Genesis 11:5

The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. Genesis 11:5

Ramadan, Don't Go

My heart sank and my eyes filled with tears last night on the underground when Ahmed told me that tomorrow is not Ramadan anymore. They sighted the moon in Saudi Arabia, so Sunday evening was the start of the Eid celebration. Sure, it's meant to be a time of gladness, but I found that I was not the only one sad to reach the end of Ramadan. Several of my friends replying to my Eid Mubarak texts saying that they were crying for the end of Ramadan, as well. This is a reaction that I was not expecting. Usually when people are fasting they eagerly await the end of their suffering. For example, many count down the days of Lent, eager to live normally again.

But Ramadan is a season in which the Muslim has the privilege of being even more constantly reminded of their religious identity, their membership in a global religious community, the importance of obedience to Allah, however absurd it seems to abstain from food and drink in the daylight hours, and eat and drink at night when the rest of the world is sleeping. Ramadan is a time of rewards and graciousness. We're rewarded for fasting. We're rewarded for praying. The breath of one who is fasting is like musk to Allah, we learn. We read and memorize the Quran intentionally, and with gladness. 

I did not expect Ramadan to have such a profound impact on me. I did not know how happy Ramadan would make me. I've been quite lonely this summer, with no friends in my immediate proximity. Sure, there are folks to chat with at work, and there's the odd phone call. This summer I've wandered open fields to pass the hours after work. 

The Beauty of My Own Solitude
Ramadan breathed life and purpose into my solitude. This was my first time fasting Ramadan, and the first time that I read the entire Quran. My friend Mahram told me that when you finish reading the entire Quran, you should pray afterwards, and whatever you pray will be answered. I prayed about marriage. I've observed several Muslim families over the past few years. I like to see Muslim husbands helping their wives with the home and children. I like to see how they provide for their families. I like to see how Muslim husbands go far out of their way to support their wives in their studies, educational goals, and careers. I like to see how Muslim parents raise their children seriously and with constant reference to the ethics and morals established in Islam. I wish for marriage and family and a good future.

I'm looking forward to Ramadan next year. I feel that I want to be Muslim, and maybe I already am. At least, I'm more Muslim than anything else. I'm afraid that if I say I am, I won't be able to live up to the commitment. I'm afraid that I won't be able to face my family, and family friends. I'm afraid that I won't be accepted if I want to wear hijab. I do want to, and try to when no one is looking.

I attended Taraweeh prayers at the University on Sunday evening, and by chance ended up in the front row of the congregational prayers. I learned later on that there's a reward for that too. When listening to the recitation of the Quran, I felt moved emotionally, moved to tears. It was beautiful. The recitation of the Quran truly does sound like a miraculous, divine message, something like a gift. I felt welcome, just as much a part of the congregation as the folks beside me who have been praying since they were children, Muslims from birth. 

I've experienced a wide variety of religious communities throughout my life. In the Church of God, I was probably grafted in much more easily because I am white and middle class. When I was with Mennonites, I often felt the cultural rift between us. Although I deeply admired the peace church tradition, hymn sings, intentional communities, and potlucks, a Greek American non-cultural Mennonite could not so easily feel welcome, despite all of the hospitable efforts that were made. In the Greek Orthodox church communities I encountered I was not quite Greek enough. But to any Muslim, black, white, Asian, Arab, European - I can be just as Muslim as they are. I am welcome, all are welcome.

We are all PALESTINIAN!

At the invitation of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, I attended the Stop the Occupation Al Quds day march in London. When I arrived at the assembly point outside of BBC Radio, I noticed the heavy police presence, and prayed under my breath that I was not attending a march that was expected to turn violent. Then, I looked to my right to find that a group of 40 Muslim men and women were bowed with their foreheads and noses to the pavement, praying Dhuhr. There was no need for me to worry that I would miss the prayer time and have to pray late when I returned home - I forgot that I would be joining a group of people who are all concerned with the prayer times, and who were also all fasting. I will post my photos in about a week's time, and the speeches from a number of exceptional individuals at the forefront of advocacy for the freedom of Palestine. For now, I would simply like to  capture the emotion of the event for me.

