I've had some awkward Ramadans as a new Muslim. When I converted it was the holiday season here in America, and I'll never forget the look my cousin gave me when I told her at Thanksgiving dinner that I wasn't going to eat because I was fasting. Seriously, it was meme-worthy.
I also fasted while attending an American high school, where you have to go the cafeteria at lunch, so I found myself doing a lot of sitting and staring at food and generally feeling hungry while my friends made wisecracks. Because at sixteen, I was way too lazy to get up for suhoor.
“Aren't you hungry, Liv?” they'd ask while I tried very hard not to salivate onto the laminate tabletop in confirmation.
Ramadan can be a weird thing to explain to family and friends. The concept of fasting, though it once existed in Judeo-Christian teachings, has mostly been abandoned to the point of forgotten. I was Catholic and the closest I ever got to “fasting” was giving up something of my choice for Lent, which was usually something both trivial and an indulgence to begin with, like giving up candy bars.
I have found in my own situation that to my non-Muslim family and friends, Ramadan seems extreme, like something you would associate with ascetic monks or starving people in third-world countries.
Ramadan can be a lot to take in for a new Muslim, a strained time with not-Muslim family, friends, and co-workers/peers as you explain your extreme worship (yes fasting seems extreme to non-Muslims) while simultaneously not trying to feel like an awkward loner around community iftars and Taraweeh.
After all, it is a kind of “holiday” wherein we see an abundance of various traditions, some faith-based and others cultural, like the foods people eat and how they take their meals. Sitting on the floor and eating communally can be odd for many new Muslims, as can some of the menu items.
I never even tasted a date until my first Ramadan and let me tell you, I was a little intimidated by the brown squishy thing EVERYONE was eating. Like I had to eat this thing or I'm doing something very unramadan-ish.
At no other time of year, except maybe for Eid, can feelings of sadness or loneliness become more apparent to a convert; feelings like you don't fit in, missing your own family holidays or wishing you had your own Muslim family, and feeling like for all the hard work you're putting in, you aren't really feeling the joy coming back to you.
You have no loved ones to share iftar with; you have no one to attend Taraweeh with, no one to feel groggy with at suhoor. While it's easy to say it shouldn't matter if you have anyone with you, you're doing it for the sake of Allah, I highly suggest that person spend a Ramadan alone and s/he will then see just how important camaraderie is during this blessed month.
If you've been raised around the “hubbub” of Ramadan, you may take it for granted. I will admit that even though I abhor shirk as much as the next Muslim, I still get a warm, fuzzy nostalgic feeling at Christmas time which I shove aside, and it's taken me years to cultivate an equally warm, fuzzy one about Ramadan with my own family traditions.
Here are a few things to think about doing to make fasting be a little easier:
1. It's okay to feel sad
You may go to the masjid during iftar or Taraweeh, and feel like a ghost. You may see all these smiling faces, people hugging and greeting each other, and feel a sad empty pit in your stomach. You may feel bitter Muslim friends are suddenly too busy with family affairs to remember you exist. Ramadan may feel really hard physically and equally so emotionally. It's okay to feel sad, it doesn't make you a bad Muslim. It's normal to think about Thanksgiving or Christmas and your non-Muslim family holidays and feel a pang of longing. Don't feel guilty and it doesn't say anything about what kind of Muslim you are. It's normal and insha'Allah your reward will be increased for the sacrifices you've made to follow the haqq.
2. Put suhoor next to your bed
This is advice from the teenager who missed it every day, but at least got to eat iftar in the early winter hours. Put it next to your bed, the water or juice, and when the alarm goes off, eat it right there and brush off the crumbs. There is blessing in taking suhoor and not doing so can make dehydration a real concern.
3. Have suhoor and iftar your
Go Ramadan grocery shopping and buy some tasty things that you like and bring in suhoor and iftar your way, whether its some of those trendy vitamin waters, Doritos, or a king size candy bar. Do not feel like you need to eat ethnic Muslim foods, and if you don't like dates, no big deal. Eat what you want to at suhoor and iftar, even if it looks like you just raided Nabisco, Little Debbie, and the Coca Cola Company.
After a long day of fasting, grab a Frappuccino or order a pizza. Don't eat some lame, boring meal just because you don't have a family to eat biryani with. To this day, even though I have a Muslim husband and four kids, my kids know its Ramadan not by a special rosewater drink or samosas, but because I have mini-cans of Coke and Fanta in the fridge and chips in the pantry.
And don't worry about suddenly having to cook/eat zabihah meat (if you don't eat it already) because it's Ramadan (go ahead and crucify me for saying it) but just eat whatever you chicken/beef/lamb you've been eating the rest of the year (I'm not going to say goat because most of us converts keep goats as pets before we'd eat them for dinner).
