How does one prepare for Ramadan? If you had asked me a few weeks ago I would not have said through an online seminar.
But my cousin, much younger and cooler than I, sent me an invite on Facebook entitled, “Ramadan Prep Course: How to Control Your Nafs.” Nafs is the Arabic word for psyche or ego. During the month of Ramadan, which starts at the beginning of August this year, Muslims around the world will spend 30 days trying to control their wants and desires. They will wake up at dawn to eat breakfast, spending the rest of the daylight hours abstaining from food and drink.
People tend to agree that summer is the worst for fasting. Abstaining from food in the sweltering heat isn’t so bad but you crave liquids. You crave water, tea, juice – or if you are like me – iced coffee.
As an adult, living on my own, I have failed to keep the practices of my parents. A wave of nostalgia thus starts piling up as Ramadan begins, just as the crates of dates, cans of mango pulp and jars of pink liquid used in sweet yogurt drinks begin piling up in our kitchen back in Houston. My mom and her friends begin to plan out party after party where people get together to break their fasts with dates, mango shakes, samosas, kabobs, pakoras and, my personal favorite, chole. Everyone then goes to pray and roughly 20 – 30 minutes later they all sit down again for another, even larger meal.
I, on the other hand, purchase one sad little bag of dates and make sure to buy yogurt for breakfast – a far cry from the full Pakistani breakfasts and nightly feasts of my mother’s house.
It is with these thoughts – of food and family, and of wanting to recommit to our traditions – that I logged onto the seminar. Sponsored by Habibi Halaqas, I Got It Covered, Muslimas Oasis, Muslimah Source and SuhaibWebb.com, the webinar is led by a bright young woman, Sister Yasmin Mogahed, speaking while the rest of us listen on mute. We were encouraged to get onto Facebook to continue the conversation, and state where we are from. The responses ranged from St. Paul, Minnesota to Istanbul, Turkey.
As a young girl I grew up in a series of small towns where we were often the only Muslim family. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to be connected to Muslims around the world. This deployment of Facebook and social media to connect thousands of Muslims is impressive. As a result of the webinar, I’ve already received more Facebook invites, emails and checklists to help me get through Ramadan.
We began the prep class with a prayer and I found myself comforted, as I always am, by the familiar, softly spoken Arabic words. Sister Yasmin then switched to English. She framed Ramadan as a month of “detox.” It’s the month when you are supposed to break your bad habits and hopefully form good ones that you keep the rest of the year.
During Ramadan, you learn to control your Nafs.
I think back to the various goals I’ve had over the years during Ramadan. Be better about calling my family; volunteer once a week at soup kitchen; cut caffeine out of my diet; stop eating fast food; read a book a week; be better about saying my prayers. Each year I make my list and hope that a month of good habits is long enough to stick.
As we discussed during the webinar, we start each Ramadan hoping to cement the good habits and lessons we learn. In addition to abstaining from food, you are supposed to stop getting angry, lying, and in general be better to your fellow man. This is particularly hard given the fact that you spend a lot of time “hangery.” (Hungry + Angry).
The first week of Ramadan is always the hardest. You are starving. All you think about is food. While the purpose of the month is to sever your connection to the physical world to help you attain peace, your first week is consumed with thoughts of what you will have for breakfast and what you will have for dinner.
And then it begins to change. Your level of compassion for your fellow man increases exponentially, you stop caring about food, you are calm and you do all of the things on your self-improvement list. You begin to feel at peace and cultivate a feeling of accomplishment. Then the month is over – you remember how awesome iced coffee tastes and forget to call your mom everyday.
We concluded the seminar with a Q&A that is moved over to Facebook. As I read the ensuing back forth about specific prayers and actions that will help this month, I sigh and begin my list: 1. Bag of Dates 2. Yogurt 3. List of Things to Help Me Find Peace and Control My Nafs.
It’s going to be a fun August. And who knows, maybe this year some of my good habits will stick around for the whole year.
Sabrina Siddiqui lives in Washington, D.C., where she is the Media Relations Manager at the New America Foundation.
*Photo courtesy of -RejiK.