Ramadan: How to Connect Even When You Can’t Fast

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Dates and bread from the zawiya of Sheikh Muhammad Ibn al-Habib, may Allah sanctify his secret.

It’s that time again, the month where Muslims empty their bodies during the day and try to clear their hearts so as to become vessels that fill up the mercy that falls continuously, subtly, but – if you are watchful for it – is definitely palpable.

For the last nine years, I’ve tried to cadge a couple of Ramadans between babies, even – two separate years – squeezed in several days before realising I was pregnant (the last time it was only the kidney pain that alerted me to a false negative pregnancy test).

Though someone fasting 22 + hours in a Scandinavian country might want to punch me in the nose for saying this, it’s hard not to be able to fast again.

“Hard? Being excused because of breastfeeding is hard?? Grr…and we’re trying not to get angry!! Razzafrazzarazzafrazz….”

Ahem, well, the reasons behind the rukhsa (dispensation) is that breastfeeding is hard on the body anyway, as are all the conditions that excuse people from fasting (menstruation, pregnancy, illness, travelling, old age…) just as each one comes with its own gifts.

But not fasting yet another Ramadan is a reminder that I am always slightly on the edge of the Islamic community, at least on a temporal level. As European Muslims we tread an awkward path, with one foot among our spiritual brethren and one among our cultural brethren – and I for one don’t want to cut myself from either.

Fasting among people who think you’re dotty as the day is long is harder than going without food and water during the day. Explaining, being patient with other people’s judgements, bearing up even when you have to fast alone, all that is more exhausting than getting up early in the morning to have breakfast.

Not being the toughest of old beans, I’ve always tended towards keeping my faith fairly private, talking when asked but trying not to be too ostensible about it in order to avoid uncomfortable stares and unpleasant comments. It is cowardly of me. But it’s been my coping mechanism, a way to focus on God in all circumstances rather than be distracted by the waves I’m making.

So it’s comforting to be among other Muslims who share your experiences. Having lived through many a Ramadan in which I wasn’t part of a supportive community – one of which, at university, I had suhur and iftar every day alone (possibly the most depressing month of my life) – when Ramadan comes around I get excited about group iftars, which always turn into a party, no matter how drained people were ten minutes before.

Yet, as Muslims will always remind you, fasting is not about hunger per se: we empty ourselves of the world in order to be filled up with the Divine Presence. Like the ney, we realise our emptiness in order to let God make music through us.

It’s hard to have that experience if you’re working, say, at the checkout of a McDonald’s drivethrough. Fasting is the ideal time for reflection, study and prayer; you could say it super-charges your experience of them.

So, if for whatever reason you can’t fast, and if you can’t or don’t want to shut yourself away in a Muslim-only environment in order to make the most of Ramadan, how can you still feel connected to it?

Yesterday I was determined to go to tarawih prayers, having only the baby to look after, but he was too tired and grouchy to justify going. What’s the point of dragging miserable children to long prayers near midnight? I think it would probably put many kids (and the adults who have to put up with their crying) off praying altogether.

On the other hand, there is so much grace for people who are in service. The Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said that “Allah is in service to the servant for as long as he (or she) is in service”; and that for anyone who wakes in the night to attend to their weeping child it is equivalent to seventy years of prayer. (Finally, a reason to be thankful for teething!)

I need to be reminded at times that being in a state of worship does not necessarily mean being in a place of worship, or even physically engaged in visible prayer. For centuries we have associated religion with outward forms, when it is clear just from those two hadiths mentioned above (and there are hundreds more like them – “An hour of contemplation is worth a year of prayer“, etc. etc.) that connecting to the Divine can happen at any time, in any circumstances, by anyone.

That’s not to diminish the importance of outward worship, of course. I just can’t see how a Just, Kind, Forgiving, Loving God would be so unfair as to reserve these rewards only for people who have no hindrances to performing it.

I discovered recently that the root of the English word ‘mysticism’ is the Greek musein, meaning ‘to close the eyes and lips’. It might refer partly to fasting, for sure, but I think it also means fasting from looking around at the world, fasting from the desires that follow on from that, fasting from meaningless talk, and generally just shutting up and letting Reality reveal itself.

Rumi said, “Fast from thoughts, fast: thoughts are like the lion and the wild ass; men’s hearts are the thickets they haunt.”

………..

(That’s the sound of me shutting up.)

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7 thoughts on “Ramadan: How to Connect Even When You Can’t Fast

  1. Beautiful! Mil gracias, siempre con el dardo en la diana. May The Greatest accepts your willing to be connected

  2. Thanks for this post!
    I’ve missed two Ramadans already because I have a kid; I wanted to fast this Ramadan but she’s still breastfeeding. Trying to fast while breastfeeding is not easy..although I feel so guilty!
    Especially because I was shamed by a family member recently who said I have to fast if Im breastfeeding and that I can’t give fidya.
    So this post definitely makes me feel better and not alone. Especially you pointing out how being in a state of worship doesnt mean you have to be in a place or worship.

    Hope you’re having a wonderful ramadan so far! ❤

    • Argh, the guilt trips…we’re going to have lots onto make up when our kids are older that’s for sure, but I really don’t think it’s good for the body to breastfeed while fasting, not unless you’re a kind of human camel.the baby will get the milk they need at the expense of your reserves and when the days a so long and the nights so short there isn’t hardly any time to make up for it. Besides, keeping an eye on kids, unless you have someone who can do it for you in the day time, usually means you can’t get a siesta in, which really adds to the exhaustion. Before baby number three came along I did one Ramadan pretty much alone with two young ones, in summer Spanish heat, it I had to break it like every third day because my head was spinning so much I didn’t feel capable of being responsible for them. Driving anywhere in those conditions was positively dangerous. And that was without breastfeeding, so I don’t know how people think we’re going to manage. In any case it’s between the faster and Allah, you can just smile and nod if people poke their noses in! May you benefit from the baraka of Ramadan regardless xxx

  3. Ramadan Karim to you, (from a small village in the north of England where no one else is fasting). So sorry I missed the opportunity to hear you at bradford lit. festival.Having not started straight away this year away I totally understand this, it’s the strangest of feelings when you are not fasting and feel you should or want too so much to be. The combination of heat and length this year if you are breastfeeding just doesn’t sound feasible. Remember the way to paradise is through the ‘souls’ of the Mother’s feet because of all you sacrifice. May you have a beautiful ramadan in any way you make it this year.All the best, Tamsin xx

    • Ramadan Mubarak to you too! It’s very hard to do it when there are few if any people to support you in it, I remember well…even now when I have a strong community around, people still sometimes get isolated for one reason or another. But the number of times I’ve read some Sufi master recommending being apart from people as the key to spiritual enlightenment, it must have its good points. I still wonder every day, is there any way I could do it? It feels like cheating to have lunch! But with the amount the Cavebaby feeds I would find myself collapsing for sure. Maybe there are some women whose bodies can handle it but since every drop of milk is istighfar, surely that is some kind of compensation. May it be easy for you to fast and may you have unseen companions of light to give you a better community than any other! Amin

      • I love that idea of having unseen companions. How beautiful 🙂 Yes for some years I craved to move to a community which would be the same as me but I think there is wisdom in being isolated and being apart from people has so many benefits of finding the clear and straight path inshallah. Your cave baby is the next generation and there is hikma (?) Wisdom in mothers milk so everything you do is passing on inshallah. x

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