I prayed with the group, right there on the street. I felt that I could approach any person there with a need or question and be treated hospitably. This is probably the phenomenon of the sense of belonging when one joins the Muslim community, or any religious community, perhaps. We all took hold of placards and flags in preparation for the march - I began the march with a BOYCOTT ISRAEL placard and my pro-Palestine scarf draped over my shoulders. I ended the march also waving a Palestinian flag that some sisters sold to me en route to our final destination at Trafalgar Square. 

When I decided at the spur of the moment this morning to travel into the heart of London for the event, I told myself that this is one small effort that I can make for the suffering innocents of Palestine. To my surprise, I felt inspired calling out "Allahu Akbar - God is great!" with the group. This phrase is misunderstood by the masses, and I know how negatively I've perceived it in the past. What a negative connotation it has, in the media, and with people unfamiliar with Islam. But this phrase was the uniting force, at least for the Muslims there. We had Orthodox Jews and Christians  and non-religious people all together. I joined in "La illaha ilallah - There is no other God but Allah!" just feeling that this was an expression of our unity regarding the matter at hand.

 Quickly, I learned the calls and responses for the march. What do we want? JUSTICE! When do we want it? NOW! One - two - three - four - OCCUPATION NO MORE! Five - six - seven - eight ISRAEL IS A TERRORIST STATE! What does Zionism stand for? TERRORISM. Zionism! TERRORISM! From the river to the sea PALESTINE WILL BE FREE! In our hundred in our millions WE ARE ALL PALESTINIANS! In our hundreds in our millions WE ARE ALL PALESTINIANS! Free free PALESTINE! Free free PALESTINE!

As I marched with hundreds of people from numerous languages, creeds, backgrounds, and cultures, our protest became increasingly meaningful to me. I cried the slogans at the top of my voice - I wanted the bystanders to hear our message, and to become aware of the illegal occupation of Palestine. I felt in my heart that we were giving a voice to the voiceless. We were crying out for every innocent Palestinian who is a victim of the illegal regime of Israel, and its backers.

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I'll admit this was not my best moment to be captured on camera, but nonetheless!

We stopped at McDonalds and Starbucks and Boots (regarding the sale of Loreal products) shouting Mcdonalds SHAME ON YOU! McDonalds SHAME ON YOU! Starbucks SHAME ON YOU! Loreal SHAME ON YOU! Coca Cola SHAME ON YOU! Marks and Spencers SHAME ON YOU! All companies which we must boycott in protest of their funding of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Tears came to my eyes as we chanted, WE ARE ALL PALESTINIANS! 

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I wanted to show my solidarity for innocent men, women and children in Palestine who are being massacred with the support of my own government. I write letters to my senators, and they reply saying that they make every effort to support our loyal ally Israel. How can they be so blind to the injustice that they are committing?

I learned the police were there to protect us, rather than vice versa. We were advised by the police and march organisers to travel to our respective stations in groups - just as last year, the English Defense League was prepared to violently attack the people who attended the peaceful, nonviolent march. How privileged we are to have the protection of the police as we march for Palestine, while Palestinians have no defense, not even in their own homes. I was very grateful for the presence and help of the Metropolitan Police who contained the march.

To Be a Good Child

A couple of days ago, Ahmed went to Riyadh with his mother. There were a few things that he wanted to do there, people he wanted to see. His mother told him the next morning that she wanted to go home. Knowing that his time in Riyadh was shorter than he expected, I asked Ahmed if he told his mother that he wanted to stay longer. He only said, "But she wanted to come home." I know that Ahmed was not conscious of it, but his response was a crystal clear example for me of the kind of respect that Islam demands children show to their parents. It would not even enter his mind to persuade his mother of something other than what she wanted.

