Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Ramadan, a Mormon seeker's version

I’ll begin with the fact that my kids think I’m crazy, my husband is worried about me not eating dinner with the family, and my parents (when they read this) are likely to fear I’m becoming even more radical than my normal level of radical. On my part, I’ll admit to some trepidation. If anyone were to ask me why I plan to celebrate Ramadan this year, I’d have to pause for a while to collect my thoughts before answering. That isn’t to say that I don’t have a good reason. It’s more like I have a whole pile of reasons, none of which seems logical or convincing or likely to satisfy anyone who thinks it’s inappropriate for a Mormon to participate in a pillar of the Islamic religion. I’m writing this, I suppose, to explain myself to myself and anyone else who questions my motives or my sanity.

Why I’m celebrating Ramadan

For several years, I have included a short lecture about Islam in my Humanities 201 class. I do this with full disclosure of my own Western bias and my limited knowledge of the deeper aspects of the religion. I do it in an attempt to show another perspective on the Middle Ages, to balance out our reading of the Song of Roland (which portrays Muslims as polytheist pagans and heroicizes their slaughter), and to reveal to my classes of predominantly Mormon students that there more similarities than differences between the two religions. I enjoy watching their surprise at this discovery. Every time I teach my students about Ramadan, I have wondered what it’s really like to fast for a month. I’m simply curious to know how difficult it is and what kinds of rewards it brings.

I finally bought a Qur’an (or at least an English translation of it) last Christmas. In the basement of the university library, next to the rows of computers where elderly LDS patrons squint at genealogy records, I have plundered the stacks of books on Islam (ironically located right next to the books on Judaism, a kind of peaceful coexistence only possible in the abstract world of the written word). Ramadan this year is an excuse for me to read the whole Qur’an, study my pile of books about Muhammad, and try to gain a more personal understanding of Islamic beliefs.

According to what I have read, the blessings of Ramadan include forgiveness of sins, greater power through prayer, internal peace, and more strength to resist temptation. The phrase I've read dozens of times now is “The gates of paradise are opened, the gates of hell are closed, and the devils are in chains." I could use all of these openings, closings and chainings right now.

One of the benefits of Ramadan is an increase in self-discipline and self-control. I don’t want to belittle the sacredness of the rite by treating it as a diet plan, but I am in need of more self-control, especially where food is concerned. I’ve heard some people dismiss Ramadan as an easy way to fast because you can eat whatever you want in the middle of the night. But how could avoiding food and drink between dawn and sunset for 30 days be anything but a genuine test of will power?

During Ramadan, Muslims strive to better themselves and fill their hearts with charity and empathy for others. They try to be more generous, more friendly, more anxious to serve the poor and needy. In addition to gaining control over what passes into their mouths, they control over what passes out of their mouths by banning gossip, backbiting, and spreading of rumors. I struggle with these weaknesses. Blame it on my years of analyzing art and literature, but whatever part of my brain it is that makes you a good critical thinker, that part of my brain is over-exercised. As in Rambo. It is hard for me to resist criticizing others, and (not that I need a holiday to make me do better) it seems appropriate for me to set some new goals and have a noble reason to hold my tongue.

And maybe this should have been listed first, but I’m seeking a spiritual benefit as well. Those who faithfully follow the prescriptions of Ramadan are promised taqwa, which I’ve seen translated variously as fear of God, God-consciousness or piety. No Dad, I’m not converting to Islam (could any feminist do this?) but I know that there are many paths to God. I haven’t yet exhausted the Mormon path (could I ever?) but I am interested in what truths I can find in the Qur’an and what I can discover about my relationship to God by subverting the will of the flesh and dedicating more time in my life to religious study and prayer. Couldn’t I get these things from within my own religion? Sure. Am I conflicted as to why I feel the need to borrow a piece of someone else’s religion to gain the clarity and insight I should be working harder to find in my own? Absolutely.

As a caveat, I know there are plenty who would say God will not accept my offering, seeing as it comes from a non-Muslim usurping a Muslim religious tradition. I readily acknowledge my status as an outsider. For that matter, for various reasons I’ve mostly felt like an outsider in Mormon circles my whole life. It’s a role I’m familiar with. My only regret is that I’m doing this alone. A significant aspect of Ramadan is the sense of community created by a group of people sacrificing together and celebrating together. There will be no public feasts in my version of Ramadan. No trips to the mosque for late night prayers. I might rope a few of my family members into eating some dates and Haleem with me, and my Arabic-speaking sister has promised to teach me a few phrases, but mostly I plan to do this solo. This may be the most un-Islamic aspect of my pseudo-Islamic Ramadan. So here’s an open invitation to anyone who wants to join me in all or in part on my strange quest for enlightenment, compassion and the ability to resist the lure of baked goods during daylight hours.


emily said...

My husband and I took a "Humanities of Islam" course almost ten years ago, and since then (especially lately) he's wanted to try Ramadan. Many of his reasons are similar to yours; he'll be glad to read your post. Perhaps I should join him in it so he can have a small sense of community?

I enjoy your blog--I can't remember now how I found it a few months ago. I like how your pursuit of the humanities is thoroughly mixed with motherhood.

SAC said...

Um. Your Arabic-speaking sister might know-- the natively-speaking Arabic community at BYU usually has at least one eid feast-- these days they do, anyway. I regret that when I lived in the Arabic house, we didn't make a bigger deal about Ramadan. I would definitely recommend contacting the Arabic club, if you felt at all comfortable; all my memories are of a completely welcoming community, which is more than happy to invite respectfully curious Christians to learn more about their faith.

And, speaking of my year in the Arabic house: I remember getting home one day to find my Palestinian roommate putting ornaments on a fake Christmas tree. Which she had bought. (This woman was the second woman at BYU to wear the Hijab-- she was definitely completely Muslim.) When I asked her about it, she explained that her village was a mixed Christian-and-Muslim village; the Christian kids got three days off school for Christmas, and the Muslim ones got one day. And she had always sort of wanted a Christmas tree, but it isn't the sort of thing one imports into a Muslim household. Living with a bunch of Christians, though, she thought she'd do it for us. It was LOVELY.

Jenni said...

You aren't crazy. My family would have the same reaction if I decided to do this, but I think this is an admirable task you've set for yourself. Exploring other cultures and religions brings understanding, something we could use more of in this world. Making an effort to take the focus off of the physical/carnal and bring it back to the spiritual is also a worthy endeavor. As you've said, you aren't converting, you're simply learning in a manner that is respectful to both your own faith and that of others.

An Ordinary Mom said...

This post is right up my husband's alley. I will have to share it with him.

I must admit I am really intrigued to see how your month of Ramadan goes. I am anxious to learn from your insights. I hope you meet all your goals.

Jenna said...

Well, I think it's just cool! I think more of us (Mormons, in particular) should open our eyes and hearts to see what we share with other faiths, rather than focusing on what separates us. I grew up with an academic father, who speaks Hebrew, Greek, and Arabic, and who made us celebrate all the Jewish holidays, just because.

I took an Humanities class a few semesters ago with a very non-Mormon professor, who also observes Ramadan because he was attracted to the idea of the self-discipline and learning to have no chains in this world. I was fascinated then by his shared experiences, and I loved hearing yours in this post.

I hope you enjoy the journey!