Originally written for my "Spiritual Appetite" blog for Patheos.
When Ramadan-ing, it's encouraged to have a Ramadan State of Mind.
It's a state of mind and state of body that is resilient to pain, longing, easy comfort and selfish desires.
An observer can easily perceive this month long fast as an exercise in masochism commanded by a sadistic Creator who enjoys denying his "trying-to-get-by worshippers" food, water, sex and bad etiquette from sunrise to sunset. To add insult to famine, we're also encouraged to increase our prayer -- as if the daily 5 prayer ritual wasn't enough -- and give charity despite being mired in one of the worst recessions since the Great Depression.
The Usual Ramadan Wikipedia Posts
Your usual "Ramadan" blog posts give you a quick Wikipedia facts update on how this is the 9th month in the Islamic lunar calendar in which the Quran was revealed to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Upon sighting the new moon, Muslim communities worldwide become spiritually charged avatars of ascetic awesomeness immersed in reflection, forgiveness,prayer, reconciliation and generosity.
1.5 billion Muslims magically transform overnight and jettison their messy, imperfect, human emotional baggage, because that's the miraculous power of Ramadan and being Muslim!
We become Yodas with kufis and Splinters in thobes. We are Mr. Miyagis and Morgan Freemans dispensing calm, sage advice and composing ourselves elegantly like a stereotypical ascetic monk only seen in Hollywood movies as quiet Asian men in robes.
This, my friends, is not reality.
Most of us spend at least half the month complaining about being Muslim and flirting with the idea that maybe worshipping fire (Zoroastrianism) isn't such a bad gig.
The Nostalgia of Old Men
A few days ago I sat with a bunch of friends at Ma's Halal Chinese Restaurant in San Jose talking about the upcoming month of fasting.
We're all old men now, mostly in our early 30's, and gone are the days when we thought hair would last forever or we'd be able to sustain a 6 pack. Some of us have wives and kids, and mostly all carry a one-pack gut. We are good folks just trying to get by and we fondly remember the glory years when we could play basketball for 3 hours without stretching and then eat 2 slices of Blondie Pizzas and stay up for most of the night playing video games and still function with 2 hours of sleep.
"Man, it kinda sucks being Muslim. Islam really ruins my life sometimes," I complained.
"Word. This Ramadan is gonna' be brutal. Morning prayer is like at 4:50 am, then we have to go to work, then we break our fast at 8:45 pm," a friend replied.
"Maybe you can trick Allah and move to Australia. They open fast at 5 pm. Or, just travel all month and you can do a write-off and make it up during the Winter," another friend added.
"I thought about it, but I think Allah knows this stuff. F my life. Anyway, inshallah (God willing), it'll be ok."
"Yeah, I guess. At least there will be some bomb-ass iftars." That was the group consensus: at least there will be some "bomb-ass iftars."
Then, there's the Muslims. They annoy the hell out of me. Islam would be far more pleasant if it had less Muslims. Really. Sometimes I feel like being Reverend Lovejoy of The Simpsons and suggesting other religions to the Ned Flanders of our communities.
We Muslims are obsessed with Unity for some reason, but can only unify on how much disunity exists within our communities. For the first time in years, every community is starting their fast on the same day. Some of you are asking, "Why? Don't you all start at the beginning of the Islamic month?"
Well, there are two camps. I refer to them as "Moonies" and "Computer God Muslims." The former say we have to see the new moon with the naked eye and only then we can officially begin Ramadan. The latter camp says we should rely on technology and if the new moon rises, despite being visible to the human eye, then we are officially a "go" for Ramadan.
Naturally, these two camps rarely agree thus resulting in major social awkwardness when telling our bosses, "Yeah, I might have to take either Tuesday or Wednesday off for Eid in a month. I'll let you know in a bit. Yeah, it's a Muslim thing. Just...trust me."
But, fortuitously, this year "Moonies" and "Computer God Muslims" apparently made a truce with a celestial power, saw the crescent moon the same night, and now we're all on the same schedule. Sweet!
Optimus Prime Muslims
But, sadly, this unity means bumping into more "Optimus Prime Muslims." These are Muslims who transform during Ramadan - and only during Ramadan - into obnoxious, religious blowhards and completely change their personality and behavior traits for 30 days only to de-evolve into the same exact human being immediately on Eid, the day celebrating the end of fasting.
