se-tinted glasses to see what really matters
31 Mar, 2022
As the holy month of Ramadan approaches, Muslims are encouraged to reflect on their hopes for the weeks of fasting and prayer, but the traps neo-liberal spirituality are everywhere, writes Yassmin Abdel-Magied.
Ramadan is merely days away. The holiest of months, the fulcrum around which the Muslim calendar revolves. But despite all the anticipation, as much as it is a time to reconnect with one’s faith and community, I still find myself – however much I refuse to admit it – quietly wary and apprehensive as the month approaches.
As I wander my local supermarket aisles, checking the labels of medjool dates and stocking up on apricot juice, I wonder how I will last the long stifling European days, whether I will manage to wake up and eat enough at suhoor, and most of all, I wallow in nostalgia for the Ramadan of my youth.
Ramadan brings out my most rose tinted glasses. It has been a long time since the month has come with the ease and joy of observation in communal union. Over the last decade, I have spent Ramadans working on oil rigs in the middle of the desert, the closest mosque hundreds of miles away; on the road, travelling between work commitments, breaking my fast with squished dates and a gulp of lukewarm water before striding on stage.
”While Ramadan is a gift, a time of the year set aside to reconnect with faith, and yes, to be made the most of, Islam has never demanded perfection. Our faith is most interested in the journey, the striving, the intention.”
My last was spent in Covid-19 lockdown in the Islamophobia capital of Europe, Paris. Iftar was after curfew, so I kept my hijabi self home and adjusted to breaking my fast alone, or occasionally, with family via Zoom. A far cry from the prayer and laughter-filled mosque halls of my childhood.
I don’t share these stories for sympathy, these are the outcomes of choices I’ve consciously made. But I can’t help but notice that the older I get, the further away I feel from the ‘community’ feeling I had grown up with.
As a multiple migrant, having lived in five cities over the last eight years, I have come to learn that community, particularly in the Muslim context, isn’t something inherited, automatic, or assured.
I had taken for granted that my family were part of a generation of migrants who painstakingly built community from scratch. They repurposed basements into mosques until enough money had been raised to fund a standalone centre. They created the social infrastructure the community still depends on: the halal butchers, the aged care facilities, the funeral homes.
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They did not wait for ‘community’ to appear, they formed it, brick by brick, prayer line by prayer line. And yes indeed, there is plenty to critique, for example, how divisions from ‘back home’ were transferred into the new environment, the inherent patriarchy and misogyny baked into the grassroots structures, and even the political positions many have taken in the decades that followed. However, I cannot fault them for their efforts, for at least trying.
They did their best to spin us cocoons of safety. But, now that we have burst out of them, what are we left with?
It wasn’t until I sat down to write this column that I began to understand what was wrapped up in this knot of tension, the undercurrent of apprehension accompanying the approach of the holy month. In some ways it was about missing ‘community’, yes, but it was more than the absence of the collective gathering. There was another element at play in the communal; a grounding, a connection to the spiritual that I have found harder to hold on to today.
Somewhere along the line, my approach to Ramadan had become infected by the same individualistic, productivity hustle culture that I work so hard to resist, day to day. Ramadan had been subtly transformed into something that I needed to ‘optimise’ with checklists and specialised Quran classes, make into aesthetically pleasing ‘content’ for social media, or mine for soundbites on mainstream media sites, striving to be inclusive.
Rather than seeing it as a chance to focus on ‘getting back to basics’ and doing the best I could, Ramadan was now something I needed to ‘do right’, and if I was unable to achieve the arbitrary goals I set at the beginning of the month, along came guilt, self-flagellation, the sense that perhaps I was ‘failing’ as a Muslim.
While Ramadan is a gift, a time of the year set aside to reconnect with faith, and yes, to be made the most of, Islam has never demanded perfection. Our faith is most interested in the journey, the striving, the intention. But somehow, intention no longer felt ‘enough’. I had forgotten the mercy in the message.
Where is the line between making the most of the blessing Allah has given us, and falling into the trap of treating ourselves as an asset, a bit of human capital to be optimised? Neo-liberalism got our spirituality too?
This just won’t do.
If I put my heavily rose tinted glasses aside and pick up the prescription ones I actually need, I can see that the way through has always been there. It is to come back to the idea of intention. What is my intention for Ramadan?
Perhaps the magic that I was missing in the community of my youth was not the small pokey basement prayer room, or the shoes falling off overfilled racks, or the paper plates made soggy by thick curry sauce served at the mosque’s free iftar. It was that the intention for Ramadan was always crystal clear.
We were all united in wanting to deepen our faith, make the most of this blessed time, be our best selves. We were trying to outdo each other in kindness and mercy, not because we were tracking our actions on a mobile application, but for the sake of Allah. So, perhaps, by intending to make the most of this sacred month, not for the sake of optimising, but for the sake of my faith, I can release myself from the shackles of neo-liberal spirituality and find the connection, in this world and the next, that my soul hankers for.
I fill my basket with dried fruit and message friends in my new home, populating my calendar with nothing more than times for iftar. Ramadan may not look the same as it used to, but community? With the right intentions, we can build.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied is a Sudanese-Australian author and social justice advocate. She is a regular columnist for The New Arab.
Follow her on Twitter: @yassmin_a
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