Ramadan. The moon shining outside my window seems to mock me, saying: Ramadan will soon be gone, and what have you done? How many days have you fasted so far? How many rak’ats have you prayed, how many juz of the Quran have you read, how many iftars have you hosted or attended, how many times have you managed to pray tarawih? How many fard and sunna acts have you not performed—and in this blessed month, when every good act is rewarded more than at any other time of year? How many blessings are you missing the chance to gain? And if you’re not part of this mad rush for blessings, are you really part of this umma?
And I don’t know what to say, except—this is a big part of the problem. Yes, this kind of attitude has an awful lot to do with why so many things connected with Muslim belief and practice trigger me today. Why I’m basically burned out.
Sure, back in the day we were warned about having the proper intention, keeping one’s intention pure, and doing it all for God (or then it would be shirk and God wouldn’t accept it). We were genuinely scared of falling into this kind of shirk. We had read about riya’—doing good in order to be seen by others and regarded as pious—and we knew that this is a major sin and we were afraid of falling into that too.
But at the same time, we were heavily involved in small, inward-looking communities in which everything is everyone’s business, and “being a good Muslim” meant performing rituals and following rules that were highly visible. And not only was your adherence (or not) to these rituals and rules highly visible, but people would definitely take notice of how you acted and pass judgment on you accordingly.
Sure, every Ramadan we would hear sermons reminding us that fasting is only for God, because only God really knows if you are genuinely fasting or just going through the motions when people can see you. What the sermon-givers didn’t admit, though, is that in reality in our community if you weren’t fasting that would be noticed (unless you were secretive or deceptive about it)… and you would be judged, unless there was an obvious and serious medical reason why you couldn’t.
This was especially true for converts. The decision to fast or not wasn’t seen as an individual thing that is between a person and God, because it was regarded as a marker of identity, of belonging (or not) to “the Muslim community.” As was prayer five times daily, wearing hijab, abstaining from pork and alcohol and their byproducts… and following an ever-increasing number of rules governing worship, dress, behavior, social interaction, choice of occupation, family life, child raising, home furnishings, financial dealings, music, sports, recreation and so on and on.
We knew we were always being judged. And we were part of that whole mindset—we routinely judged others too, and always noticed whenever someone wasn’t following the rules exactly.
It was like living in a panopticon. And I’m still finding it very difficult to step out of that mentally… and any dealings with conservative Muslims brings it all right back.
Why was it all so destructive? After all, shouldn’t any faith worthy of the name have “standards”? Weren’t these standards just “Islam” and what it’s always been about? That was what we were always told—and for good measure, we were made to feel terribly guilty about how questioning the wisdom of any detail of the sunna or its applicability to our lives today, as well as warned about how a sign of the coming end of the world is that “Islam will unravel bond by bond” (with the implication that any doubts or questions would put us on the side of the evil forces that would be unleashed during the apocalypse).
But historically, it was rarely true that every Muslim’s life was determined down to its finest details by the sunna and fiqh, under the surveillance of a harshly judgmental community. That is a particular kind of utopian vision (or more like a dystopian vision…), not lived reality. As many of us who ended up living in the Muslim world quickly found out—the ideals that we were taught back in the day were just that. Ideals. Not realities. Because the reality is that people can’t live that way. The ideal isn’t sustainable. And that if you do end up in a place which tries to enforce such rules, it quickly devolves into a sham, with most of the emphasis being put on outward appearance while all kinds of rule-breaking goes on behind the scenes and the powerful get away with things that the average person can’t.
I couldn’t admit to myself that these ideals—which I had been taught are non-negotiable—were actually utopian. That they set up an impossibly high standard that few can maintain. That if fully put into practice, they would create a static society in which creativity, intellectual excellence and even human sponteneity would be stifled. Because that would undermine my faith. (That was one reason why I, like so many converts, bought into the whole “Islam is perfect, and it’s totally separate from Muslim cultures, which aren’t” thing.) Wasn’t Islam supposed to be practical? To be “the solution” (according to the Islamists and Salafis)? To be perfect, timeless divine guidance and wisdom, brought to us through God’s beloved, the most perfect man to ever walk the earth (according to the neo-traditionalists)?
How could it actually be… damaging, to feel as though you are always seen and judged and found wanting? Doesn’t God see us this way? Isn’t this just accountability, practice for the Day of Judgment?
More like, practice for those higher on the food chain, such as born Muslims, as well as all Muslim men to play God, judging us and thereby undermining our identities as Muslims, which therefore could never really be secure.
More like, learning that one’s value is based on performance. Sure, you have to have the right intention, but having the right intention if you don’t act is worthless (and incredibly suspect—you’re probably just trying to get out of doing what you are supposed to). Once you stop performing as expected, you lose friends, who were never really your friends, anyway. You can’t perform, so you have no value.
It becomes that the things that really matter are all surface, appearance. Those became the things we really worked on in ourselves, and tried to instill in our kids. And now it’s all just ashes, blowing in the wind….
I stared up at the moon, and suddenly realized that in reality, what we put ourselves and our kids through was actually pretty much opposite to what the Prophet Muhammad did.
His words and acts established the sunna for us.
But he didn’t live according to a list of do’s and don’t’s, which have to be adhered to publicly at least or people will talk and he’d be shamed. He wasn’t all anally retentive about “is it really makruh or is it actually haraam,” splitting hairs about the chemical content of the additives listed on food labels, and listening to the inevitable arguments every Ramadan about which number of rak’ats for tarawih is sunna. The whole one-upmanship that was teaching and following the sunna in the communities I was part of was foreign to him.
We were really trying to do the impossible in more ways than one. To reproduce something that by its very nature couldn’t be reproduced. Our attempts at mimesis were an inadvertent parody, that made God and the Prophet into judgmental, narrow-minded monsters who reflected our own fears and insecurities.
Our ways of trying to live the sunna were really an epic fail.