Reading through Al-Quran, I notice that believers are repeatedly commanded to treat parents well, and often the commands go hand in hand with practicing the pillars of Islam, like praying five times daily and paying Zakat. The message of the Quran includes the good treatment of parents in descriptions of people who are truly Muslim.

The other night on Skype my mother said something that bothered me. I became angry and did not hide my anger. Immediately I regreted the tone I had taken and the words that I said in anger.  Curiously, there is more instruction in Al-Quran teaching children how to treat their parents, than there is to parents on how to raise their children. I was particularly struck by this guidance in Al-Quran regarding parents:
And your Lord has decreed that you worship none but Him. And that you be dutiful to your parents. If one of them or both of them attain old age in your life, say not to them a word of disrespect, nor shout at them but address them in terms of honour. And lower to them the wing of submission and humility through mercy, and say: "My Lord! Bestow on them Your Mercy as they did bring me up when I was young." Your Lord knows best what is in your inner selves. If you are righteous, then, verily, He is Ever Most Forgiving to those who turn to Him again and again in obedience, and in repentance. Al-Isra 17:23-25
From the get-go, fulfilling our obligation to parents is linked directly to worship. The wording and order of the passage prompts me to consider my mother's age to be a privilege and blessing to me as a child - already, I cannot imagine who I would turn to without my mother there to speak with in good times and bad. Anticipating my upcoming visit home, I am internalizing this command to constantly speak respectfully and mercifully to my mother. Sadly enough, shouting is commonplace in our household, and I know that sometimes it will feel impossible to hold my tongue, or to just control my volume. But a Muslim child is not meant to even display frustration or anger towards their parents. If I write any more on the topic, I'll just quote Nouman Ali Khan from his teaching on Islam's requirement that we 'Be the Best to our Parents.' He explains that it does not matter what our parents say to us, or what volume or tone they assume, the child's voice and behavior must remain respectful and merciful. He suggests that when we are angry with our parents, we should go out of our way to do something kind for them. 

The ultimate example of the mercy we are required to offer parents is in Allah. Even in this short excerpt, Allah assures the believer that He is the source of mercy and forgiveness. Islam consistently calls believers to offer others forgiveness and mercy. Husbands and wives are told that the healthy, faithful marriage relationship is based on love and mercy. They couple is told to focus on the positive aspects of their spouse - getting hung up on small nuisances is foolishness. I've learned that Muslims make excuses for friends or neighbors who wrong them. If my friend arrives late for a meeting, before I get angry while watching minute after minute pass on my watch, I should make every excuse for their delay. Islam is full of practical, daily applications of mercy.

My mother does not approve of my interest in Islam, but Islamic teachings challenge me to treat her better than I ever have before. Up until now, I've mostly been soaking in Islamic concepts and instruction through conversations with friends, and by observing my local Muslim community. In this time I have learned to respect my mother more, and to be more generous to her. A few nights ago I woke up at 3am to pray Fajr and drink water before the fast began. My mother was struggling to make an online payment, so I offered to do it for her, after unsuccessfully leading her through the process over the phone. The next day at work, I felt like I was glowing. Although I had only a few hours of sleep, I felt that all of my energy grew out of my happiness at making one small thing easier for my mother. 


In Matthew 15 Jesus reminds the Pharisees and scribes that "God said, 'Honor your father and your mother,' and, 'Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.' In light of the Quranic teachings on the proper behavior of children, the words of Jesus here feel much heavier, and more serious than I ever sensed them before. His words reinforce the Islamic teaching that the person who disrespects their parents will not enter paradise; at the same time, respect for our parents in our pathway to paradise. Sheikh Shady Al-Suleiman states that it's even an honor for our parent to step on our head, to have their foot above our head.

Just as we practice self-discipline in order to abstain from food and water during daylight hours in Ramadan, I have to be silent in moments when my impulse is to argue, debate, or speak a disrespectful word to my mother. Also, I feel that I must speak more respectfully of my late father - I admit not all of my memories are positive, but as Ali Khan points out, parents deserve our respect, regardless of how they treated us.

