There is something special about Ramadan, something akin to magic. It’s this magic that Muslims look forward to every year. For me, the Ramadan magic was an answer to prayer. For weeks and months during moments of desperation, weakness, sadness and fear, I’ve sent out a small prayer for my heart to be healed. Healed is probably the wrong word – ‘repaired’ may be more fitting. While I’ve been feeling wounded this year, it’s not only that. I also felt like I was corrupted or faulty in some way. My heart was a broken compass – pointing East but claiming North.
I decided to fast while I was studying abroad in Malaysia and was first exposed to Islam. Naturally, curiosity drew me towards Islam, and I discovered a lot of things I admired, namely religious rituals and discipline. I’d never experienced these within Christianity, and I think that’s part of why I lost touch with faith. I wasn’t holding onto strong foundations of religious tradition (or they weren’t holding me), so leaving Christianity was as simple as unsubscribing to junk emails.
Part of me wonders whether I was drawn to Islam and decided to fast because I felt that I needed redemption. Perhaps I was seeking Allah’s approval, just in case. I can’t tell whether that idea is tragic or divine.
Ramadan has been full of many first experiences. This has been my first religious fast, despite practicing as a Christian for many years and intending to fast ‘some day’ for a number of those years. Joining a global community of 1.8 billion Muslims finally made it possible. During Ramadan I prayed to Allah for the first time. This was my turning point. Christian prayer is a choose-your-own-adventure story. As a Christian, I was encouraged to nonchalantly pray at any time; a few words to God on the train, another few while waiting in a queue, and again while drifting off to sleep. Muslim prayer is a repeated reset. It’s setting the compass needle back to North. Five times a day, Muslims stop what they’re doing and direct their minds, bodies, hearts and spirits towards God. I feel more connected to God now than I’ve felt for more than two years, and I don’t even know what I’m praying! I can’t speak nor understand the prayers, and I need to follow a video to know what I should be doing. But it doesn’t matter – the very act of preparing my body through wudu (cleansing by water), covering my head with a hijab (a headscarf), and prostrating in reverence is enough to be near God.
This is because Islam is about intention – Allah sees your heart stripped away from any of your bad behaviour or mistakes. God sees that you are trying to draw close, whether you fail or not. God knows that you’re trying to make good decisions, whether you’re failing or not. While fasting during Ramadan, I began to hear the quiet voice of God giving me permission to try and fail. Once when praying at home, I forgot to wear a hijab, and only realised halfway through the prayer! But it didn’t matter. I tried. It wouldn’t have mattered if I had completed the prayer without realising and never known. Allah likes to see us travelling towards true North, following an accurate compass. But sometimes he sees us going off-course, happily following a broken compass, and Allah is glad we’re trying. Some of us, like me, know the compass is broken, but haven’t figured out how to fix it. We’re blindly going in some direction, hoping its North. That’s also fine, because Allah knows we’re trying.
In the Western world, Islam has a reputation for submission, rules, and punishment. Ramadan broke down my stereotypical ideas about Islam and Allah. During Ramadan, God became forgiving and benevolent to me. As a Christian, I never understood the transaction of sin between humans and Jesus. Christianity teaches that Jesus’ death atones for all sins for all time. Why then continue to repent? And why did God need a sacrifice before he could forgive? By definition that’s conditional love. In Islam God doesn’t need a sacrifice to forgive. He just does. According to Islam, Allah rewards a good and pure heart, and forgives a broken one.
This is not to say that I never found Ramadan, Islam, Muhammad or Allah problematic. Anyone who’s spoken to me during the last fortnight knows two things:
- That Muslim women are prohibited from fasting while menstruating
- That I am angry about it
Men tell me it’s because periods are dirty (they’re not) and because periods are so unbearably painful that normal life activities are impossible (they’re usually not). Explanations from Muslim women have been wholly unsatisfactory. From painful periods and anaemia to the ‘blessing’ of childbirth, no explanation has justified why bleeding makes me ritually impure. The explanations are even less satisfactory for the prohibition of prayer and reading the Quran during menstruation. If bleeding prevents me from approaching Allah, and Allah had the ability to create us without periods, then why didn’t he? Why have it in the first place?
There are still many things for me to learn and understand about Islam, and even though Ramadan has finished I will keep reading, learning and praying. I intend to continue to exercise my spiritual self in Islam and beyond. God is more complex and mysterious than I knew before, and I believe I’ll continue to uncover new ways he appears. I think my religious exploration will lead me through Judaism, completing the Abrahamic trifecta, and onto other spiritual practices.
As for my compass – I’m still trying to fix it. I hope it’s pointing nearer to North than it used to, but I can’t be sure. Perhaps, while exploring the spiritual world I’ll decide that North is nothing more than a magnetic field, and I’ll stop consulting my compass.
Or perhaps I’ll discover a whole new plane of direction, and follow a different compass pointing on a new axis, leading me a new way to God. For now, I want to travel North.