My family’s day begins peacefully around half an hour before daybreak, as the sunrise delicately paints the sky shades of lilac and pink. The birds chirp symphonically, the world slowly opening its eyes for another day.
“Good morning, mother!” my brother skips into the kitchen.
“Oh, good morning my dear son!” my mother smiles upon him lovingly.
“Hello my beautiful family!” my father bellows.
We all sit down at the table to a healthful breakfast of oats and fruit and omega-3 fatty acids and chat about our goals for the day as the family cats purr at our sides.
Except it’s actually pitch black outside. And “daybreak” in Seattle in the month of May? Much earlier than you would think. My family wakes up at around 3AM every morning to eat our morning meal. But fret not. We are not vampires, or owls, or even worse: earlybird fitness fanatics. We are Muslims fasting for Ramadan.
To give a brief overview, Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar in which God revealed the Quran (the Islamic holy book) to Muhammad. During Ramadan, healthy Muslims all around the world fast together from sunrise to sunset. During our fast, we refrain from eating and drinking (nope, not even water!). We also refrain from gossipping, fighting, and lying. For many Muslims, this is a time of self-improvement, a time in which we read the Quran, cultivate self discipline, and seek forgiveness for our sins. Usually, the month is marked by community, with masses of people gathering at the Masjid (Muslim church) every Friday to listen to speeches on how we can better ourselves and best reap the rewards of the month. Our fast is broken at community feasts known as Iftar, where hundreds of people gather in the evening to eat together. We give back to our community more, volunteering and often donating food. This year, however, that has all come to a standstill. All that time usually spent in the outside world is now spent cooped up at home, and that time is far from sunshine and birds chirping. Here’s a glimpse at what fasting in quarantine means for me and my family.
In reality, my brother and I usually somewhat begrudgingly get up and out of bed, blankets wrapped around our shivering bodies. Half awake, we hobble downstairs and plop into the chairs at the island. Lifting our heavy eyelids feels like trying to lift a semi-truck, and opening our mouths is like prying open the jaws of a dragon. From the moment we wake up, we’ve got one mission: eat and drink as much as we can so we can make it through the day. My rotund cat grins smugly upon me with his full bowl of food as I cram oatmeal into my gullet like there’s no tomorrow and chug water like I’ll be stranded in the Sahara desert for six months. My brother groans and writhes as my dad reminds him to keep eating his food as his eyes shutter in and out of consciousness. At the end of it all, there’s the dreaded word: “Time!” We get in formation to pray Fajr, the first of five daily prayers. Once we’ve finished our prayers and set our intentions for the day, we head back upstairs and retreat to the warm refuge of our beds to sleep once more.
A few hours later, we’re up and at it again to begin our day of fasting in quarantine. For me, I’m usually physically awake at around 9AM, but only awake on a proper spiritual level by around 10:30AM, my first college class of the day. Shortly thereafter, there’s the burst of energy, the glimmer of hope! Maybe I can power through today and be extra productive! I can watch my lectures for the week and do all my homework and…
Usually at this point, I end up back in my bed, maybe chipping at an essay, but more likely than not, scrolling through my phone. You see, during Ramadan, we’re not really supposed to be sleeping or idle all day. But I have to admit, it’s much more difficult when your bed is 10 footsteps away from your desk instead of 45 minutes by bus. While it seems counterintuitive that it would be easier to fast while out and about, running from building to building, for me at least, it most certainly is. When you’re constantly in motion, it’s much easier to distract yourself. While the sweet smells of food may waft around campus, and while I may long for the chips in the vending machine on my way to class, those moments of temptation are temporary. But in the weeks of quarantine, the days seem to melt into one another, time at a stand still. Nothing makes Wednesday different from Thursday aside from 24 hours, and so the time seems to pass far too quickly and far too slowly at the same time.
But alas, I eventually get up and go about the rest of my day, slowly working on some of my assignments, attending meetings, and going to the rest of my classes. The feelings of hunger and drowsiness ebb and flow; sometimes it feels like I’m going to pass out in a matter of seconds, and other times I forget I’m even fasting. I won’t lie, I’ve certainly been much less productive than usual this Ramadan, but that could certainly be a function of quarantine and online classes more so than the fasting itself. Generally, the mornings are slow, the afternoons feel a few seconds long, and as soon as my brain decides the afternoon has turned to the evening, generally around 5 o’clock, it feels like days pass for every minute.
In the evening, I reminisce on past Ramadans with a sort of sorrow. Past Ramadans were marked by trips to the grocery store where my brother and I could get any snacks we pleased, since the entire family was somewhat intoxicated by their hunger. Before, Ramadan meant I could watch movies on campus with my friends in the summer Seattle heat, watching the sun set as we joked around in empty classrooms. It meant feeling a sense of togetherness with my family, with my Muslim friends and classmates, with a broader community of over a billion people making the same sacrifice as me. It meant attending Friday prayer and listening to the imam tell us how to be good ambassadors of our religion and how to treat the month with intention. It meant cultivating patience and bettering myself, putting in effort to become a better community member, serving those around me with a renewed sense of purpose.