These guys stop listening to music, watching tv, logging on facebook, reading magazines and the whole shabang. Now, I have no problem with this. Go forth and free thyself from these technological crutches that have paralyzed human interactions, I say! However, I do have a problem with Optimus Prime Muslims lecturing me for being a heathen for occasionally watching a Netflix flick or catching a re-run of Dexter.
"You watch movies during RAMADAN!?!? Wow...ok, maybe we were...raised...differently. Well, Allah is Merciful...I guess."
Listen, I don't drink, do drugs, beat people up, snort cocaine off of strippers' bellies, gamble or even know what bacon tastes like. Life is hard for a practicing Muslim. Relent. Give a brother some instant Netflix. That's all I'm asking.
We also have family and friends. Ah, yes. Family and friends - how can we forget them: the cause and solution to so much of life's joys and pain.
Before Ramadan, each married couple or family unit strategically "claims" out a weekend in advance during Ramadan to host their Iftar party. You have to quickly send your Facebook evite, because those slots fill up damn quick. What happens when you have competing iftar parties? Where do you go? Whom do you choose?
This puts many of us in some serious, sticky social situations. You need to dust off Machiavelli's Prince and get prepared. It's like being a Senator in Old Rome - an environment filled with intrigue, strategy, partial deception and sycophantic pleasantry -but, sadly, no nudity.
The State of The World
And, of course, the ongoing depressing state of the world reminds us daily that perhaps Armageddon is around the corner and the four horsemen of the Apocalypse will probably be wearing GAP and starring in their own reality TV show.
We just emerged from a debt ceiling crisis that might destroy our economic future. There is famine, civil war, and violence throughout the world.
A hate-filled bigot killed 76 people, mostly youth, in Norway.
Haiti, Pakistan and Japan are still recovering from some of the worst natural disasters in modern history.
People were promised bright futures and jobs only to land in their parents' homes which is about to be foreclosed by a bank that received a bailout and gave record bonuses to its executives.
And, the shadow of 9-11 looms in the horizon.
So, how am I supposed to have a Ramadan State of Mind?
So, why do I keep doing this year after year? After all, there is no compulsion in my religion. I can easily snack on a tasty burger and wash it down with a sugary coke while my fellow Muslims slog through the heat. I don't have to pray or be charitable or reconcile with loved ones or forgive my enemies or myself. I can be flippant, rude, mean, selfish and brash, and simply "tell it like it is" instead of exercising restraint, moderation and patience.
It's all about perspective and appreciating the journey. The experience when framed by the proper intention always makes me a stronger, resilient and more spiritually balanced individual.
Really, each and every Ramadan, there's always a net positive.
Yes, the shadow of 9-11 looms and it seems America has gone cray-cray with extremist rhetoric, hate speech, divisiveness, and Islamophobia, with 2012 Republican Presidential candidates, such as Herman Cain, recommending banning mosques and denying Muslim Americans their constitutionally protected rights.
Yes, some "Muslims" around the world are still hijacking our faith to rationalize their perverse, criminal actions of hate and terror. Yes, Americans are suffering from uncertainty, confusion and economic hardship. There is a war in Afghanistan, Pakistan is exploding, and Iraq has yet to heal. The world is reeling from environmental tragedies.
Madness seems to be Kool-Aid of the day.
But, the Ramadan State of Mind allows me to see this as an opportunity - to push things forward and evolve as an individual, as a community and as a society. Instead of reacting with hate, despair and nihilism, this month allows us to ask for Allah's Mercy and blessings.
It puts me in a spiritual zone where I'm allowed and encouraged to hope.
My hunger is temporary but in the long term I gain awareness and empathy. I starve myself of the world and hope to taste something sweeter.
Yes, the transformer Muslims annoy the hell out of me, but I know they're simply trying their best to do what's right in their own obnoxious way. Sure, I have to engage in Machiavellian strategy to save face when I ditch Iftar parties, but I'm grateful to have friends and family who love me enough to share their happiness with me.
And the world has been mad since it was born, but I cannot carry its burdens on my shoulders alone.
All I can do is try the best I can with the time I have. And sometimes that time comes packaged in 30 days where fasting might seem like an exercise in masochism to the world. But, observe closely, because sometimes - sometimes - you can see that worshiper smile despite the hunger, thirst, and exhaustion.
That person has a Ramadan State of Mind.
I hope to be fortunate enough to taste what he's having for Ramadan.
And it just may be that resilience and hope are the main courses on the menu.
Follow Wajahat Ali on Twitter: www.twitter.com/WajahatAli