Ramadan 2020: Prayers of, by, and for the People

Shahrullah-al-Moazzam. Shehrullah. Share-ullah. Share Allah. 

“Shehrullah” literally translates to “the month of Allah” in Arabic. Or is it in Persian? In a mix of the two? To be honest with you, I couldn’t really care less which exact language it is; or rather, I am out of energy to find names of specific languages for the sake of explaining it. To me, it’s a word in Lisaan-ud-Da’awaah, or literally, “the language of the faith,” which is the language I have grown up speaking at home. It is a mixed salad of a language, with its foundations in Gujarati, but heavy influences from Arabic, Persian, and Urdu. The speakers of the language themselves often forget—often don’t care—what the specific etymology of the word is. (Do English speakers care what the etymology of “etymology” is?) As I’ve seen few other people besides my parents in the past month or so, the idea of “explaining” a word, “explaining” a meaning, “explaining” my clothes my skin my food is becoming increasingly. . . foreign. I’m afraid I may get used to this.

In this case, though, let me explain: Shehrullah is a synonym for the better-known “Ramadan,” a month that is less than one week away. Typically, it is a time of yes, fasting, but also rigorous community gathering, with people attending prayers at the masjid at least once a day, but often, three times. Iftar is a time for shared relief and gratitude, focusing on the satisfaction and clarity the patience of the day brought us, smiling at each other between inhaling half-melted coffee frappes and whatever fast food snack we picked up on our way there. (You end up seeing chicken nuggets in an entirely divine light during the month. They glow like never before.) This year, plans are being made to pray at home, in isolation, but an effort at community maintenance is being made through digital platforms, shared prayer PDFs, and synchronized sermons (many of which, to my mother’s chagrin, I tend to be busy during.) 

You end up seeing chicken nuggets in an entirely divine light during the month. They glow like never before.

Let me interrupt the present with the past for a moment. I have felt out of place at the Houston masjid for nearly two decades. In my formative late teenage years, painful gossip regarding my body and beliefs had circulated around the community. I had felt naked in ways I didn’t know could be felt, isolated in a community that was meant to be my home base in White America. As most South Asian women can attest, gossip can be a guillotine for intracommunity social support and opportunity. At the same time, I also fell into the increasingly small minority of “unmarrieds,” a particularly damning title as the years went by, slowly losing social experiential connection with my peers. Concentrating on prayer in this space, a space where social relationships were intricately tied to religious presence, became a near impossibility. I remember feeling I was Muslim in the wrong way, a young woman in the wrong way; a person in the wrong way. However, I continued the cultural participation out of what felt like a delusional hope that the definite love for Allah—or whatever greater being there is—I had felt with such conviction as a child would return. 

It has, but in a vastly different way. Over the years, I began avoiding communal South Asian Muslim spaces, a difficult task because I also have strong ties to India itself and would travel there frequently. In public, I carefully molded my facial muscles, one by one, into the mask of an outwardly eager and gullible buyer. I knew I was being sold shoddy goods, knock-offs, zippers that would catch and handles that would fall off with the weight of the bag the minute they got wet, but I learned to be gracious. I concentrated. I focused. I listened. 

What I learned is this: People want control. People want to think that they have a grasp on reality and existence, and religion provides an often-moving, all-convincing framework for that. I also learned that people do not like to share this control, because once shared, it is vulnerable—to questioning, to morphing, to, well, being shared. However, that is precisely what Allah [or insert name of any Greater Power or System of Belief here] intended and is forcing us to do right now. The covid-19 pandemic has made many across the world, regardless of culture or religion, reassess just how much they actually can control and how much they have to leave to trust—in higher powers and in people. The conscious power dynamic has shifted, at least for the time being. 

What I learned is this: People want control. People want to think that they have a grasp on reality and existence, and religion provides an often-moving, all-convincing framework for that.

With the centrality of the masjid space lost, Ramadan loses much of its social authority. With individual homes becoming the loci of prayer this year, Shehrullah becomes a bizarrely democratic but detached time, forcing us to reconsider how and what we think of as true trust and deep faith. Faith is not the outward circus display of peace and reliance so many make it out to be. It is not an announcement for others’ sake, it is not a performance for everyone but yourself, and it is definitely, certainly not a limited resource that only a few can possess. This Shehrullah, there will be no one but you and Allah, and Allah, like all life-giving sustenance during this time, must be shared. 

Tasneem Mandviwala is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago. She holds a PhD from the same, in Comparative Human Development, and an MA in English Literature from the University of Houston. She teaches and writes about cultural psychology, intersectional feminism, adolescent and young adult development, and postcolonial issues. A version of this essay was originally written for The Decameronna Project.

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