Six post-Ramadan lessons from a pair of mediocre Muslims

Quran and prayer beads (Shaikh Mohammed Meraj via Getty Images)

I’m Sima, I’m 23 and I’m a pretty casual Shia Muslim. I was born in Toronto, have lived in various parts of Canada and come from an Iranian background. I did not fast this year but I’m wishing a Happy Eid Al-Fitr to all my fellow Muslims who did!

I’m Farah, I’m 35 and I’m a casual Sunni Muslim. I was born in Toronto, raised in Markham and come from an in Indian-Pakistani background. This year, for the first time in years, I challenged myself to keep almost every fast in Ramadan and succeeded! Please, come eat with me!

So, it’s done. Ramadan has come and gone, and gone with it are the early mornings of rising to eat before dawn, persistently empty stomachs and a solid case of daily “hanger” as you struggle to keep your fast throughout the Holy Month. It may not seem like we’ll miss very much, but as the long days passed, we two mediocre Muslims  that is, Muslims who consider ourselves fairly casual and relaxed in our practice  sat down to talk about what makes this month extraordinary  not just this year, but every year. The lessons we’ve learned have changed our views on food, religion and most importantly: life.

A boy is presented with the gift of money from his grandparents as part of the Islamic celebration of Eid al-Fitr in Malaysia. (Jgalione via Getty Images)

Solidifying your relationship with God

A Muslim’s relationship with God is of utmost importance year-round, but Ramadan is an ideal time to focus within yourself and strengthen that relationship. Despite being pretty casual in our practice of Islam  neither of us wear hijab, we don’t pray five times a day, the list goes on  we both agree that we value our relationships with God more during the Holy Month. How could we not? We’ve watched our parents go through tough times and pull themselves out with the strength of their unwavering faith and dedication they pour into Ramadan.

Farah: As I’ve grown older, I think I’ve gained more of a spiritual connection to Islam, and appreciated the values  like discipline, patience, generosity, compassion, and kindness  more than the exact readings or the exact practice of praying five times a day. The element of discipline comes back in there where I think our lives are so cluttered and busy that something like [fasting during Ramadan] slows you down and allows you to focus in and I think that’s really the appeal to it for me.

Sima: I like the idea of a God and a higher power. I like believing in that, it gives me comfort. There are a couple verses of the Quran that I’ve memorized because my dad taught them to me when I was little and it’s these two verses that I actually know and can always recite when I need to … I was never drawn to the super-rigid rules of Islam, but I feel like the spirituality and the overall values of our religion have really resonated with me my whole life. And that’s what I hold onto, and what I would like to keep holding onto as I grow older and that’s why I like to use Ramadan as a time to learn more about Islam every day.

Patience is the most important thing

Ramadan is about patience. Patience for your body when the hunger pangs wrack you in the first couple of days, patience for yourself when you make mistakes, patience when things don’t always work out, and, patience for your fellow humans.

Son asking his mother for forgiveness as part of the Islamic celebration of Eid al-Fitr (Getty Images)

Sima: There are days when something happens and I want to snap at a person or complain about something and then in the moment I manage to calm myself down. I’m like “No, it’s Ramadan … try to have more patience.” It’s hard and obviously God doesn’t expect anyone to be perfect, so it would be foolish for me to expect myself to be. But when I can, I remind myself to be a little more patient and careful with the people around me, whether it’s not snapping at my mom for asking about my life choices or letting my dad ramble on about whatever contrary opinion is on his mind.

Farah: Because our lives are so fast-moving, even things like when people don’t message me back fast enough grates me. I’m like, “Really, you read my message three hours ago but you can’t message back?” I’m trying to be more chill about it when it’s Ramadan.

More from HuffPost Canada:

Every Muslim is unique and that’s OK

There are 1.8 billion Muslims in the world — obviously there’s no way every single one of those people would practice the same way, and they shouldn’t have to. Non-Muslims need to understand that no two Muslims are alike, but we also need to understand our fellow Muslims come in all shapes and sizes, and that all the major internal divisions are usually caused by fairly minor differences  who believed what 1,400 years ago, what position we should pray in, etc. when it comes to the bigger picture of life, none of that should matter.

Farah: I don’t wear a hijab, but I have family members who wear hijab and I have family members who wear niqabs too and they’re all very interesting in their practice. I can see their reasons why they do it. They feel they’re closer to God with a covering, if they take the attention off themselves, they’ll have that much more energy to devote go their practice of Islam.

Muslim friends eating at a cafe.

Sima: My dad is a lot more stick-to-the-rules  prays five times a day, reads the Quran often, does Ramadan every year, goes to the mosque when he can … He’s very traditional, whereas my mom stopped wearing her hijab years ago. I don’t think I’ve really ever seen her read a Quran except for during specific spiritual things like at a mosque or if she’s looking for positive energy for something like someone’s first day of school.

