Which day or days should we take off work for Eid, anyway, considering 1.6 billion Muslims can’t completely agree on a day? (Wednesday seems to be the winner). How do we avoid talking to annoying people at the morning community prayer? (Pretend you are busy, look down, walk fast, quickly glance up when you’re next to your car and wave as you drive away). Will there be enough parking spaces at the mosque? (No.) How can we efficiently say “Eid Mubarak” to 350 people in a mass email or text, but also make it personalized so folks feel special? (Emojis, emojis and more emojis.) Where should we donate our annual zakat (religiously mandated alms-giving) so we won’t get surveilled by law enforcement? (Good luck.)
And here’s one of the big decisions Eid forces us to confront: Were we changed by Ramadan? What was the product of the month anyway?
I would love to tell you, dear, friendly, moderate, Western reader, that Ramadan transformed me into a magical, levitating, South Asian Yoda. A man bereft of worry, anxiety and pain, awash in the glow of spiritual bliss and Rumi-esque nuggets of tweetable wisdoms. I wish I could report that as I fasted from food and drink for nearly 16.5 hours a day, my hunger was replaced by an enhanced meditative state, filled with images of waterfalls, unicorns and avatars of Deepak Chopra. That my farts smelled like potpourri and my Ramadan breath held the fragrance of a rose garden.
I want to report that my spiritually charged Ramadan State of Mind allowed me to rise above the toxic politicking of American and European politicians that use Muslims and immigrants as cynical chess pawns to advance their nativistic agendas, bigoted ideologies and self-serving careers. That Ramadan granted me a spiritual oasis from the onslaught of headline news highlighting a disturbing avalanche of hate crimes and fearful rhetoric against Muslims.
I want to tell you that Ramadan shielded me from the fresh horrors of the Islamic State and provided a temporary respite from engaging in the “Muslim fireman” drill, in which ordinary Muslims anticipate predictable questions and prepare answers to a terrified audience about whether the Islamic State is Islam or moderate Muslims exist, knowing full well the entire dance will be forgotten, rinsed and repeated with the next inevitable tragedy.
But all of this would be exquisite, saccharine bull. The truth is this Ramadan was mentally and physically exhausting.
For the first time, I consistently took late afternoon naps during my fasts. I chalk this up to either old age, running around after a 2-year-old, and/or simply fasting for 16.5 hours under a climate changed-sun. My breath was neither fragrant nor inviting, but rather a villainous odor of death. The less said about my gas the better. (I pity my poor wife.) Around 6:30 p.m. every day, toward the end of work, I dreamed of where I’d break my fast at sunset. At 8:30 p.m., I’d eat a date, drink some water, pray, then inhale some halal meat, rotating cuisines every day between Afghan, Pakistani, Yemeni and halal American. I can never sleep during Ramadan, especially in my post-iftar haze.
The late nights afford me time to think and ponder. But that’s also where the waswasas (Arabic word for “insinuating whispers”) live and thrive. During this bloody month, they feasted on my mind.
Why is Islam like the Cleveland Browns of world religions? Where did Muslims go wrong? Where are our leaders? Who failed us? Did I waste my best years, time and talent investing in a community that is trudging through a toxic swamp of ugliness and desperation? How can we possibly fix decades, centuries, of corruption, incompetence and dysfunction within one lifetime? What can I possibly do as one man with moderate intelligence and limited talents to ensure my children don’t inherit a legacy of permanent victimhood and where they don’t emerge as the antagonists of a global narrative that pits “Islam” vs. “the West”?
After the Islamic State’s attack Monday on Medina, the city of the prophet Muhammad and home to the second-most holy mosque on Earth, I whatsapp’d a few of my Muslim friends and wrote: “I’m done. I am tapping out. There has to be more to life than this.”
That attack followed others during Ramadan: one in Baghdad that killed more than 200 people; another in Bangladesh; one in Turkey. I happened to be standing at the exact same spot in the Istanbul airport a day before the attack that killed more than 40 innocents. “Muslims killed Muslims, including Wajahat Ali” would be the grisly Facebook post written by a high school acquaintance, which would hopefully garner at least 57 sad emoticons.
Thankfully, I was lucky, but some are not. Instead of buying colorful dupattas and shawls for the Eid celebrations Wednesday, family members from Medina to Indonesia are buying black shrouds for their departed. Shoulders of elders across the world will carry the weight of caskets with dead bodies instead of bags of meat and gifts to distribute to the poor or family members. The festive lights for Eid celebrations will dim just a little in Baghdad, and those of us who empathize and want to show solidarity in the United States will change our Facebook profile pictures and offer thoughts and prayers on Twitter. Because what else can one do, right?
And in these late Ramadan nights, as the dark moments of despair overwhelm the senses and the body, a small light flickers, a spark ignites, and the Ramadan State of Mind starts reversing those grim gears.
On Tuesday, as I opened my last fast, I remembered one of my favorite Koranic verses: “And We shall try you until We test those among you who strive their utmost and persevere in patience; and We shall try your reported mettle.”
Rarely in life does the “good” ever come cheap and easy. It has to be earned through work, sweat, time and commitment. God consciousness, six pack abs, degrees, a lucrative career rarely drop like manna in our laps. It’s fitting that Ramadan, the month of fasting, comes from the Arabic word that means a “scorching heat.”
My Ramadan State of Mind, beleaguered through a month of hunger, exhaustion and sadness, eventually turned towards resolve, righteous anger and hope. My friend, writer Willow Wilson, reminded me of a saying of the prophet Muhammad: “Even if the day of judgment is around the corner, plant the seedling.”
It seems as if we’re witnessing the horsemen of the apocalypse coming around the horizon, one with orange skin tones, presidential ambitions and interesting hair, and others perverting Islam, carrying black flags and wearing Duck Dynasty beards.
But cynicism is easy and cheap. It requires no investment or work, except resignation as a mere snarky spectator in life. Anger, contempt and bitterness have never been sustainable ingredients for either individuals or communities. Toxic absolutism and permanent victimhood cannot be the inheritance I give to my Muslim American child named Ibrahim.
I’ll be damned if I’m going to go out with my tail tucked between my legs, head burrowed in my chest as extremists deny my rightful stake in both the ongoing narratives of America and Islam.
So, on the last day of Ramadan, as the world burns, I decided to stay in the ring and fight, to throw water on the raging fires and clean up, in some small way, the dirty laundry of both my American and Muslim communities.
And I’ll allow myself to enjoy the ordinary beauties of this extraordinary life: my beloved Golden State Warriors acquiring Kevin Durant; seeing American Muslims selflessly giving money and charity to mark the end of Ramadan; Christian and Jewish friends hosting interfaith iftars; non-Muslim allies uniting in empathy for innocent victims of terrorism around the world; Curious George celebrating Ramadan in a new children’s book; my 2-year-old saying “Choo Choo!” for the first time as he “borrowed” another kid’s Thomas the Train at the local Barnes and Noble.
But what I will do with my newly acquired Ramadan super powers?
I hope to retain that Ramadan State of Mind on Eid, and beyond. I need to remember and appreciate joy, prayer, family, laughter and the beauty and endearing idiosyncrasies of my messy, evolving American communities. Peoples who lift each other up to see a clear horizon above a blood-drenched sky and give one another hope to see a bright, soothing light that guides us all to a better future.
Wajahat Ali is a writer, lawyer and creative director of Affinis Labs, a social entrepreneurial hub based in Virginia.