People of faith, whatever they believe in, and whichever religion they follow, often go through life experiencing existential crises. Their relationship to faith has its own cycles of ebbs and flows. This does not mean they stop believing. They have to find other ways to continue their relationship and connect with the Divine. For Muslims, Ramadan is the month to renew your relationship with the Almighty.
My mother gradually introduced me to fasting. It started with the infant “birdie” fast which would be 1 day during the weekends. Usually I would have breakfasts in the morning and be allowed to drink liquid and then eat properly later in the evening. I kept my first proper fast when I was in 5th grade and it was always a weekend event. When I started at the International School in Copenhagen I had Pakistani school fellows. When I found out that they were all fasting, it just became a normal thing to do. During Ramadan, my fellow Pakistani school fellows and I would have a little communion with each other everyday during the month, and enquire about each other’s fast.
Just for your information, Danes are a very peculiar nation. If they like you, they will never make an issue of your ethnicity or religion affiliations, but accept these colourful aspects as part of your identity. If, for some reason they dislike you, even if they adore, admire and respect your family; you are pretty much on your on your own. Nevertheless, just like in the Muslim world they dislike educated women- at least in my experience- similarly even racists can have a strong sense of humanity and empathy. When I joined my graduating class in high school, Ramadan would be one source of many stimulating conversations.
In Ramadan, you come to understand that eating is an unconscious act. It is a force of nature. During one of my first proper fast, my mother and I went to the post office. By the cash counter were big charity jars of old fashioned boiled candies. I asked my mom to buy me a candy, and I would pack it in a tissue and keep it in my pocket. She was sure I would forget and just eat it, and I ascertained her I would remember. As soon as I got the candy out of the jar, I forgot I was fasting and without thinking put the candy in my mouth. Initially my mom just gave me her incredulously nasty look as if saying:
“I can’t believe what you just did!”
She kept staring at me and when she had finished her transaction I said:
“ what are you looking at me for? You’re staring at me as if I’ve done something wrong.”
Adding a few parental abusive insults she said
“ ….because you have done something wrong! You Devil’s fiend, you made an intention to fast this morning, and just now, you assured me you wouldn’t eat that candy and yet you did…I’m so disappointed in you.”
Immediately I spat out the candy, apologising profusely. Nevertheless, my mother kept claiming I did it on purpose and I was the Devil’s creation and would roast in Hell for this transgression, never to be forgiven.
Even though I grew up seeing my parents practicing Islam, I always considered it such a chore because there were all these strict rules and regulations to follow. It is especially unnerving when everyone around you are celebrating something as colourful as Easter, Christmas, New Year, and eating pork, or cakes, pastries or other delicacies made with lard or pork gelatine. Not to mention adhering to socially constructed, hypocritical, gendered behaviours, which have nothing to do with religion, but only require common sense, a lot of communication and mutual trust. Yet, my parents have always been very particular about illustrating to us what being a practicing Muslim implies. It is a constant struggle and a difficult road to navigate. Yet, there is much solace in making the effort.
The hypocrisy is just something you have to accept as given. Everyone will judge the woman harsher than the man because she is the root of the family. Even if a man has children born out of wedlock with other women, since he is a man, he is only answerable to the Almighty. Nevertheless, in the Koran, both are equally punished for their sins.
The man will get whipped with 80 leather lashes, and the woman gets stoned to death. When discussing technicalities, people say it is discrimination that while adulterous women get stoned to death, men only get punished with 80 leather lashes. In reality, being pelted with stones makes death more immediate than by leather whipping. Yet, how many men have survived 80 leather lashes? Nevertheless, societies are made by people, and the written word is open to interpretation, however flawed.
Hence, while one parent was always the ‘going by the book’ type, emphasising that some things will always be old fashioned and never change, irrespective of current practices and fashions. The other was the hippie type, with a peace, love and harmony mindset. By hippie type, I mean someone who is sufficiently open minded to understand that defying convention is about breaking sterotypes, without losing a sense of your identity, values and principles. Thus, while following rules and being responsible, you should also be a part of the society you live in. In other words, it is easy to go into extremes, whether in the liberal or the fanatic sense.
Nevertheless, the best way is always to take the middle path, but you need experience to understand how to manage this. In other words, many things you will only understand with the passage of time, when you have gathered a fair amount of life experiences. Luckily, both parents always understood the significance of following the rules of life responsibly. Together they understood the significance of exploiting your limits within certain boundaries. Hence, rather than forcing religion upon us, they illustrated what Islam really is about, and how to try to be a practicing Muslim. Even if these things make little sense while growing up in non- Muslim surroundings, as you grow older, you develop your own relationship to faith and religion. Morever, all those rules and regulations actually start to make sense. In a way, it is just like paying your taxes and being a responsible citizen. It is hard work, requires dedication, persistence, and constant swallowing of your ego, even when at times it seems nonsensical.
As a Muslim I am still developing my relationship with my own faith. Yet I fail to fathom the types who say they are spiritual, but not religious. Spirituality is at the very heart of religious practice. It is how you “feel” religion. The Sufis were not just a bunch of wandering, dancing and whirling gypsies. They were religious scholars, who had studied at esteemed centres of learning for several years in many different countries, such as Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Samarkand, Palestine and present day Pakistan, among many places. Yet many seem to overlook this essential fact.
A sufi is a scholarly practicing Muslim, who is qualified to answer all the existential questions of the believer and help them become better Muslims and human beings. It is not just someone who believes in love thy neighbour as yourself, or believes that through love you shall find the answer to human salvation, without establishing regular prayers or reading the Quran and the saying of the Prophet (pbuh). The same goes for whirling and chanting the Almighty’s blessed names, as if they are some sort of de-stressing meditation method. Yet, these are all part of the worship, with the chanting following the actual prayer. Nevertheless, the sufi method, which includes the chanting, whirling, poetry and music, is how people can feel connected to, and manifest devotion to the divine. However they do not replace the obligatory prayer. Moreover, they are great communal exercises for people wishing to develop greater spiritual awareness.
As for my own circular and twisted journey, I am a mere mortal sinner with a faulty practice. I think each to their own belief. How people chose to practice their faith is a personal matter. In my experience, the so-called “liberal” elements have judged me far more harshly than I would ever judge anyone. Thus, if they do not like to be judged they should not judge others either. It goes both ways. In this connection, religion is an amazing black box system. This is because it allows you to just accept the unanswerables as mysteries of life. The answer will either come to you eventually, or it is never meant to be unravelled.