By Dilshad Ali
One friend said – So It’s been kind of rough, and I hope I can fast in Ramadan, but I have to see what my doctor says. If I can’t, I’ll be really bummed. I’ve never missed fasting in Ramadan before.
Another friend answered – Yah, I’m trying to approach this Ramadan with peace, positivity and an open mind and heart. It’s hard though. It’s hard to push the fear and grief back.
“I’ve always loved Ramadan, but certain years its coming heralded an uneasy mix of anxiety, desperation of faith and uncertainty.”
We were at lunch, a few friends and I, and our meandering topics of conversation eventually came around to Ramadan and preparing for the month. Except for many of us at that table, it wasn’t about meal preps and mapping out how we would schedule time for extra Ibadah (worship) or what Ramadan activities we were planning to do with our kids. It was about coming to terms with hard realities and memories, about wrestling with dread and grief over things past, present and future.
My one friend trying to face Ramadan with peace and love in her heart, trying to tamp down the memories of a brutal cancer diagnosis her youngest son received just two years back a few days before the fasting month began. Trying to move past the memories of the difficult surgery and post-surgery recovery and chemo her son and family endured throughout Ramadan and beyond. My other friend just coming through a painful surgery and after-surgery complications – trying to find her footing mentally and physically, wondering if she’d be able to fast.
And myself – with the ghosts of Ramadan past lingering in the back of my mind – Ramadans when my eldest son D, who is autistic, was in the grips of brutal self-injury, and I barely had the strength to fast, work and care for our family. Or years when he was crippled by night-time anxiety and distressing meltdowns and my Ramadan nights were spent not at tarawih, but in the dark of his bedroom bearing witness to his pain and praying my presence and prayers would help bring some peace to him.
I’ve always loved Ramadan, but certain years its coming heralded an uneasy mix of anxiety, desperation of faith and uncertainty. My plans and preparations focused on one thing – what can I do to help facilitate my family’s needs? What can I do to help mitigate and balance the elevated ibadah schedule of Ramadan with the relentless routines of autism living? As I noted numerous times to anyone who would listen over the years – autism doesn’t stop for Ramadan.
In my years of reporting and covering stories about American Muslims and Muslims at large, I’ve published a number of stories of pain, challenges and enduring in Ramadan, of turning to Allah (S) in despair or grief, of struggling to fast due to physical or mental health issues, of triggers that are amplified in the holy month, of grief coming from scary medical diagnosis or the loss of a loved one – of trying to find meaning in it all.
“If any of you are feeling uneasy with Ramadan … if you are grappling with painful things – please know you’re not alone.”
Years later, it can still be triggering. And, while I want to live and lead with gratitude, joy and happiness, especially when it comes to the gifts of Ramadan, it is important that we reflect on this part of human living as well and how it dovetails with the month of fasting.
In a Friday Khutba (sermon), I sat next to one of my best friends who had been with me at that lunch. It’s very rare that we both show up to Jummah prayers, and in the same week at that. In the khutba, focused on preparing for Ramadan, the khateeb (lecturer) talked about how it is “a gift from Allah. We must meet it with happiness.” I looked at her and thought back to our lunchtime conversation.
Ramadan, indeed, is a gift from Allah. It truly is. I’ve never not wanted it to come. I’ve never dreaded it like that, or in the sense that I don’t appreciate and love the gifts Allah bestows upon us in Ramadan or the chances He gives us. But, that it can be a complicated, hard month for some Muslims is important to acknowledge. Part of our ability to accept our own life’s struggles and pain comes from realizing that we are not lost or forsaken for feeling low or out of kilter or even far removed from all Ramadan has to offer us.
One of my favorite surahs (verses) from Quran has always been Al-Inshirah (94), or The Opening:
Bismillaahir Rahmaanir Raheem
Alam nashrah laka sadrak
Wa wa d’ana ‘anka wizrak
Allathee anqada thahrak
Wa raf ‘ana laka thikrak
Fa inna ma’al ‘usri yusra
Inna ma’al ‘usri yusra
Fa itha faragh ta fansab
Wa ilaa rabbika far ghab
Have We not opened your breast for you (O Muhammad)?
And removed from you your burden,
Which weighed down your back?
And raised high your fame?
So verily, with the hardship, there is relief,
Verily, with the hardship, there is relief.
So when you have finished (from your occupation), then stand up for Allah’s worship (i.e. stand up for prayer).
And to your Lord (Alone) turn (all your intentions and hopes and) your invocations.
Little in this life has resonated with me more than “So verily, with the hardship, there is relief, Verily, with the hardship, there is relief.” It’s helped me play the long game with my faith, to stay the course and fight to keep the faith in Allah’s will and His Mercy upon us. To trust in His reasons – even when it made no sense to me.
If any of you are feeling uneasy with Ramadan, if you just are not in that “Ramadan frame of mind,” whatever that means, if you are grappling with painful things – please know you’re not alone. Allah (S) knows us better than ourselves, and He is big enough for all our pain, to hold us all close, though we may not understand the whys and hows of His doings.
As my friend reminded me – take hope and strength in the knowledge that our flailing (or sometimes even nonexistent) attempts to be present, grateful and hopeful of the future will be counted by Him, that His mercy is always granted to us.
May your Ramadan be one of ease and blessings.
Dilshad D. Ali is the managing Editor for the Patheos, online publications focusing on religion and spirituality. She has covered Muslims and Islam in America for more than 10 years for a variety of media outlets. Ali has appeared on CNN, MTV, NPR, and New York radio stations and has been interviewed by The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Newsweek. Ali also writes about her Autistic son ‘D.’