Pleasantly Surprised

My eyes are tired. Tired of being open, and tired of around 12 hours today in front of the computer screen. Nevertheless, I have to share at least a glimpse of what troubles and joys my heart this week. I like it when people ask me how 'the fast' or 'Ramadan' is going. The butchers in my local Halal Butcher shop ask me, and we all smile saying الحمد لله "Thanks be to God!" I don't mind when the couple of ladies at work ask me how the fast is going - I like to explain that I feel surprisingly well. How does my mouth not dry up by the 18th hour of fasting? And today I spoke with a dear friend all the way in Saudi Arabia, whose smile I could hear when I replied jubilantly to her questions about my Ramadan 2011. IN fact, when I came home from work today I found a huge box covered with layers of duct tape and Arabic shipping messages at the foot of the stairs with my name on it. I wouldn't let myself open it until after I showered and prayed Asr. Otherwise, I knew I would be so absorbed in the thoughtfulness of their gift that I would easily delay the prayer by one more hour than necessary.

They sent me two varieties of Riyadh dates, and in enormous quantities. I couldn't help but ask her in my thank you email and over the phone - How do you expect me to eat all of these? I'm worried that I am not generous enough to be Muslim. These people will give to you whatever you need that they have in a heartbeat without any hesitation, as if generosity is a natural reflex. I'm not really like that, yet. Maybe with a few people, but generally, I have to admit that I think generosity through a few times. If I were not in debt, would I be more generous? Zakat is strongly emphasised all year for Muslims, but particularly during Ramadan. From what I understand, due to my school loans, I am exempt. This is probably why debt and the charging of interest are not permissible in Islam to begin with.

It's nearly one in the morning and I'm munching on my cookies and drinking as much water as I can to rehydrate and saturate my body in preparation for tomorrow's fast. For the past few days I've been watching lectures regarding Islamic perspectives on Jesus Christ. As I mentioned before, even though I personally prefer the Muslim understanding of Jesus, I don't want to 'mistakenly' deny the Jesus I was raised to believe in. I still want to hear more explanations from Islamic scholars on the Christian belief in Christ's death and resurrection. But I've watched enough Ahmed Deedat this week to now have my Bible open on my desk. I hadn't open my Bible in months, but Muslim Deedat challenges his audience to open it. At some moments I felt like I was listening to Gordon Brubacher in a Boyer Hall classroom again. 

I read the book of Matthew and excerpts from John in one sitting. This is the first time I've read the Gospels since a great deal of Islamic study, and can I say that the Gospel, the words and stories of Jesus, felt clearer and more illuminated to me than ever before. I have some initial theories about how the Quran, which is not a book of stories, illuminated the message of Jesus. But for the moment, I am content to only begin to convey how pleased I am that rather than putting me off from the Bible, somehow Islam has drawn me closer to it.

Correction

Friends, I was wrong about something. There are definitely more than 30, what Christians would call "books" of the Quran. There are 114. I misunderstood one suggestion to read the Quran in 30 sections throughout the month of Ramadan, so as to have read it in full by the end of the month. Thus far I've memorized two more surahs (verses) of Al-Quran, and my modest goal is to memorize two more in the next two weeks. Over the past couple of days I've been listening to lectures by Nouman Ali Khan, found of Al-Bayyinah Institute. In his lectures on Divine Speech, he mentions several times that the Quran is promised to be easy to memorize - hundreds of thousands of Muslims all over the globe have memorized Al-Quran in Arabic from cover to cover. Ali Khan asserts that when a sincere individual aspires to learn and memorize the Quran, the divine intervenes to make the process easier.

I have no other explanation for why I've been able to to memorize passages of the Quran quite quickly - I don't remember being able to memorize Biblical passages without a lot of struggle. I read and listen to recitations of the Quran when I'm studying and memorizing, so that when I'm reciting them myself, I can hear the song and rhythm of the reciter in my memory.