"THIS YEAR RAMADAN IS MARKED BY A NEW SENSE OF ISOLATION"
This year, Ramadan is marked by a new sense of isolation. The time I dedicated to serving my community, to teaching kids at Fearless Ideas and my local math tutoring center is now spent trying to muster up the motivation to teach my very hungry brain lecture content when there’s nothing to really hold me accountable. It’s harder to motivate myself to wake up on time, since my professors in most of my classes can’t tell if I’m in attendance or not, and it’s not like there are any buses to catch. I think of all the opportunities I’m missing right now due to quarantine, the Saturday tutoring program that I never ended up teaching at, the hospital I never volunteered at, the student clubs I wanted to go to. I mourn the connections I wanted to make with my classmates and teachers in my major that are now over Zoom instead of face-to-face. More than ever before, navigating Ramadan during quarantine feels like drifting alone amidst a vast quicksand, working through the haze of thirst and hunger with not much immediate gratification to make it all feel worth it.
But while these difficulties make for a less “special” Ramadan, at the same time, this quarantine is a powerful reminder of the very purpose of fasting in the first place. It was never supposed to be easy, and the hustle and bustle of life was never meant to be a distraction from that sacrifice. While it’s a beautiful time of the year for many Muslims because of the spirituality and unity with our brothers and sisters, at its heart, it’s about strengthening our personal relationship with God, about standing in solidarity with those less fortunate than us. While we choose to fast and we know we have a wealth of food waiting for us at the end of the day, in the face of this epidemic, thousands of families don’t have the privilege of knowing where their next meal is coming from. While we may get bored at home, we have the privilege of staying home together as a family when thousands of essential workers spend hours upon hours away from their families, risking their lives to save others. While I may complain about my difficulty concentrating on my schoolwork for this month, hunger and food insecurity is a daily reality for thousands of schoolchildren all over the world, even more so now. And while this is a particularly lonely, particularly difficult Ramadan for all of us, out of this turmoil comes far greater strength, humility, and compassion than any other Ramadan.
So although it hasn’t been sunshine and roses the whole way through, that in and of itself has made this year’s Ramadan so much more impactful. In some ways, it’s been a bootcamp preparing me to make a bigger difference in the new social context we’re embedded in. To know hunger on a physical and psychological level is the most powerful way to understand how much of an impact you can make by even feeding just one hungry family or sharing a meal with your neighbors. Conversely, to know how much being around my own family in these times as we all fast together has helped me cope and has ignited a new commitment within me to be more conscious of my impact on others and put more effort into fostering that sense of belonging with the people I encounter every day. I’ve cultivated a greater sense of perseverance than ever before, for as stated in the Holy Quran itself, "Be sure We shall test you with something of fear and hunger, some loss in goods, lives, and the fruits of your toil. But give glad tidings to those who patiently persevere...They are those on whom descend blessings from their Lord, and mercy. They are the ones who receive guidance." (2:155-157)
Tiara Schwarze-Taufiq is a sophomore at the University of Washington Seattle. She’s had a passion for writing from a young age, publishing a book in second grade. When she's not in class (virtually these days), Tiara mentors younger students at the Bureau of Fearless Ideas and Mathnasium.
Ramadan FAQ (by the author)
DISCLAIMER: I am just one of a billion Muslims! While my answers to these questions offer my personal perspective and a general understanding, they aren’t reflective of every single Muslim person, and even I have a lot to learn about my own religion. If you want to know what a friend believes, ask them, not me, and remember that you can’t understand what a whole group of people believes based on one person, even if that one person is an imam or scholar. My rule of thumb is to either ensure that you’ve gotten a broad spectrum of perspectives from people in a given group (at least a sample size of 10!) or accept the limitations of your understanding. After all, the expectation of being respectful and tolerant of other cultures and beliefs isn’t necessarily for you to know everything, but to know what you don’t know and educate yourself the best you can before you speak with authority.
How can I best support my Muslim friends/colleagues/students during Ramadan? Is it okay to eat in front of my Muslim friends when they’re fasting?
I think my number one piece of advice is to not pity them for fasting or apologize profusely for eating in front of them. As long as you aren’t pressuring them to eat or waving food in front of their face talking about how absolutely delicious something is, for the most part, most Muslims are completely fine with people around them eating and drinking as usual. For many people, that’s part of resisting temptation that’s central to Ramadan. That being said, some people (especially kids) are still getting used to fasting or they have a hard time fasting and may prefer if you didn’t eat in front of them; the best way to know is to ask!
Do babies have to fast?! Who doesn’t have to fast?
