Imam Khalid Latif is blogging his reflections during the month of Ramadan, featured daily on HuffPost Religion. For a complete record of his previous posts, click over to the Islamic Center at New York University or visit his author page, and to follow along with the rest of his reflections, sign up for an author e-mail alert above, visit his Facebook page or follow him on Twitter.
My brother-in law Arvind, who is not Muslim, has a Muslim friend who fasts during the month of Ramadan. His dedication to his fasting was brought up, as this young man throughout the rest of the year, and even during some nights in the month, would drink alcohol, which is not allowed in Islam. During the day, though, his focus would be his fast, to the extent that he even orients timings that he had to take medications around it. Arvind found it confusing that his friend, who didn't really, in his own words, observe too much else of the religion, would be diligent in his fasting.
When dealing with religion and religious communities, it can be tough at times to grow. Many of us have our own struggles, but we find ourselves being defined not by what it is that we are doing well, but mostly by what it is that we are failing to do. I take one step forward and instead of feeling empowered by that step, I am made to feel as if I am still 10 steps behind. As a result, I just stop moving at all. I become indifferent to embracing a process by which I can grow because the world around me chooses to elevate itself by denigrating me.
The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said, "God is kind and loves kindness and gives for gentleness what He does not give for harshness nor for anything else."
During Ramadan one will find people fasting who at other times of year may not be so engaged in their faith. We may not see them because we choose to look past them or fail to invite them to anything, but they are there nonetheless. What brings them out is the same excitement as everyone else. They won't see fasting as a burdensome ritual, but rather as a time in which they can grow, change and invigorate their spirit. They will definitely. We will play a role in helping them decide whether they will stay.
Two Ramadans ago, I visited a mosque with some of my friends that I went to undergrad with. We hadn't seen each other in a long time and were standing outside laughing and catching up. Apparently this was problematic to some and after a few minutes a man came up to us and asked us to leave, saying if we were just here to cause trouble then we shouldn't have come in the first place. I think we were all a little surprised by this, but not as surprised as he was when someone got on the microphone and asked me to come to the front of the mosque to deliver the lecture that I was invited for. I apologized, excused myself from the conversation and said once I had fulfilled the request of me, I would be on my way. We all then walked in and he came in and listened to me talk about Islam in his mosque.
The Prophet Muhammad had a companion by the name of Umar ibn Al Khattab. Prior to his entrance into Islam, Umar did of lot of things that people didn't approve. He drank alcohol, treated women poorly and was a staunch opponent of the Muslim community. Umar on one occasion sees a woman by the name of Layla, who is readying herself for a journey. He asks her where she is going and she says that he has made it hard for her to worship God in her hometown, so she is now going elsewhere. She expects harsh treatment from this man but to her astonishment he says go and have peace on your journey. She recounts the situation to her husband, Amr. Amr responds to her by saying she is talking as if she believes Umar ibn Al Khattab could become Muslim. Layla says why couldn't he and Amr says that there is no way he could. That the donkey of Umar's father would become Muslim before he does. He, like many others, saw only the wrong.
The Prophet Muhammad saw otherwise though. At a time when others shared thoughts like those of Amr's, Muhammad uniquely looked for what was inherently good. This leads to Umar's eventual embrace of Islam, and along with it an empowerment of the entire community through his presence.
I shared this story with a group of inmates in a prison in the Maldives during a visit I had there through the U.S. State Department. The Maldives is considered to be Muslim country but the type of Islam that is taught isn't very empowering of many. Many of these inmates, along with 60 percent or so of the native population, had some type of issues with heroin usage. As I spoke to them about Umar ibn Al Khattab, some started to cry. When I asked why, they said that in all there years in prison, no one had ever told them before that they could have a second chance, either with society on a whole, or with God in particular.
It's somewhat unfortunate that we set our gatherings up in such a way that only one month out of the year people would feel comfortable coming to them. Be the person this year that makes someone feel they made the right decision in coming and standing next to you in prayer. If they aren't there standing next to you, then invite them to come. Try to understand why someone does what they do before questioning them on it. This doesn't somehow turn the permissible into something impermissible or the impermissible into something permissible. What it does is allow the person to be defined by who they are as an entire being, as opposed to solely by the deed they do which we have chosen to define them.
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