When social distancing measures meant gatherings and places of worship were to be temporarily off limits, a thought crept up in my head, “oh no, what about Ramadan?”.
For the uninitiated, Ramadan is the holiest month on the Muslim calendar. It’s a month of fasting between dawn and sunset, but for many of us it’s also the month of feasting and shamefully hiding our Ramadan food bellies. It’s meant to be a time of spiritual reflection, connection to community and well, sharing a tonne of memes with the famous phrase “not even water?” (a response commonly given to people outside the faith who are astonished to learn we consume nothing during fasting hours, not even water [it’s funnier if you’re Muslim I guess]).
It’s a time to avoid supermarkets when you’re hungry lest you come back with 10 boxes of Cheezels and Cadbury’s nationwide stock instead of the milk you set out to buy. I once nearly bought a dog snack thinking it was beef jerky - not my finest moment. Muslims use this month to gather together, share meals and head to the local mosque every night for congregational prayers and consuming camel burgers afterwards (I still don’t know why that’s a thing).
Upon hearing the news of observing Ramadan with social distancing limits, my friends were concerned this could possibly be the worst Ramadan ever.
But I disagree. I’m looking forward to Ramadan under lockdown.
Every year I get excited for Ramadan because I have a laundry list in my head about all the spiritual outcomes I want to achieve during the month. My mind becomes a terrible health and wellness meme from Instagram: “I’m gonna reset, reflect, pause and I’m gonna be a better human”.
Ramadan under lockdown will facilitate more opportunities for people to practice what we’ve been encouraged to do in Ramadan all along. Pause. Reflect. Reset.
Every year my list never eventuates as I turn into a sloth on the couch with last night’s dinner crumbs in my hair. It doesn’t always start off like this. I’m always gung-ho about how I’m going to “kill it” this year but I soon become the kid who gets distracted by shiny things - or shiny burgers in my case. After a few weeks of just getting by, I turn to my friends every single year, without fail, and say “Omg, I can’t believe Ramadan is nearly over!” Over the last couple of decades - yes I’m old - I’ve noticed Ramadan has centred around food, even the Sydney Ramadan Night Markets (famous for food) has garnered a lot of attention from mainstream Australian media because it’s “soooooo multicultural and ethnic and stuff”.
Ramadan became synonymous with food to people outside the community as well as within. It’s become known as a time to cook, share meals, eat dessert, eat again and well, eat again. It went from Eat, Pray, Love to simply Eat, Pray, Eat.
We need a Ramadan in isolation to bring the focus away from food to bettering oneself. At the risk of sounding like a GOOP employee, isolation and social distancing may enhance not just our relationship with God, but our relationship with ourselves. If you can’t stand your own company, I’d say Houston we have a problem. If you can’t foster a good relationship with yourself, what’s the point in trying to connect with so many others, or to food, or whatever your comfort may be?
Isolation in the Islamic faith is nothing new. There is a term known as Khalwa which roughly translates to spiritual seclusion. It’s about withdrawing oneself from the hustle and bustle of life; to reflect and meditate. Every year, I aim to go into khalwa, but find myself at the Ramadan food markets instead which is the closest thing to a Muslim rave you can come across. The Prophet Muhammad used to pass long hours in a cave known as Hira in the Meccan hills. It was a way for him to think, meditate and reflect. Yet for so many of us who see him as an example, I wonder how many of us take time out to think and reassess our lives in a state of seclusion?
We need a Ramadan in isolation to bring the focus away from food to bettering oneself.
In 2013, I spent Ramadan in Yemen and the local mosque had a designated ‘khalwa’ room which I had always wanted to use but never got the chance to. In retrospect, that was just an excuse. Any room can be a ‘khalwa’ room so long as you use that space for introspection. And reflection doesn’t need to take all day. Even 15 minutes would be enough. It gives you time to think about the areas you want to improve in and if you’re brave enough, to be confronted by the failings of your own ego and how to rectify the damage done to yourself and others.
Another Islamic practice is Muraqabah which can be described as a type of mindfulness training or metacognition through remembrance. It’s centred around being present instead of focusing on the past or the future and it helps ground individuals to their current state. It’s pretty much a reality check. And lastly, there is a practice known as Itikaf. Itikaf happens in the last ten days of Ramadan and Muslims are encouraged to retreat from worldly affairs to take stock of their lives, their spiritual journey and to withdraw from their daily norms.
So there you have it, as Gen Z would say, Muslims Been Knew. With all these wellness crazes taking off and more focus given to mental health practices, let us not forget our own traditions and how isolation and seclusionary practices have been looked over in contemporary Islamic life.
Ramadan under lockdown will facilitate more opportunities for people to practice what we’ve been encouraged to do in Ramadan all along. Pause. Reflect. Reset. This month is about hope and redemption. It’s about giving people chances to be better versions of themselves, and this surplus of time has given us this very opportunity.