I watched an interview with Ali Khan, in which he describes his transition from atheism to Islam. I have found his arguments regarding the miraculous character of the Quran quite intriguing. The questions tumbling around in my mind today pertain to the resurrection - why is it so necessary in Christianity, and nothing close to a matter of concern in Islam? Having once been a devout Christian, how have I managed to feel comfortable without a Christ who is crucified and resurrected? Knowing well the person I used to be, I can't help but fear at some moments that I'm betraying Christ, that I could be following the wolves in sheeps clothing who Jesus warned Christians of.

But today as I walked in the sun through the dried grass of wide open fields that have become my refuge these past two months, I decided that the Quran is clarifying my understanding of at a least a few of Christianity's intentions. I remembered how I felt three years ago; The Bible seemed to raise more questions than answers for me. Our theological discussions at Messiah College never came close to answering whether God is violent or not, if he would send his own son to be torture and killed. I couldn't find clear guidelines about relationships and marriage in the Bible. They may have been there in some form or another, but they were not clear enough for me. I was dismayed observing countless Christian clusters each devising their own interpretations of the text, their own denomination or definition of Christianity. Christians can't even agree on whether Jesus demanded non-violence or not.

The Quran is mysterious, and requires extensive study. At the same time, Islam is extremely practical and accessible. Since there are many rules and guidelines, some situations that may have seemed like gray areas to me in Christianity appear more black and white, whether I like it or not. I'm please that it's also true that stories of the prophets that seem to be told more thoroughly in the Bible, also help me conduct a more informed reading of the Quran.

When I sat down to write this post, the first sentence was going to be "I am so thirsty." It's true. At some points today I even forgot about food, and all I could wish for was water. For the past few hours all I've wanted is a sip. My bladder is completely empty. Now, 20 minutes before the time to break the fast, I'm feeling hunger pains again, along with terrible thirst. After I eat some dates and drink some water, I will pray: "The thirst is gone, the veins are moistened and the reward is confirmed, if Allah [Ta'ala] Wills."

Shock of Terror in London

Usually I read my book on the train ride home after work. But on Tuesday evening, I couldn't. Many staff members left work early on Tuesday, like me, in order to ensure a safe journey home, before the rioters hit our neck of the woods. All passengers on the platform and train were in sober moods; just a few were on their mobiles complaining to their friends or loved ones about where the senseless violence was kicking off next. Even in my London suburb there was a noticeably increased police presence, and the convenient stores that are always open shut early, most likely at the recommendation of the police. I sat in my room watching BBC news for hours of the evening, attempting to convey to my family at home the anger of the general British public at the unthinking youth who were waging war on the police, and on their own neighbors. How strange it was to witness citizens transforming into enemies of their own government and country en masse. 

I remembered the incredible Egyptian Revolution, which the world witnessed earlier this year, and the Tunisian Revolution. These are examples of masses of people gathering in an attempt to bring positive change to their homelands with as little violence as possible. Conversely, England has been a mad house. Youth (and adults!) who participated were incredibly amused by their ability to terrorize their fellow citizens by destroying valuable property and stealing for sport. The young people of the country have lost their sense of self-respect, and in turn, any sense of respect for others. They don't know hard work (At one point I thought they should take every offender out to a farm to put their energy to good use). Their parents are absent - or just as oblivious to the sins of theft, terrorism, and the destruction of another's property. Where is the moral compass of the society? The youth have no sense of having to answer to anyone but themselves. Many have said that they will continue to vandalize property and steal until they are caught - and even after "the police do nothing" to them. Perhaps any remnant of moral thinking in this nation remains with the grandparents of these youth, who were once exposed to at least some religious thinking, some consciousness of a higher power to answer to. 

I fear the self-destruction of society. But it is evident now that a people who completely lack any comprehension of what is right and what is wrong, will eventually destroy itself. This leads me to think that the sinners of Noah's time and of Lot's time, which I've just read about in Surat Hud of the Quran, may well have just destroyed themselves, without any assistance.

Unfortunately, I have had to postpone the aforementioned meal with the Eritrean family, due to the terror still lurking throughout London. Nevertheless, every day of Ramadan I learn something new.