Farah: The whole idea of Islam is you have your relationship with God and nobody really stands with you in that sense. I always feel kind of sad because sometimes I don’t think people understand that. Which is ironic, because one of the major things in Islam too is not to judge other people, so it’s a shame.

Sima: It’s not my business to judge how somebody else acts or reacts or interacts with God. The only thing that’s my business is to deal with how I want to communicate with God or feel connected to God.

It’s not about the food

Once the final slivers of sunlight dip beneath the horizon, it’s easy to stock up your plate when you’ve been dreaming of Iftar  the moment at sundown when Muslims break fast  all day. But then something strange happens, you take a single bite, savour it, and … you’re full. It’s a travesty of gastronomical proportions  a stomach shrunken from a lack of food can only handle so much.

Farah: For my mom, it’s all about setting up Iftar. There’s certain foods we won’t see all year  like her special egg rolls  except for during Ramadan. She goes all out, lays out the table cloth, sets up the moment we can eat. And then, we don’t eat all of it.

A typical iftar feast in Ramadan (Farah Syed)

Sima: My dad is not a feast person. He says, “I just need some dates and tea to break my fast and I’m good.” He’s not about the giant meal, he thinks it’s oppositional to the spirit of things. He’s really simple, he’ll have some bread and cheese.

You realize during Ramadan the payoff isn’t the food itself  it’s the people you share it with, the deep roots of tradition and how you can use your struggle to help others.

Sima: When I was in Iran, it was almost celebratory. Every night, we’d go to a different relative’s house, and we’d have a giant spread for Iftar. By the time we broke the fast everyone was super excited. It was such a fun atmosphere.

There are always people who cook a lot of food during Ramadan  even while fasting  and give it to charity. That goes back to the core values of restraint and discipline in Islam, and that’s really what it’s all about.

How to give what you can’t have (Thanks, Mom and Dad)

Our parents grew up in predominantly Muslim countries  Iran and Pakistan where the entire society shifts to accommodate fasting during Ramadan: stores open later and work starts in the middle of the day. When the call for prayer rings out, everything and everyone goes still. It’s a wonder, then, that our parents, after immigrating to Canada, didn’t get lost in the frenzied pace of the Western world; that they continued to fast in the face of early hours, late nights and calls for prayer drowned out by the noise of bustling cities and screaming kids.

Especially as we, their second-generation kin, struggled to follow their lead.

Farah: I always thought, “How am I going to get through the day?” Around 3 p.m., I’m ready to take a nap.

Sima: I gave up fasting because I had a lot of jobs in university serving food and I couldn’t fast while serving sandwiches all day. It felt like too much of an exercise in self-flagellation to be on my feet all day, making the most delicious-looking lunches, not even able to get a sip of water or nibble on a tomato myself.

Muslim family waits for Iftar food during Ramadan. (Getty Images)

One of the most humbling sights during Ramadan is watching your parents cook for you, while you absolve yourself of the fast because it’s just “too hard.”

Sima: We always say, “You don’t have to make food,” but my Dad says, “You guys are my kids, it’s part of discipline, of course I’m going to cook for you.”

Suddenly, you really feel the heat from that samosa in the pan. Your eyes zone in on the steady flip of an omelette from a hand that feeds, but cannot be fed. In the absence of their own sustenance, our parents sustain us.

Farah: It’s a gift, a form of giving back, which is key to the spirit of Ramadan.

Sima: It comes back to the concept of mind-over-matter, and carrying on your normal life. You would still feed your kids if it wasn’t Ramadan. It’s not about putting your life on hold, it’s about forging through.

The gift of time

As a kid, rising before the crack of dawn to eat for Ramadan was exhilarating. You could steal back the minutes lost from an early bedtime and read an extra chapter of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with a flashlight under the covers. Eating wasn’t the priority, prolonging the moment was.

As an adult, the burden of the day’s responsibilities looms and you crave extra minutes in bed, not to yank yourself out for a full breakfast at an obscene hour.

Traditional dawn awakeners known as “mesaharati” beat drums and chant religious songs to wake up Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan in Cairo, Egypt on June 14, 2016. (AFP/Getty Images)

The beauty of Ramadan is it gives you back the gift of “the moment.” It feels like a curse in the first few days  the minutes are long, the hunger pangs seemingly never abating. But all that time normally spent thinking about food, preparing food, and eating food – is now yours for the taking. Food is a joyful and abundant blessing, but we don’t think about the mental and physical hours it takes up, until it isn’t a part of the day. It’s another chapter read, an extra phone call, or a quiet moment for yourself. It’s the choice, the option, the chance.

It’s the most freeing feeling during Ramadan to look up at the clock and be gifted with what we all crave: just a little more time.

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