The Islamic Center of Northern New York out on Rt. 342 is an unassuming little place that would go completely unnoticed unless you knew to look for it. Nestled behind gardens and trees, the Mosque usually lies dormant except for weekly prayers on Fridays, but it always fills up to its capacity for one month out of the year: the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. I had the good fortune to have been living in Watertown, NY when the building was acquired by the upstate Muslim community, and I remember our first holidays, back when I was too young to understand the dogma of the faith practiced by the small congregation. My life then was a rush of play and games, without a care in the world for diligence in prayer. In the intervening years, I’ve spent a great deal of time at the Mosque, in reflection, prayer, and study. It’s been a constant in a life full of change, and for that, I give thanks.
In 2003, at the tender age of eight, I observed the holy month of Ramadan for the first time. Since the Islamic calendar is based on the lunar cycle, Ramadan falls at a different time each year, and in ‘03, it happened to start in late autumn. As third-grade student, I quickly realized that my classmates and teachers found the practice of fasting from dawn to dusk completely alien. In the post-9/11 era, such exotic practices were met with an attitude of suspicion, and at times, hostility. However, at school, I was pleasantly surprised to find eager curiosity and well-meaning outreach to be the sentiments I most often encountered.
What did “observing Ramadan” really entail for a child who didn’t quite understand the basis of the holiness of the month? I woke up at 5 a.m. every day, had a special meal, known as sehri, with my family, and then went back to bed until I had to rise for school. Sehri foods are intended to keep one full and running throughout the day, so meats such as kebabs and complex carbohydrates were the norm. I also had to be sure to hydrate, because I could not drink water for close to 14 hours. Throughout the day, I was filled with near-boundless energy (as all kids are), despite my lack of sustenance–my play was hardly, if at all, affected.
I performed prayers throughout the day, of course, ritual reminders of God’s presence in our lives. And finally, when the sun went down in the evening, I could eat again. As tradition dictates, Muslims break the fast with a date-fruit and some water. A full-on dinner soon followed. Each night’s fall brought the entire Muslim community, some 30-odd people, flocking to the Mosque for prayers like appliances to their charging outlets.
Ramadan that first autumn was exciting; it was my debut into the world of adulthood. I finally had matured to the extent of possession of self-discipline sufficient to provide for me when food could not. The next year, Ramadan inched back 10 days, but I ventured forward, becoming not just a learner, but a teacher. In Ramadan of 2004, I was approached by a first grade teacher who had taken note of my admittedly unusual practice of skipping lunch; she requested me to come talk to her class about Islam and Ramadan, to help educate them on the subject.
This was a time of misinformation and propaganda–few Americans understood what Ramadan was about. I enthusiastically told the teacher I would prepare a short lesson, with the help of my parents. And so, I came to learn for myself what Ramadan truly was all about.
Saudi Arabia in the seventh century A.D. was a tough place to live. Food was scarce, life expectancies were short, and oil’s discovery was centuries away from transforming barren desert into hidden treasure. Stories abound of early Muslims tying rocks to their bellies to stifle the hunger pangs they felt each day. In this socioeconomic climate of dearth, the month of fasting was born, intended to instill empathy in the hearts (and stomachs) of believers. Those who were fortunate enough to have food and wealth imposed hunger upon themselves, to better commiserate with their less prosperous brethren. In today’s heavily stratified society, fasting can provide for satisfied people what outreach programs and charitable donations cannot: a genuine glimpse into an entirely foreign life. In this manner, communities are unified, humbled, and made to understand the similarity of our lives.
Another year passed, and I grew more excited to fast. Each day, I found myself looking forward to the next. Undoubtedly, part of this charisma must be attributed to my yearning for the holiday of Eid, which terminates the month of Ramadan, and encompasses what essentially amounts to Muslim Christmas: gift-giving, family get-togethers, and celebration. However, much of my enthusiasm was simply to have a beneficial change in my life, to instill discipline in myself. I was a student at Wiley Intermediate School now, and felt older, wiser; I felt that Ramadan improved my spirit and mindset. Of course, perhaps all my enthusiasm can be attributed to my competitive nature, and my comprehension of Ramadan as a “challenge”.
If I were to give tweenage Siraj a title, it would be Higher Expectations. In 2005, my father expressed that he wanted me to memorize the entire Quran, in the original Arabic. As a nonnative Arabic speaker, this was a daunting task, but it was one I undertook, somewhat hesitantly. Each evening I would go to the Mosque with my father a little early and spend time memorizing words that were completely foreign to me. By the end of the month of Ramadan, I had committed one-sixth of the Quran to memory.
The next year, the quest continued, and I memorized several more chapters, eventually mastering 8 of the Book’s 30 chapters. However, this effort was soon cut short by my qualification for the National Spelling Bee. My attention shifted from Quran memorization to Webster’s Third New International Dictionary memorization. This shift, though, was synecdochic of the path of my life writ large–I had begun to lose the enthusiasm that had once filled me each Ramadan.
Over the next few years, my attitude towards fasting grew hostile and begrudging. I wish I had a valid reason for this, but I find the only excuse I can give is teenage angst, that flighty, ridiculous distorter of emotions. In middle school and the first half of high school, I resented fasting, regarding it as a chore, a miserable way to spend a month, and occasionally even cheating on my fasts. My resolve weakened; I would readily slip a drink of water if the opportunity presented itself, and even worse, I soon lost all remorse and guilt over this revocation of faith. Alone in a town without any Muslim youth my age, I had no one to express myself to, no one to voice my concerns with. The Mosque on Rt. 342 became, instead of a welcoming refuge of learning, an ominous structure that I felt obligated to attend daily.
Gloom became a norm in the Mosque, not just for me, but for the entire community. Conflict and internecine discord insinuated itself among the rows of the faithful; since members of the Mosque ascribe to differing schools of thought and sects of Islam, but we all pray together, disagreement inevitably breeds. This all culminated in an episode burned into my memory even today: a conversation after evening prayers during 2007’s Ramadan on the proper time and method to celebrate Eid escalated into a vicious squabble, something I had never before witnessed among the dignified members of the community. And yet I huddled in the corner, witness to all, intercessor for none; I felt almost disconnected from the community, as though the quarrel was irrelevant to me. In retrospect, I can denounce my inaction–preventing harm from coming to others is a priority not just for Muslims, but for all humans.
This slow descent, perhaps fueled by hormones, perhaps by an absence of peers, perhaps by my own dearth of determination, (but probably by a combination thereof) into a man lacking in spirituality, was reversed pronouncedly this year. In 2013, Ramadan arrived directly in the peak of summer, running from July 10 to August 10. Since the daily fasts stretch from dawn to dusk, summer’s long days deliver 18-hour fasts. Prior to Ramadan’s arrival, I assumed I would simply continue with the status quo, fasting half-heartedly for the sake of convenience and the maintenance of my identity.
But this all turned around. Why? I truly don’t know. But this Ramadan was a fresh start for me. An opportunity to reflect on the opportunities I’ve had in my life, an important stepping-stone to self-actualization. And most importantly, it brought me back to that Mosque where I spent my younger days, filling it once again with happy memories of devotion, communal warmth, and tenderness.
There exists a narration of Muhammad, the Islamic prophet, wherein he describes fasting as a “shield” for believers that would protect them from punishment in the afterlife. Indeed, throughout my varied experiences, I have found Ramadan to provide for me a shield, a defense from waywardness, laziness, and gluttony, regardless of any higher significance attached to the holy month. I’ve written about Ramadan before, and it remains incredibly important to me; fasting during Ramadan is my link to all that I hold familiar from my childhood; it is, quite literally, home.