Don't make Ramadan twice as hard for yourself by suddenly going vegetarian either.
Which brings me to this point. Honestly, when I was seventeen someone gave me a bag of meat and while it's the thought that counts, someone didn't think that one through. (Just a note to all Muslims: giving a gift of raw meat is something totally unheard of in several non-Muslim societies, you may even insult someone by giving them a bag of bloody, raw animal. Nothing says, “I don't fit here” like receiving one for many a new Muslim, and to make it worse its usually just a plastic baggie that doesn't even have an expiration date on it).
4. Give family simple explanations
Explaining fasting is awkward because it sounds extreme; “You starve yourself from sunrise to sunset?”
“Isn't dehydration bad for you body?”
When I said I fasted for the month many people thought I meant I didn't eat at all for thirty days! Non-Muslims understand concepts like prayer, modesty, or the mosque, but fasting seems really out there. Have a generic explanation ready to go, and keep it as simple and relatable as possible. There are lots of reasons and benefits of fasting, so consider your audience. If I say, “I fast because Ramadan is the month in which the Qur'an was revealed” there is a connection-gap there.
So, you're celebrating the Qur'an…by starving yourself?”
If I say “We fast to experience the plight of the poor” or “we fast to learn self-control” or “we fast to experience delayed gratification, to remind us that if we're patient we will be rewarded” those are reasons that non-Muslims can understand and won't leave you explaining why dehydration is generally bad but for Ramadan you're willing to make an exception to commemorate your holy book.
5. Don't Avoid your Non-Muslim family
Not only can you feel alienated at Ramadan from the Muslim community, your family may feel alienated by you when you no longer join them for dinner or sit uncomfortably at the table with your nose in a book.
As someone who will be alhamdulillah, celebrating fourteen years as a Muslim this Ramadan, I am familiar with the urge to be as silent and avoidant as possible when it comes to non-Muslim family and the tension that can arise from awkward situations. Your family may feel like Ramadan proves just how much you've changed or drifted away, especially because the dinner table is considered the means by which families connect after a long day.
While it can be unnerving to attempt to dissolve tension with your family, you will thank yourself in the long run if you are. Instead of hiding out at dinner, let Ramadan be a special time that you make dessert for your family while they eat dinner. Be cheerful and smiling, ask them what they'd like. Show your family you still love them and want to be close to them and you want to compensate for missed meal time. Be proactive in spending quality time with them.
6. Read the Qur'an in English or read what you can in Arabic.
Let me tell you, last year was the first Ramadan I finished the entire Qur'an after fourteen years of trying. I'm still happy I tried, and the reward for one who struggles is more than one for whom it is easy, but I was left with a sense of un-accomplishment many times.
Finishing the Qur'an in Arabic just wasn't a realistic goal for me, but it is the one good deed, besides Taraweeh, that we focus on to the exclusion of all else and you feel lame if you're not doing it (and you may not even be able to read in Arabic at all). Reading the Qur'an and understanding it is very valuable.
Another great idea is to listen to recordings of the tafseer, or explanation, of the Qur'an (I would recommend Nouman Ali Khan). Don't feel demotivated because you can't do what everyone else seems to be doing.
7. Taraweeh is great but its not fard
Yes, masha'Allah, it is great to go to Taraweeh, but it's not obligatory and the sunnah is actually to pray by your own at home sometimes too. Once again, you may have to go to work every day or school and fasting plus staying out and praying late is burning you out. No, you're not weak, and in fact in many Muslim countries people accomplish Taraweeh every night by sleeping through the majority of the fast or having adjusted work hours. Do what you can do, but remember that Taraweeh is optional while fasting isn't, so its better to skip Taraweeh if it enables you to maintain your fast.
8. Fasting is Hard
I'm here to validate you; fasting is hard, especially in long, summer days. As a new Muslim, you may be intimidated and wondering if you can even do it. I'm here to tell you you can do it, but if for some reason you make a mistake, or cave in to a moment of weakness, all is not lost. (Note: I'm not *justifying* doing this, as it's not allowed; I'm merely saying that *if* you fall into this sin, don't give up hope and repent and move on).
Ask Allah to forgive you and make you stronger and keep going; finish the rest of the day's fast. Do not fall into the trap of thinking, “now my fast doesn't count” or “now I have to make the day up” or “now I ruined the fast” so the day is lost. Allah rewards you for every moment you are in a fasted state— your reward is continuous. If you cave in and take that drink of water, continue your fast and insha'Allah you will get rewarded for setting things back to right and persevering. Allah knows what is more difficult for some than others, and Allah created us so that we would sin and then turn back to Him in repentance. Don't give up.
Fiqh for new Muslims is a sensitive issue and should be handled with a personal approach.
May Allah accept all our good deeds during this blessed month and enable us all to grow firmer in our faith.
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