The Ramadan of My Discontent

How To Ramadan:

 Strategize a game plan to rack up the spiritual highs. Break it up in three ten-day segments.

 First find mercy. Abstain from food and drink for 17 hours. Make your prayers – and on time.

 Next, seek forgiveness. Think about where you will be making Taraweeh prayers. Ask others where they are reading their Taraweeh prayers. (Added benefits: any benefits to your personal aura by coming off as the type of person who thinks about where to pray night prayers.)

 Finally, secure refuge. Attend lots of iftar parties and more than several fundraising dinners that all blend one into the next. Immerse yourself in the warm fuzziness of belonging to a community. Find it easy to stay up for Tahajjud prayer. Afterwards, read the Ramadan duas you wrote down in your phone.

 Attain Ramadan spiritual high.

Over the past many years, that has been my strategy for taking on Ramadan. It’s been a game plan that has by and large worked for me as a way of grasping some semblance of faith-affirming spirituality and a closer connection to God.

Blame it on a winning combination of grisly factors – exhaustion finally being realized, countless social injustices witnessed, unwanted missives related to a former marriage, watching my children endure heartbreak, and getting dangerously close to the straw that breaks the camel back – this year has been different. Any vain attempts to “find Ramadan” through the navigated, proven, and traditional ways have largely been wasted efforts.

Forget finding Ramadan, losing God has been effortless.

Saying that out loud as an adult is terrifying. As a non-adolescent, as someone who should have the maturity and experience it takes to push through a crisis of faith, as someone who resents apathy, acknowledging my latest failure at faith only buries me deeper in my inability to connect, especially in a month where seemingly everyone around me is basking in the warm glow of Ramadan.

Where do you go when all the prayers, all the words, all the articles, all the khutbas, all the recitation, all the advice adds up to blank spaces and a deepening anger and internal isolation? Unlike my faith crises of adolescence, I already know it is foolish to seek advice from “sage” religious leaders on how to access the on-ramp to a spiritual path. Telling me that the sin lies within me and my salvation lies in simply praying more and returning to the tried and tested path is laughable at best.

Praying isn’t going to pay the bills. Praying isn’t going to take away my daughter’s sadness. Praying isn’t going to change the fact that I stayed in a destructive marriage for far too long. Praying isn’t going to change the utterly ignorable poverty or the decaying city streets I see everywhere around me as I drive to my job at a gothic, ivory tower. Praying won’t change my ability to answer my 7-year-old’s question about why all the people in Hyde Park are white and have nice houses and all the people outside of it are black and don’t have nice houses. Praying won’t take away the unwanted mail that still associates me with a man who abandoned me long ago. Praying won’t take away the stupid questions. Praying won’t take away the exhaustion. Praying won’t take away the fact that all too often complexity gets reduced to mundane, simplistic slogans. Praying won’t change the news. Praying won’t erase the deeply flawed decisions that I’ve made in my life without the assistance or influence of any devil.

This year I’m failing Ramadan, myself, my quest for any semblance of spirituality, and God so badly that even in these first 15 days I already know that surely the mercy, forgiveness, and refuge that are otherwise there for the taking in Ramadan are completely and entirely lost to me.

**

This morning I drove by Lake Michigan on my way to work and paid attention to the color of the waves just as I do every single morning. As I sat in traffic, a reel re-played in my head from a recent video I saw of the Chicago skyline taken by a drone camera. The four-minute time-lapse film, taken mostly in broad daylight, captured both the ever-changing and the consistencies found within, around, and above this city by a lake over the course of the past few summer months. Something in remembering the video invoked a sense of awe and Godly gentleness.

Even the notorious Chicago weather and the most violent of summer storms have purpose and follow a pattern, however filled with havoc it may be. My lack of acknowledgment of what happens all around me – in the sky, in the water, in the air – does not negate its existence or impact on my life. Summer storms, frightening as they are, are a thing of wonderment and beauty. This cannot be negotiated. Weather cannot be strategized against.

My own personal, spiritual storm pales in comparison to the weather and light patterns that surround a city. Yet, there is also awe to be found within the evolving patterns of my own consciousness and relationship with God. Just as one sits down to watch a summer storm descend in all its madness and beauty, maybe I just need to succumb to my own storm long enough to watch and observe it. In observing it, perhaps I’ll know that this storm too is predetermined, necessary, cooling, and perfectly good.

My circumstances may be ever-changing but the consistency is that as angry as I might get, I cannot lose God. He is above me, below me, around me, and without me. He is always near, even in the distance. Perhaps attaining mercy, forgiveness, and refuge don’t need to be broken into three ten-day chunks. Instead, it might arrive in a single moment, a single moment in a blessed, blessed month.