Time to Fast

I do not intend to sound overly religious, or extreme. I admit that I am excited about everything new I'm learning, but I want to point out that this is my primary space for expressing an experience that is largely inward, underneath my skin, and mostly unspoken.

One colleague from work was asking me whether Muslims break the fast at sunset, or in accordance to another time or signal. She told me the time of the sunset, but the time for Iftar is 20-30 minutes later than that. The instruction in Al-Quran is as follows:
And eat and drink until the white thread of dawn becomes distinct to you from the black thread [of night]. Then complete the fast until the night [i.e., sunset].

At one point in the conversation I found myself speaking in the first person plural, as if I were part of the Muslim community. It was as if I stepped back and heard myself saying that 'we start fasting' or 'we break the fast,' surprised at myself for considering myself part of Islam. On Wednesday evening I am invited to break the fast with an Eritrean family, and I'm quite looking forward to it. I've prepared a gift of dates from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and I am hoping to make a sweet treat to give the family as well. 

The Most-Merciful

Everything was going just fine with the fast, up until day four. I had to see a dentist on Thursday, and it turns out that I have to take a 5 day course of antibiotic for a some trouble with my gums. On Thursday evening I rang a Muslim woman who is also a General Practitioner in Colchester. I explained that I am fasting, but I have to take this antibiotic 3 times a day with food, which would interrupt my fast. She explained that Allah does not want us to suffer or to be in pain. Since I need the medicine, I should take it for 5 days and then resume the fast. I will then be able to make up the 5 missed days of fasting at another time in the year. She told me "Allah is Most-Merciful." Although I was very disappointed to break the fast, I suppose this is my chance to experience the tangible mercy and understanding of Allah during Ramadan.

Otherwise, I continue reading one "book" of the Quran per day, as there are 30 in total, and I learned recently that Muslims traditionally read one "book" of the Quran every day during Ramadan. These days my only comfort is found in prayer and Al-Quran. Relationships with my family and intimate friends feel unstable, along with my job situation. I feel at moments as if everything is falling apart, and I am powerless to hold it together. What would I do without belief that Allah is my Protector and Provider?

I spoke with my mother again about my conversion to Islam. She is so ashamed, and so disappointed. It must be painful for a parent who raises their child with a particular expectation, only to have their child drift far from it. I can't imagine how helpful it would be to have support from my family in this process. For a moment, my mother told me not to come home, if this were the case, but she did take it back in the end. I know she can't completely reject me, but her disapproval pains me very deeply. When everyone else abandons me, I know that my mother is most loyal. This is one instance in which Allah proves to be even more loyal than my own mother.

I Could Hear a Raindrop

This morning I overslept my 2:35am alarm until 3am, so I missed my chance to drink a few more cups of water just before the fast began. Nevertheless, the strength was given to me to keep the fast until 9:00pm this evening. At work my manager asked me if I would like a cup of tea, as she was going to make her own. I told her that I am fasting Ramadan. I could feel her disappointment that I am drawing closer to Islam; she was not successful at her attempt to make me a Jehovah's Witness. And with as much as she knows about Equal Opportunities in the workplace, she was critical of the Muslim's restriction from food and water for such a long period, particularly of water. I assured her that it is fine, and that I rehydrate after sundown. 

I did not feel overwhelmed, despite my manager's constant references to food. She loves to discuss recipes and memorable meals, and ironically today she seemed to dwell on the topic even more than usual. She munched on noisy fruits and snacks today - behind me I could hear her chewing her apple and other treats loudly. My stomach maintained a dull, empty ache throughout the whole day. She asked me why we can't eat food and drink water, and I tried to defend the exercise of self-discipline. 

Ramadan 2011 feels to me like a rite of passage to Islam. When I disclose to others that I am fasting, I have to explain my serious intent to convert to Islam, particularly at work, where I want to have a good reputation among my colleagues. Personally, knowing that Ramadan is one of Islam's five pillars leads me to consider it a challenge, which will reveal whether I have the stamina and self-discipline required by the faith.

