In my fifteen years of fasting, I was mostly going through the motions. Sure, I knew that Ramadan was a time for increased God-consciousness, but last month I learned the difference between knowing something and feeling something. This Ramadan, I felt it.
Reaching a level of spirituality at which I felt a connection to my Creator in my bones required preparation. Just as we begin each fast with a niyaat (or intention), I also commenced this year’s Ramadan with a niyaat.
Two days before the most blessed month on the Islamic calendar arrived, I came across an article on the media platform GOOD, “Why My Ramadan Fast Is a Reminder to Not Be an Asshole.” The article beautifully articulated many of the ideas I associate with Ramadan: recognizing privilege, practicing compassion and, of course, seeking nearness to God. Inspired, I took a moment and made a deliberate intention to be more mindful in my prayers and in my actions towards others in the coming 30 days. Little did I know how important that small act would be.
One of my favorite quotes comes from the poem Invictus: “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.” As the captain of my soul, I need to be constantly mindful of the direction in which I am steering it, and I figured there could be no better time than Ramadan, a time of self-examination and transformation, to recalibrate my spiritual compass.
Ramadan during my college years was difficult to say the least. I felt lost and lonely. It was my first time living away from home and since my roommates and I were not close, the support I had grown accustomed to at home—the sleepy sunrise meals around the kitchen table, the smells of savory iftar snacks wafting through the house in the early evening, and the prayer rugs neatly laid out side by side in the living room, one for each member of the family, for the evening prayer—suddenly disappeared. I continued to fast, but the enthusiasm and sense of community eluded me.
This year, I was 22 and new to Washington, D.C. I had moved only a month prior to the start of Ramadan and, much like my freshman year at college, I brought with me excitement tinged with anxiety. I had learned my lesson though and was determined not to walk into Ramadan unprepared. Prior to the move, I had contacted relatives and young Muslim friends and acquaintances with whom I could socialize during the fasting month, because, as any Muslim will tell you, these 30 days are both deeply personal and social. I was pleasantly surprised by the hospitality and warmth of the Muslims in the area, including my roommate’s friends, many of whom invited me into their homes to open the fast. I began to unearth a part of my identity that I had tucked out of sight from most people during college.
Islam does not simply begin and end with one’s relationship with her Creator. Socializing with other Muslims during Ramadan afforded me an opportunity to refine the half of my faith that asks me to serve my fellow man with kindness and compassion. This Ramadan, with the plight of Muslims in other parts of the world particularly salient, I felt compelled to serve the Muslim community, even in some small way. When an opportunity to help my college Muslim community presented itself, I pushed through the usual inertia that would have kept me sitting on the couch, and joined Muslim Student Life at Syracuse University, a group of alumni organizing a non-profit to establish a full-time Muslim chaplain on campus. I thought, perhaps a person who can gently guide Muslim students over the spiritual and emotional hurdles that are part and parcel of the college years would ease some of their isolation, the very same isolation I had felt just four short years earlier. Soon after, I also joined the staff here at altMuslimah to facilitate the power of storytelling in creating greater understanding across both gendered and geographic borders. Fittingly, the groups I joined try to help other Muslims feel connected to one another and their Creator, which is precisely what I, myself, was seeking this Ramadan.
Starting with a niyaat for the entire month of Ramadan was a deceptively small, simple action that had a profound impact in my day-to-day life. My mindfulness towards my faith allowed me to cultivate bonds with other Muslims, own my religious identity freely and with pride, and share my faith with non-Muslims. Upon inquiring about my fasting for the month of Ramadan, several of my non-Muslim friends remarked to me how moved they were by the month’s spirit of service and my observance of it. Niyaat not only gave me purpose, it gave me perspective.
Photo Source: Walt Stoneburner
Firdaus Arastu is an Assistant Editor at altMuslimah.