And so, in the remaining days of this month, maybe I will realize that this Ramadan the distance was the blessing, the mercy, the forgiveness, and my refuge. Maybe some Ramadan years from now, I’ll know that this was the beginning of the maturity of my own faith. It takes experience to know the difference between the things you can change and the things you cannot change.

Just like the weather, you can’t negotiate away God and you can’t lose what was never gone.

 

As the Executive Director of Arete at the University of Chicago, Samar Kaukab works to launch complex initiatives that enhance UChicago’s research enterprise. She has three children and two step-children. 

14 Comments

  • Excellent essay! Thank you for your words – makes me feel I’m not the only one who struggles in finding the perfect Ramadan.
    May the blessings of Ramadan continue to shower upon you and your family.

  • ssss12345S says:

    Loved this. Wonderful mashAllah.

  • wd says:

    dear Samar, I first spotted a paragraph from your piece on the inclusive mosque initiative, and now came across the whole thing here. is it weird to say thank you for sharing? your honesty is all kinds of beautiful that we don’t often get to see, or gets pushed under the prayer mat a lot.
    i’m hoping and praying that your circumstances change for the better – that you weather the storm, and somewhere along the way find that there is less sadness, that there are more answers, that there are more good days than bad ones.
    With regards to your faith, you already summed that up best yourself – God isn’t going anywhere, He’ll be there if and when you are able to be with Him again.
    Best wishes, w

    • Samar Kaukab says:

      Dear WD, thank you for your kind and encouraging comment. Thankfully, there are far more good days than bad ones alh, but even the bad ones are worth diving into and probing. Best wishes to you and yours!

  • Terry Makitang says:

    There are a good amount of Black people in Hyde Park, 18% quite honestly.

    • Resident says:

      In fact, I am one of them.

    • Samar Kaukab says:

      Yes, Hyde Park absolutely is a wonderfully diverse place to live and work. I’m a big fan. 🙂 The line in my essay has more to do with the observations of my daughter comparing Hyde Park to our own neighborhood and the neighborhoods we drive through. Best wishes to you and thanks for reading.

  • The number one flaw is expecting there to be a perfect Ramadan. There isn’t. Perfection is whatever lofty goal we have in our minds eye – but it should not define you. Sometimes we expect too much from ourselves and this makes it tough when we fall short. Yes, when going through trials and afflictions, it can seem as though we have lost our way. We feel disconnected from Allah – but know He is ALWAYS there like you said and always near. Prayer doesn’t make your problems go away – but done with a sincere heart, Allah will open doors for you that you never thought possible. I too have gone through a painful separation and divorce, have two kids who even 4 years later STILL cry. They ask questions I dont know the answer to. Before I left him, I was holding onto my faith by the skin of my teeth. I just about managed my salah which I never missed, but inside I was in deep turmoil. Then a sister told me about the power of istighfar, and since then, I have never looked back. I tried to open a business in a particular area, and after almost a year of trying, broke and frustrated, the doors shut. Abundant istighfar opened NEW doors for me which I never expected – and slowly but surely my life started to improve. I didn’t get everything I wanted, but I certainly got everything I needed.

    I would say to anyone going through trials and personal struggles in their faith to never give up. Now my faith is so much stronger than it ever was, and with that, my life has dramatically improved. Many times prayers were answered immediately, others were answered in years. My life is far from perfect, but its in the gratitude of the smallest of things where I have found happiness. The biggest lessons I have learnt about life is that it is not happiness that makes you grateful – rather being grateful for even the smallest of blessings which makes you happy. Life is fragile, our souls and are minds are also fragile. We need prayer to help strengthen this fragility and you find a deep sense of comfort knowing that you talk about your problems with your Lord and He listens. May Allah make it easy for you ameen.

  • Samar Kaukab says:

    Thank you for your comment and sharing your own inspiring story. Ramadan Mubarak to you and your loved ones!

  • Omar says:

    Salaam sister Samar,

    Thank you for writing this. You put into words that many feel, but never say. “The most urgent conversations are those people refuse to have.”

    I’d like to share two ideas.

    The beauty of God is wondrous, Awe inspiring, and everywhere, just as you said in nature.

    And through the ups and downs, He takes care of us.

    A book you may enjoy is here.

    http://www.rashedlightsways.com/creative-writing/for-the-love-of-god/

    On the flip side, people can suck. Even (maybe especially) “religious” people. And people have so closely tied what religion is with what so called religious people do, its disconcerting. Off-putting.

    My wife and I were talking about this phenomenon. Many live dual lives. In the mosque / out of mosque. With Muslims/ with non-Muslims. As if you have to be someone else for “the aunties”.

