The hilal, the crescent moon, was sighted in South Africa and in South America and in other places as well, and with it, the holy month of Ramadan has officially commenced here in Charlotte. Al-hamdu’ilah, this year will be my sixth Ramadan, thus marking my sixth year of my difficult yet beautiful within the sanctum of Islam. My Lord willed that I should live to experience this blessed month once more, a mercy for which He denied many others this time around; and as such, it behooves me to take advantage of these days and nights of hunger and thirst, of prayer and humility, to peer inside my inner most self and rearrange the psychology and spiritual furniture that has so plagued my consciousness. We are all human beings – godlike, yet simultaneously and paradoxically feeble and fallible – and every now and then our bodies need to recharge from the rigors of everyday living. Ramadan is that time of year in which one recharges one’s soul at the expense of one’s body so to speak, since, throughout the year, we tend to sacrifice the integrity of our souls to appease our bodily appetites and interests. This seems to be how are world is structured.
So, let’s let these oncoming days be such that we invert this structure for a change, these days when the shayateen, the demons, are said to be shackled. Ramadan Karim to all my Muslim peeps around the world! May Allah except our fasts and our intentions!
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice
To be honest, until yesterday, I hadn’t quite grasped the importance of cultural and family traditions, having come from a family where such traditions weren’t integral to our cohesiveness. Though we were Black Southern Catholics, we really didn’t observe any of the traditions outside some of the mainstream (Black) American ones, and even those only slightly: we decorated Christmas trees with colorful lights and whatnot, but that was the extent of our cultural observance of anything: we didn’t eat any special or luxurious food nor did we wear any special or “exotic” clothes, save for the occasional Easter suit, which really isn’t that special and certainly, in the Western context, isn’t “exotic” by any means.
And so, when I found myself in the company of Charlotte’s beautiful Muslimat (plural for Muslimah, a female Muslim) at a local coffee shop, I felt quite abashed that I could not produce any cultural traditions or recipes (most of what I cook or can cook are vestiges from my Southern upbringing, “Soul Food,” bland but wholesome, sans the pork fat of course) which either extending over from my days as a Christians or even those I invented myself. A good friend of mine, a Egyptian woman, assembled the bevy to celebrated the commencement of Ramadan with lively discussion of cultural traditions – homegrown or otherwise – and with embracing the ancient Egyptian custom of the fawanees, Ramadan lamps (plural for fanoos). We crafted homemade fawanees from colorful cardboard and tissue paper. (Mine didn’t turn out so well. Never was much of an artist or craftsmen. Much of my creativity comes in the form of words I guess, if even that). These women, even among those who were converts, were discussing the different Ramadan traditions in their households, like, for example, cooking certain foods or embellishing their households with decorations, lights or homemade decor, etc; and I, because of my background and because I’ve lived much of my Muslim life alone, I couldn’t really contribute fruitfully to the conservation. Such ideas, I’m ashamed to say, are quite foreign to me, even though I know that it is these very notions and ways of doing things that give each people their “spice,” their uniqueness or character. I suddenly felt this gaping lacuna about me, as if I was lacking something in my humanity. Sounds a bit exaggerated, I know; but rest assured, this is no exaggeration.
I suddenly thought, Am I missing something here? Did I not get the memo?
I’m sure the answers is the affirmative. In fact, I know it is; but right now, perhaps these matters are not so important for someone like me, for who lives alone and who rarely ventures to the masajid or gets involved in community affairs. For these past six years, Ramadan has always been the time for me to tap into my inner ascetic, to be purely alone with my Lord in the dead of night, in silence and solitude. I simply had no need for colorful traditions or food in this vein. In time though, assuming God grants me the gift (and trial) of a family, I’m sure this will change. Indeed, it must change. When the time comes, I’ll take T.S. Eliot’s advice and construct something upon which to rejoice, something which my progeny, assuming I have any, will remember with fondness: this is what embeds a custom into the bones of people such that succeeding generation will take it on as their own. Maybe in that sense, I’ll be a Progenitor, the first Muslim in my entire family (as far as I know), and the creator of something worthwhile to past down throughout the ages. Someone had to play this role those many centuries ago for previous peoples, right? Why not, then, let it begin with me?
I’m once again going to steal from a good friend of mine, since I lack the necessary creativity to come with something on my own, and since she, masha’Allah, seems to be full of it. (Maybe she won’t mind if I – cough! – borrow some of hers). And yet, I don’t feel too bad since imitation is the highest form of flattery. 😀
She decided to enumerate and meditate upon the things she’s grateful for each day of Ramadan, kinda of like the 30 Days of Christmas song, except without – you know – Christmas. I figured I’d join her bandwagon. Insha’Allah, others will catch on. Isn’t this, after all, how traditions begin?
I’m thankful, first and foremost, for being Muslim. I have yet to understand why Allah would allow me such an honor, to be among the followers of all the Prophets, may peace and blessings be upon them all. I was fresh out of high school when I declared Shahadah. It’s been an interesting six years to say the least – vicissitudes, peaks and nadirs aplenty. A mostly negative experience I reckon, and yet paradoxically positive and liberating at the same time. I don’t regret my choice in the least. In fact, if I could turn back the clock to that one pivotal moment prior to converting, I would make the same choice again and again and again ad infinitum, even given what I currently know now.
Becoming Muslim has put me in the company of some fantastic people, who, I doubt, I would have chanced upon otherwise. These Muslims – some converts, some born into Islam – I think, and Allah knows better, try to live out the ethics promulgated by the Prophet صلى الله عليه. They come from all parts of the world, from the States, Africa, the UK, Australia, Turkey, the Arab and Desi world, and they represent a vast cross-section of the variegated peoples of the world: they are African, Black, White, Hispanic, Senegalese, Sudanese, Palestinian, Egyptian, Lebanese, Libyan, Indian, Bahraini, Pakistani, Chinese, Turkish, and Persian. Most are Sunni, and some are Shi’ah. Many of them can relate to and sympathize with my struggles as a convert; many of them have even helped me out. May Allah reward them for doing so.
Also, when I became Muslim, I also became acquainted with a vast array of writers, thinkers, philosophers, theologians, jurist, and artists which I likewise would not have chanced upon otherwise. The very life of Muhammad ibn Abdullah صلى الله عليه; the lectures of Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, Dr. Khalid Blankinship, Imam Suhaib Webb, Dr. Umar Farooq Abdullah; the books of Dr. Jackson, Dr. Fazlur Rahman, Dr. Tariq Ramadan, Muhammad Asad, Charles le Gai Eaton, Martin Lings, Allama Muhammad Iqbal; the musings of Ibn Khaldun, of al-Ghazali, of al-Shafi’i, of al-Maturidi, of Rabia al-Basri (a woman Sufi saint, I had to get at least one woman in here), of Ibn Taymiyyah, of Ibn Rushd (known as Averroes in the West), of Ibn Sina (know as Avicenna in the West); the poetry of Rumi, Hafiz, and Iqbal (translated of course) have all enriched my intellectual and spiritual life, making them bright beyond belief; they augmented the spirituality I acquired as a Catholic. I have learned a great deal from these people and from my experiences as a whole, in spite of some being negative.
The metamorphosis is on-going, not quite complete. More will be revealed, insha’Allah, perhaps even during this blessed Ramadan. As I’m always inclined to say, I’m a masterpiece in the making.