Years ago, what I would have meant by “Ramadan questions” are questions about the technical minutiae of Ramadan, and particularly, the fast: Has the moon been sighted yet? Do we start fasting if some people are saying that it has been sighted, and some people are claiming that it hasn’t? Does swallowing one’s spit by mistake nullify the fast? What if you eat thinking that it is still night, but your clock is off by a few minutes and it’s already fajr, and you find that out later in the day—is your fast null and void? Should tarawih prayer be eight rakats or twenty?… and so on.
There’s an endless supply of questions of that kind. They kept us so busy that we seldom got around to asking the kinds of questions that I ask now. But that was just as well, I suppose—because in the communities that I was involved in, Ramadan wasn’t the time for asking the kind of questions I ask now. Ramadan was not a time for questioning (aside from asking the technical, legal kinds of questions just mentioned…), but a time for strengthening one’s faith—which to us meant fasting, feeding fasting people, praying extra prayers, reciting the Qur’an and listening to it recited, giving charity… and for us women, doing all the cooking and housework and other “support work” required to enable husbands and kids to fast, in addition to fasting ourselves.
We didn’t have time to question, and anyway, we were far too occupied with attempting to rack up as many good deeds as possible. Asking searching, existential questions wasn’t really compatible with that. What if we unknowingly slid into heresy, or even kufr by questioning, and then unintentionally nullified our fasting and our good deeds?
We wanted to be able to sit in the congregation on the morning of Eid in our Eid clothes (if we got the time to sew them…), with our freshly-scrubbed kids in their new Eid clothes beside us, and feel at least some sense of accomplishment: We had fasted x number of days, prayed tarawih prayers x number of times, put on x number of iftars and brought food to x number of iftars that we had been invited to, read through x number of juzes of the Qur’an, managed to stay up watching for lailat al-qadr at least once…. Even though our kids and our heavy domestic responsibilities made it very hard for us to carry out such acts of worship, we tried hard to do them. Because wasn’t that the point of Ramadan?
But somewhere in the back of my mind was a hadith—something to the effect that a believer’s meditating for an hour is better than praying all night. But meditating on what? And why would meditation be superior to prayer?? I asked that question once—why meditation is better than prayer—and was told by the shaykh that what it means is that a worshipper who understands what he is doing and how to properly do it is superior to someone who doesn’t know the details of fiqh or aqeeda. This didn’t satisfy me—in that case, why didn’t the hadith praise the man who seeks knowledge or asks legal questions? Is learning the fiqh of worship really the same thing as meditating? Isn’t meditating more like asking oneself questions, and thinking deeply about things? But I didn’t pursue the issue further.
Now it occurs to me that an argument could be made that asking such questions is part of the sunna. After all, didn’t the Prophet retreat to the Cave of Hira in Mecca in order to meditate? Doesn’t that imply that he asked existential questions? What do quranic verses such as “Your Lord has not abandoned you, nor does he despise you” (maa wada’aka rabbuka wa maa qalaa) mean, but that Muhammad asked some really hard questions about God and the meaning and direction of his life?
But back then, we didn’t understand this verse as giving us permission to question, because we were taught to see Muhammad as a highly exalted and practically magical figure, who didn’t sin or even make mistakes, whose actions and words are beyond question, and who had experiences that were far above the mundane plane of existence that we were limited to. Even if he had expressed doubts about whether God had abandoned him, and God had reassured him, that only showed that he was almost unimaginably special, and unlike any other human being who had ever lived.
No doubt, the best thing for me to do would be to just get over it already. As a friend tells me to do whenever our conversation starts to veer into the direction of existential questions. And some people can get over it, apparently. Some people seem to be able to move on from conservative religious upbringings or adult lives in conservative religious communities, and just get on with enjoying life. They avoid thinking too much about who and what they are and why they are here and what will happen after they die. Or, they find a more liberal religious community to belong to, and don’t let such questions bother them too much. Or, they decide that these are things that we can’t really know anyway, so aside from appreciating art and literature that poses such questions, they aren’t going to stress about these things.
I really, really envy people like that. Unfortunately, I’m not one of them. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t wondering about existential questions—which is quite strange, given that my parents were agnostic and they didn’t raise us with any sort of religious identity or anything like that. And, it doesn’t seem to be something that I can get beyond, either.
It seems to be the way I’m wired
for better or for worse
and I wonder if it’s a curse….
But anyway. Now that I no longer live surrounded by conservative Muslims, and I’m no longer paralyzed by fears about what happens if I ask the wrong kind of question… my Ramadan can be devoted to questioning. And so it shall be.