The Muslim holiday of Ramadan begins this week, and the first thing that many non-Muslims envision is a month of fasting under blazing desert suns.
Ramadan isn’t as simple as that, even for Muslims who practice the holiday in the West. Muslims who observe Ramadan in majority non-Muslim countries face unique challenges. While many Muslims live in climates more hospitable than the Middle East, fasting hours at extreme latitudes, such as in Norway or Russia, can last more than 18 hours.
Being Muslim in the West also means having to intentionally create the space for the faith when immersed in a culture that does not celebrate the holiday month.
“It’s easier to fast in the Middle East,” says Imam Omar Suleiman, president of the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research in Irving, Texas. “But when you’re a minority community you appreciate togetherness a lot more.”
Born and raised in New Orleans to Palestinian parents, Suleiman has gained national attention as a civil rights leader for his messages of inclusiveness. He says that the goal of Ramadan, as described in the Qur’an, goes beyond fasting to create “God consciousness.”
“If I’m more conscious of my food consumption and my physical activity, then certainly I’ll be more conscious of my spiritual activity as well,” Suleiman says.
Along with fasting, prayer and charity are also emphasized during this month. Muslims are reminded to rediscover the meaning of mercy and compassion, reflect on life’s meaning, and transcend superficial desires and consumerist addictions. It is the time to review life in a holistic way, a practice Muslims and non-Muslims alike can benefit from, and which isn’t tied to any geographical location.
“You’re essentially teaching yourself how to limit your consumption of something that is ordinarily permissible so that you’re more conscious of other elements,” Suleiman says.
Makkah Ali and Ikhlas Saleem, co-hosts of the Identity Politics podcast, use Ramadan as a time to control physical impulses, such a backbiting or anger, and renew their spirituality.
“For me, to not eat or drink is the easiest part,” Saleem says. “The much more difficult part is remembering my character throughout the day.”
“We all express our faith differently.”
Fasting during Ramadan is encouraged to go beyond abstaining from food and drink to include refraining from habits preventing people from being compassionate, healthy, and intellectual members of society.
“It’s about me and my own discipline,” says Ali, “it’s something I do because I believe that there are benefits in it and I believe that it draws me closer to the creator and the creation.”
Blair Imani, a queer activist and executive director of Equality for HER, is unable to fast because of health reasons, but says she uses Ramadan as an opportunity to increase her knowledge of Islam.
“I already think about how I’m a convert, and all these other things that in a lot of people’s hearts and minds disqualify me from being Muslim,” Imani says, “so then not being able to fast makes me feel left out.”
Imani converted to Islam one month before Ramadan in 2015. She celebrated her first Ramadan at the same mosque where she converted, and spent the month learning about her newly adopted faith.
“It was a beautiful, exploratory period. It felt like a first day for the whole month,” she says.
Imani says that many non-Muslims assume she has a plethora of knowledge on Islam and the Middle East, but the only version of her faith that she knows is how it is practiced in the West.
“We all express our faith differently,” Imani says. “What’s authentic for me isn’t to try to replicate something in a cultural context by people in the Middle East, but to exist within my community and within my context.”
The struggle to uphold traditional Muslim practices is common in those communities in the West. The term “seasonal Muslim” is sometimes used within the community to negatively refer to those who only actively practice their faith during Ramadan.
“Everyone is at a different point in their faith and journey.”
“I’m not a fan of the term. People are struggling and we should understand that everyone is at a different point in their faith and journey,” Suleiman says.
Suleiman discourages the belittlement of any good deed a person makes along their personal journey of faith. Many Muslims, like Ali, agree that what brings a person into the community during this month is not something to be ashamed of or something to shame people for.
“I encourage people to look for ways to actually be engaged with others because that’s the most special part,” she says.
To encourage inclusivity and engagement, Ali’s Muslim community in Washington, D.C., has a common practice they partake in during Ramadan, which they refer to as the “old friend rule.”
“When you see someone [at the mosque] you have never seen before, you greet them like an old friend and assume that they’ve had things going on. They’re here now and you’re excited to see them,” Ali says.
In this way, the warm and hospitable spirit of Ramadan is shared by providing those newcomers a healthy point of entry into the community.
Ramadan is fundamentally spiritual, although community and social events are a major factor in embracing the holiday month. Communal events can occur nightly, with Muslims and non-Muslims coming together to celebrate and support each other.
“Difference is inherently part of Islam,” Imani says. “Ramadan should be a time when we open ourselves up to difference because that’s what makes our community so rich.”