    I wrote a poem about unwelcoming houses of worship. This particular poem was inspired when I, as a teen, was told to get out of the masjid in Ramadan if I didn’t pray taraweeh (optional). No, the irony is not lost on me; this is a Night of Power (Laylatul Qadr).

    The closing lines read:

    I see why the people of God
    In so many circles
    Are outside
    The houses of God.

    They’ve been thrown out.
    Evicted.
    No Notice.
    Condemned.

    Building Houses.
    Condemning People.
    Religious Hypocrisy since 10,000 BCE.

    I guess my message is don’t lose hope in God, find people who love God for God,
    And not for the eyes of aunties. Sincerity is so important, and many have Pharisee tendencies.

    If you’re looking for such a community, this might be a start.

    http://www.RashedLightsWays.com

    Praying for peace on your path.

    Wasalam,

    – Omar

    Traveling Joyfully
    “On the journey of life, However you ride, enjoy the ride, and get there safe and sound.”
    http://www.RashedLightsWays.com

  • SK says:

    Salaam 🙂 I was really struggling early this Ramadan as well. Everything felt very formulaic. Spending time with family and experiencing Ramadan abroad helped. Listening to Qawwalis really helped too. Something I wouldn’t normally do in Ramadan. Still the nagging thoughts of my previous misjudgments creep their way into my prayers and make me question what the truth is and whether my reality and relationship with Allah is really based on truth or my own personal biases. But then slowly slowly after praying and listening to the Qur’an you learn to surrender your thoughts and fears bit by bit. I’m learning to let go and accept all my mistakes and who I am as a person. Mistakes have humbled me and made me realize I need all the help I can get from loved ones and through prayer. Prayer doesn’t erase the past but those quiet intimate moments alone with Allah can be a healing, nourishing balm on old wounds, which is sometimes enough to get you through the storm. Hope that’s somewhat helpful 😊

  • Halah says:

    Dear Samar, Assalamu Alaikum 🙂
    I am so glad and grateful for such a thoroughly honest public reflection–it’s the kind of thing that makes many hearts feel ease in honesty with their own similar and frightening feelings and unspoken thoughts or convictions.
    I am not commenting to give any criticism, but just to offer something that perhaps may lend comfort, inshAllah.

    I have a teacher in some matters of Islamic fiqh and spiritual guidance who said that the Prophet (pbuh) has gone through any of the number of difficulties we may have faced. Whether losing a child, losing the respect of loved ones and even relatives, public humiliation, violence against him and harassment, and crying for God to have mercy on the ones he loved and loves both among his sahabah, family, and the ummah to come whom he would not see. The Prophet (pbuh) endured these things even as a Prophet of God, and had a prayer that asked God that if his challenge was meant as an expiation for sins for God to forgive him, and if his challenge was meant as a test, to give him patience (and Allah A’lam, I do not wish to misquote as I paraphrase). In one particular instance, it was perhaps a season of the Prophet’s (pbuh) “discontent,” so to speak. There are a couple of accounts relates to this, but the Prophet (pbuh) in the Makkan period had not received revelation for 6 months. While he had started out on his path of prophethood, started out in the often humiliating opposition with his family, tribe, and others to tell people about the Message of Allah (swt), for six months it seemed God had abandoned him. And without God, what was he doing? In fact, some of the disbelievers suggested to him that his Lord hated him and therefore suspended his miraculous revelations. It was a period of loneliness and questioning even for the Prophet of Allah (pbuh). And then Allah (swt) revealed Surah Ad-Duha:

    “By the day, full of light,1 and the night when it falls peacefully,2 your Lord has not forsaken you (O Prophet), nor is He displeased.
    And surely the later period is better for you than the earlier period,4 and soon your Lord shall give you so much that you shall be well pleased.
    Did He not find you an orphan and then he sheltered you?6 And He found you unaware of the Way, then He guided you,7 and He found you poor, then He enriched you.8 Therefore, do. not be harsh to the orphan,9 and do not scold the beggar,10 and do proclaim the bounty of your Lord.”

    In fact, it becomes a reassurance for all believers, I think, in the periods of their greatest discontent. God has not forsaken you, nor is He displeased….so proclaim the bounty of your Lord.” And beyond that, I think you find your renewing revelation in the moments like the one you described of the lake. Observe your blessing and know that God, like you say is always present and has promised to give you so much that you will be content and even well pleased.
    I find this story reassuring and I hope it has some benefit for you–from Allah inshAllah.

    Check out more on the story of Surah Ad-Duha if you’re interested, and thanks for sharing your reflection. May Allah reward you for it and uplift your heart as you need it in such difficult times. Ameen.

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