent Muslim extremism, but of course this prevents Muslims from observing one of five pillars of Islam, of which include fasting, pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), faith in God and belief in His One-ness, praying five times a day, and charity, and results in many feeling persecuted and alienated.
On the other hand, in many countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, or Pakistan, all citizens are required to fast by law. Restaurants close during the day and in places like Saudi Arabia, if you are caught eating in the streets, you face the danger of being deported from your own country. In other places, you can be fined, or face even jail. In other Muslim countries, fasting is not enforced by law but it is compelled by social pressure. Religious minorities and Muslims who cannot or will not fast must appear as if they are, even if they’re not. The religious authoritarianism is senseless and completely self-defeating. Fasting should come from the heart, and it is an act of worship intended for no one but God. Every act in Islam should be driven by a genuine will to obey God’s commandments, not the laws of the state of the vigilantism of society. If your intentions are not true, then you cannot be considered a true Muslim with only the want and will of serving God. A forced society does not nurture true piety but only fakeness and hypocrisy, both of which are heavily looked down upon in Islam.
Luckily, I live in America. Even though people don’t understand half of what Islam is about due to misconceptions spread by terrorists and our own media, I am lucky to live in a country where fasting is neither strictly prohibited nor enforced. Islam has become our own special little thing where our community gathers and shares an experience open to all but celebrated by few. It garners a sense of gratefulness and love, and even though this Ramadan was not anywhere near to the peaceful month it should’ve been, I’m still endlessly appreciative to have a place of worship I can go to and listen to the beautiful words of God and touch my head to the ground in prayer. I am proud that our community has come so far from a tiny little building with less than 50 Muslims, to having to rental a banquet hall to celebrate Eid. I am thankful to everyone in my life who continues to accept the person I am and the distinction that makes me Muslim, and everything that makes way to allow that distinction to happen. This Ramadan was a rough one, but I’m pleased I had a community to share it and fight for it with. Despite its ups and downs, I am looking forward to next year and I will make the best of these last couple days to serve as a warm reminder to next Ramadan. Until then, Eid Mubarak.
Thakur is the creator of The Millennial Times.