Nope! Only healthy Muslims who have reached the age of puberty are required to fast. Those exempt include young children, pregnant women, the elderly, people who are sick or for which it would be physically dangerous to fast, people who are menstruating, and people for which it would be mentally harmful to fast, such as people with eating disorders where fasting may cause them to relapse. You are also exempt from fasting for a short period of time if you’re traveling. If your exemption is temporary (ie, you get the flu or you travel somewhere), you need to make up your fast the next year, but if your exemption is permanent (ie, you have a permanent physical disability), you need to make up your fast by feeding the poor. There are lots of more detailed rules about this in the Quran and provided by Muslim scholars, so definitely look into those resources if you’re curious about the subject; I am by no means an authority on the matter.
Another thing to note is that many people who are technically exempt still may choose to fast. In my family, my brother and I started fasting at around the age of 10, just so we could get used to it. Other exempt people may continue to fast because it makes them feel connected to their faith; it’s all a matter of personal preference.
Wait a minute… you don’t look Muslim!
Contrary to popular belief, not all Muslims are from Africa or the Arab world. In fact, the country with the highest population of Muslims is actually in Southeast Asia: Indonesia, where my family and I are from. Islam is not a race or ethnicity, but rather a belief system, so Muslim people can come from many different backgrounds.
Why do some women wear the hijab, but others don’t?
Good question! To start, in the sector of Islam my family and I prescribe to (Sufism), the practice of wearing head coverings is actually considered highly cultural. While the common headscarf is referred to as a “hijab,” the Quran never actually uses the term hijab to refer to a woman’s headscarf, nor does it make it mandatory. In fact, the Quran only commands women to “cover their hearts” by protecting themselves from bad influences and dress modestly, not necessarily cover their hair. This TED talk offers a solid overview of what we personally believe, but this is a highly contentious issue, so our beliefs aren’t reflective of all Muslims.
That being said, that doesn’t mean that women who wear head coverings are oppressed or that they’re doing it against their will. Many Muslim women choose to wear head coverings because it actually makes them feel empowered, protected, and connected to their religion. As said before, and as with all religions and belief systems, it’s all about someone’s personal relationship with God and faith and what makes them comfortable.
Is Islam a violent religion? Does it oppress women?
I can see why people have these preconceived notions based on what is shown in the media. While there are violent Muslims, and Muslims who oppress women, it is by no means inherent to the religion itself. While the Qur’an can and has been twisted to justify violence against non-Muslims and women, and while there are ultra-conservative, ultra-radical sects of Islam, that is applicable to any religion or group. For every Islamic terror group, there are Hindu nationalists attempting to drive Muslims out of India, or Buddhist extremists pushing Rohingya Muslims out of Myanmar, or reeducation camps robbing Uighur Muslims of their cultural and religious beliefs; that doesn’t mean we should or do jump to the conclusion that all Hindus, Buddhists, or Han Chinese people are violent. Narratives of Islamic terrorism are disproportionately amplified because these groups have targeted Western countries, but extremist groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda remain just as they sound: extremist. Views of ISIS are overwhelmingly negative around the world, and many Muslims actually fear Islamic extremism just as much as many people do in the Western world. Moreover, culture and religion are often conflated and entangled in many majority Muslim countries, so just because one majority Muslim country endorses a particular form of subordination or oppression and uses Islam to justify it (a) doesn’t mean that it’s actually explicitly validated by the Quran, and (b) doesn’t mean that all other Muslims in the world think the same thing or interpret the Quran the same way. There are 1.8 billion Muslims worldwide, all with different beliefs and interpretations of Islam, all for the most part trying to live their life in peace just like people of any other faith.
You didn’t answer my question. How do I ask questions respectfully, and where can I learn more?
My key piece of advice is to check your assumptions and ensure that you’re not asking questions in a pointed way. For example, instead of asking someone “What is that thing on your head?” which has a diminutive tone toward the hijab by dismissing it as a “thing,” you may instead want to ask, “Why do you wear that head covering?” Similarly, ask questions that give people space to discuss their own point of view, rather than defend themselves from yours. For instance, the question, “Do you wear the hijab because you’re oppressed?” comes with the assumption that hijabi women are oppressed, even if that’s not the intention of the speaker, and so may be hurtful or inflammatory to the person you’re asking. Contrarily, “What are your personal reasons for wearing the hijab?” is more open ended and allows the person answering the question to discuss how they feel on their own terms. So long as you obey these basic terms of respect, most Muslims will be more than happy to answer your questions!
As for resources, I truly wish there was a huge database of Muslim beliefs I could refer you to. Tragically, it’s not so simple. I would recommend talking to the imams (Muslim equivalent of priests) in your area and consult online resources, but with great caution. As with any form of education, check who’s talking, check their assumptions, and ensure that you’re accessing unbiased or minimally biased sources.