I was 9 years old when I made one of my first major pleas of repentance to God. It was Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting. Kids are not required to fast until they hit puberty, but even in kindergarten, I hated being left out of Ramadan and begged my parents to let me fast. To put an end to my whining, they told me that if I didn’t eat anything between my meals, it would count as a “half-fast.” This completely fabricated concept was apparently widespread among Muslim households; many of my friends have stories about their own versions of the “half-fast” from their childhoods. And so, in the name of faith, I sacrificed my mid-morning Fruit Roll-Ups and my afternoon DunkaRoos for a few years. But it still didn’t feel right, and I found it peculiar that there was no documentation of the “half-fast” in any of my Sunday school literature. Finally, in third grade, my parents gave in and allowed me to participate in the full forgoing of food and drink from sunrise to sunset.
I was ecstatic. But my spiritual high was followed by an ultimate low only a few days into Ramadan. The family was gathered at the dinner table, and it was about 20 minutes before iftar, the fast-breaking meal at sunset. Each day of Ramadan, my mother would prepare a feast for the family. She would satisfy the combination of Pakistani and American palates that were present at the table by cooking some of the best of both worlds.
French fries were on the menu that day, and as I was setting some on my plate, one fell into a pool of ketchup. I instinctively picked it up and placed it right into my mouth. Within seconds, I realized that it wasn’t time to eat yet, and my face flushed in shame. My eyes darted around the room — no one had noticed what just happened. I ran to the bathroom and spent the next twenty minutes rinsing my mouth out over and over, in a desperate attempt to literally and symbolically wash away what I believed to be a terrible, terrible sin.
Once I heard my brother calling the adhan, the summons to prayer, I returned to my seat in the kitchen, avoiding eye contact in fear that someone would read through my guilty gaze. That night and for nights thereafter, I apologized profusely in my supplications and repeatedly asked for forgiveness.
Years later, I learned that it didn’t invalidate your fast if you accidentally ate something. You could consider it a blessing from God — a little unexpected gift — and then continue on with your fast. But to this day, the remorse I felt so many years ago is still vivid. And whenever it’s close to iftar time, I find myself painstakingly preparing the table.
The french fry incident wasn’t my first blasphemous blunder during Ramadan. One occurred a few years earlier, when I was about 6.
The Muslim prayer consists of cycles of standing, prostrating and sitting, during which we continuously say divine verses and phrases to ourselves.
There is one part in the prayer — when we are sitting on our knees with our hands resting on them — that we recite a specific line and simultaneously raise our right index finger. At the time, I didn’t quite grasp the connection between the words and that motion. But I automatically assumed that I would be better than everyone else if I raised both my right and left index fingers. This seemingly brilliant innovation was my little secret, just between God and myself, and I was quite proud of it. For days, during that moment in every prayer, I would strategically elevate two fingers instead of one, and smile triumphantly to myself.
But I couldn’t keep it a secret for too long. Naturally, I wanted to show it off to my parents. So one day, I prayed next to my father. We are taught to keep our eyes fixated downward when we pray to stay focused. But this time, I let mine stealthily deviate to the right when I raised two fingers to see if my father noticed. To draw more attention, I said my words out loud in an audible whisper and kept the fingers up for longer than usual. When we were finished praying, I turned toward him, expecting him to be beaming with pride.
Little did I know that the upward pointing of one index finger is interpreted by many as a way of asserting and emphasizing the Oneness of God. While that finger is raised, we recite a sentence that is literally a pledge of monotheism. By elevating one and only one finger, we physically affirm the most fundamental doctrine of our faith, my father gently explained to me.
And there I sat, a child, inadvertently violating and defying that principle in every prayer. I was absolutely mortified. I went to my room, dejected and ashamed, and sought forgiveness for my sacrilegious mistake. I vowed never to add any more “creative” twists to my daily worship.
Despite the anguish that I felt at the time, I now look back at these incidents with a fond reminiscence. I often have to explain the meaning of Ramadan to my friends or co-workers, and how it trains us to be God-conscious at all times. In some ways, my childhood self did more justice to the month than I do now.
In my harmlessly naive mind-set, I tried extra hard to please God, and I felt extra guilty when I thought I didn’t. And that’s how Ramadan conditions our hearts. As we are deprived of our physical necessities and strive to have better control over our temperaments and thoughts, our awareness of God’s presence amplifies. Consequently, so does our compassion and our altruism — we go the extra mile to do good and help others.
Ramadan also puts some of life on pause for a bit, which allows us to take time to reflect and be grateful for what we have. We learn to value the blessings of our families, friends, communities, jobs, homes and material luxuries.
And we learn to appreciate the blessings that lie in the simple things, like a french fry.
Shazia Memon is a pediatric nurse who writes in her free time.