I left work at 5 this evening, but arrived home 45 minutes later than usual due to late trains. The afternoon was hot, and my legs felt sore and weak, as I walked home. I took a refreshing shower, prayed Al-Dhuhr, studied Surat Al-Kursey, and decided to rest. When my alarm went off at 8:45pm, I thought it was morning, judging by the warm air drifting in my window, the birdsongs filling the air, and the look of the sky. The sun could just as well have been coming up, as going down. I was pleased to realise I had slept so soundly waiting for Al-Magrib. I got my dates, yoghurt, and water together on my desk waiting for 9:00pm. I washed in preparation for prayer. Minutes before the breaking of the fast, rain started to fall outside, exchanging the warm humidity for a refreshing cool breeze. My windows are still open now, and the rain is pouring heavily, with the meditative sound of a river rushing down a mountainside.

If only I could freely tell my family that I am fasting, and have their support. But since I don't, I have to conceal it, and constantly question my own convictions. I ask myself how I've gotten this far. When I first came to England, I could not even speak of God, especially not in relation to day to day life or activities. I had no religion, I only knew that my ties to Christianity had worn away, and Christianity raised more questions than answers for me. I also came to England with an interest in gaining a deeper of Islam through relationships with Muslim people, an opportunity that I had not had previously in the US. Before I left, someone commented that I would have to learn how to drink more alcohol if I planned to make friends in England. Even then, back in 2008 I remarked that this would not be necessary, because I would seek out good, Muslim friends. 

Some desire to be more politically aware, more religiously informed, more multi-culturally conscious translated into me seeking out Islam. I've learned a great deal about Indian and Hindu culture as well over these past few years, and about life all over the globe, but Islam drew me in quite uniquely, as if I could reconnect parts of who I was before religion completely let me down and lose hope. Can my family not be pleased that I will at least not live without religion, without any faith or spiritual discipline at all? 

Praying gives me a reason to get out of bed in the morning when nothing else does, and gives structure and meaning to my day. Islam makes me feel more responsible about how I treat myself, and how I treat others. But I can hardly imagine having my family's approval.

There is a First for Everything

Today is the first day of my first fasted Ramadan. I've been looking forward to Ramadan, preparing inwardly and outwardly. I'm fasting because I have come to appreciate Islam more since this time last year, when I was praying, but not fasting. Plane ticket prices gave me serious reason to delay my trip home until September, God-willing landing me back in my mother's home the day after Ramadan. I scoped out shops local to Finsbury Park, ensuring I know from where I can replenish my date supply. I've thought through a fasting routine that will be fairly compatible with my 9-5 work schedule. I have not asked my employer to change my working hours for the fast, although they may be willing to do so if I'm finding work difficult. 

I will set my alarm every morning 10-15 minutes prior to prayer Al-Fajr, so that I can hydrate myself before the fasting begins with a couple glasses of water, and maybe a small final bite to eat. For tomorrow morning, I will set my alarm for 2:35am, giving me 11 minutes before the fast will begin. I will pray at 2:46am, and then return to sleep until I have to wake up for work. I am up and out of the door by 8:10am, consciously ignoring the jug of water on the table in my room, and I catch the 8:18am train. I ignore the sounds of spoons stirring the tea in surrounding mugs at work - on Friday of last week I brought home my mug and tea from work, to exlude the thought from my routine. I only think to myself that person down the hall has a yummy smelling lunch, and keep in mind that my chance will come after dark. I still take my 'lunch' break, but use the time to pray Al-Dhuhr, rest my eyes from the computer screen, work on memorizing one of the four Quranic passages that I intend to memorize this month, and go shopping for my evening meal. 

