Ramzan is the most important month of the year for a practicing Muslim. Even people who don’t observe the rituals of Islam during the year find a newfound commitment to them during Ramzan.
My parents had found a way to live with the contradiction of being Muslims who drank alcohol. The drinking in my house was dysfunctional and my siblings and I deeply wished my parents would stop. We knew what life without alcohol would be like because during Ramzan both my parents would stop drinking as part of their commitment to the special status of the month. My happiest childhood memories come from the days of Ramzan, a month in which Muslims commit to abstaining from food, drink and sex from sunrise to sunset. It is also a time to do additional prayers, refrain from frivolous entertainment and socializing, and give to charity.
Unfortunately, the night Ramzan ended my parents would binge on alcohol. The beautiful month would end with hysterics. To make things harder, the day after Ramzan is Eid, a time to meet and celebrate with extended family. Going to see family with hungover parents caused me shame and anxiety.
This contradictory experience of faith, as well as certain cultural beliefs about women, led me to abandon Islam early on. My parents never forced me to fast or pray but they did make sure I learned how to read the Quran in Arabic and memorize some essential prayers. At 12 I quit the Quran classes and at 15 I declared myself an atheist. God, as far I could see, didn’t exist.
I had just turned 27 years old. It was Ramzan and I was living in Toronto. My new workplace was full of Muslims and I saw something really special that motivated me to keep a roza (a fast.) I had never had that urge before. I fasted for four days and then my body gave up. I will never forget what my ex-husband said to me, “Oh God, for a moment I got scared that you were turning Muslim on me.” Within six weeks of that day our relationship came to an end.
No one can prepare you for the pain of a heartbreak and nothing I had in my toolbox was helping. One day, without warning, I felt the urge to pray on my janamaz (prayer mat). Because I had never really learned the whole prayer, I had to go on YouTube to watch and listen to people performing the five daily ritual prayers.
My cousin came to visit me on a cold December day. I had come home from work and she was there holding me at the end of a torturous crying session. She said, “Hold the Holy Quran, ask for guidance and open it, and read whatever comes up on that page.”
Surah Baqarah, verse 216: “Fighting is ordained for you, even though it be hateful to you; but it may well be that you a hate a thing the while it is good for you, and it may well be that you love a thing the while it is bad for you: and God knows, whereas you do not know.”
I will never forget the strange peace that followed reading those lines. I felt I received an answer. My ex and I used to fight so much. Maybe, just maybe, there was something I didn’t know. I started to surrender myself to a higher power.
I wish that I could say that after that everything was easy and I let go. But it wasn’t and I didn’t. In fact, the months following reading that passage, I resisted my break-up with a vengeance. I became depressed, suicidal and turned to my reliable friends, drugs and alcohol, to survive.
I moved back to Pakistan to live with my parents and soon after it was Ramzan again. Ten years ago I approached Ramzan with newfound commitment and a confidence that I could observe the fasting and the hardship that it brings.
Ramzan again became my favorite month of the year, but for different reasons. Ramzan showed me the capacity I had to sacrifice and the goodness in others who, just like me, struggle all year to show up with gratitude and faith. The community atmosphere of millions of people fasting together is like a special superhero cloak that covers our flaws and faults.
I’ll have to dig deep to find motivation to observe the traditions of Ramzan this month, far from my family in Pakistan and distanced from my friends and my community here because of the pandemic.
If you feel like supporting me from afar to mark this special month, send me a note. I’d love to hear from you.