Today I felt hungry and thirsty, but I was not hurting. I had enough strength and energy to accomplish my required tasks at work, and I even stayed late without much trouble. I felt motivated to fast, and to pursue the self-discipline that Ramadan is able to teach. I want to be calm and patient with others, and hope to not to become short-tempered because I am hungry and thirsty. Today went well enough with the office to myself, and I hope that tomorrow will go just as well, even though my manager will be back to share the office with me.

I'm bewildered at how Islam can turn a life upside down, moving far beyond the reminders of Allah that the 5 daily prayers function as. Here are a billion or so of the world's people, eating and drinking at night when they would normally sleep, in fulfillment of one of Islam's pillars of faith. I'm telling you that I'm drinking water like a fish during these short hours of darkness. It won't be until 9pm tomorrow evening that I'll be able to sip water or consume food. Like last night, I feel nervous now that I will fail somehow tomorrow. I need to draw strength from someone beyond myself.

My sadness this Ramadan is that I'm honouring the ritual in solitude. Ramadan is a characteristically social event, with families and friends typically gathering every evening to break the fast and pray and eat together. It turns out that my housemate who I don't speak to very much is Muslim and is fasting, but we are not close. She is much younger than me, and we don't connect very well. I soak in the visible presence of Muslims who I see in my transit to and from work. I see hijabs and beards and recognize that they are fasting too, for the same reason that I am, and I feel more motivated to go on.

I have a limited budget, and I do not expect that I'll be able to travel to Colchester and break the fast with friends from the Islamic Society there, as I had hoped. The local shopkeepers do not scorn me for walking into their jobs without a dress reaching my shoes and my hair covered. Instead they greet me warmly "Asalaamu aleikum!" as if I am just as welcome into Islam as they are. I wish that one day I could achieve such a hospitable and nonjudgmental character. The butcher who sells me the Halal meat for my Greek dishes smiled widely at me today, and asked me how Ramadan is going. I smiled too, and thanked God it is going well. He and his colleagues call me "Sister." His shop was packed full of men and women, buying up meat and ingredients for their large family meals. I took home a half kilo of minced beef to pump some protein into my moussaka. Since I'm eating it alone, it should last me all week long.

It is common knowledge in Islam that the Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) broke his fast with dates, and something comparable to yogurt. At 9:01pm this evening I clumsily sliced open the air tight package of dates from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and scrambled my fingers inside to catch one. I ate them slowly, and I didn't eat as many as I thought I would. When I eat them on the normal afternoon after coming home from work, I usually can hardly stop myself. These dates were the most delicious I've ever tasted, and I had to push myself to eat 5. How peculiar, after an entire day of fasting. I then enjoyed some Greek yogurt with honey, and gulped that down a little easier, since it was cool and I was very thirsty.

It was more than an hour after those dates and yogurt that I decided to enjoy a corn on the cob, and another hour still before I ate a piece of moussaka. Now I'm waiting for my peppermint tea to cool, and eyeing the Koulourakia (Greek cookies) that I baked last Friday evening. I was going to wait until 2:35am to indulge, but who can scarf down cookies after being woken from a deep sleep in the dead of night, knowing they need to rest up for a long day of work? I detect a good excuse to enjoy these cookies with my tea.

So far, the two main challenges that I'm struggling with relate to my current living arrangement, and losing sleep. First, I'm living with a young couple, their mother in law, and their baby. The kitchen is just beside the baby's room, so it's impossible for me to feel comfortable climbing up and down two flights of creaking stairs and tinkering around the kitchen while everyone, including the baby, is sleeping. Second, I'm tired. To drink up enough water and eat slowly I have to stay up late - maybe I'll lay down in my bed at 1:30am, to wake up briefly for 20 minutes, and then get back to sleep.

I will end this entry the way that I will end my day, with one of the passages that I wish to memorize this month, Surat Al-Kursey. The key line of this surat (verse) proclaims that Allah's seat extends over the heavens and earth. Scholars note that the Arabic word for seat used in this passage denotes a seat much more modest than the majestic throne of Allah. The Muslim stands in awe of how just the humble seat of Allah already engulfs the heavens and the earth. How much more, then, can we make of Allah's throne?

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