A Ramadan Diary

Digital Original

The sun rises over a mosque in Cairo on the first day of Eid al-Adha in 2009. (Photo: Tarek Mostafa on Flickr).

May 25, 2018

I can’t believe Ramadan is in its second week already. Time’s moving so fast. I’m already wishing it lasts beyond June 15th. This month never fails to give me some sort of spiritual uplift.

Last night was a real treat for me because I attended a dhikr session. A few Muslim brothers and sisters and I got together to chant prayers or short phrases about Islam and the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). We were all seated in a circle as we followed the host’s lead.

I have to admit that I can’t read or speak Arabic, but we had booklets of Arabic phrases Romanized so those who can’t speak it could join the chanting. There were English translations alongside the text.

Here’s an audio sample of a small section of the dhikr last night:

We repeated these phrases along with dozens of others over an hour and I fell into some sort of trance. It was soothing and even though I couldn’t really understand what the words meant, I could feel them opening up something in me. In that hour of dhikr, my mind became very still. It wasn’t jumping from one thought to another every other second. What a beautiful thing.

Of course a few minutes after the dhikr session, my mind snapped back to its regular processes. But for the rest of that evening, I felt lighter and happier and had more love for the world.

May 24, 2018

Last night’s iftar (meal that breaks the fast) gave me a spiritual and moral boost to see me through the eighth day of fasting for Ramadan. It was a treat for me because I got out of work early enough to attend another Quran study group and was able to share a meal in the company of fellow Muslims who I’ve grown fond of.

Meraj Allahrakha led the Quran study group last night. I call him “The Mayor”, because he knows all the Muslims in D.C.

The host of the halaqa is a well-known member of the D.C. Muslim community, Meraj Allahrakha. He’s a Muslim chaplain for one of Washington’s biggest universities. He’s one of the first Muslim brothers I met when I moved here seven years ago. He’s humble about how much he knows about Islam, but I think he can go toe-to-toe with any Muslim scholar. Plus he’s an economist with the U.S. Treasury Department.

After the Maghrib prayer, I helped myself to a heapful of Pakistani/Indian food. They had chicken kabobs, chickpea curry, basmati rice, and another curry I couldn’t recognize (but was the highlight of the meal). I inhaled it.

After the meal, we continued our discussion about Islam and some of the sayings of the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). We touched upon nafs (the ego) again and how dangerous it is to our faith as Muslims.

My Indian/Pakistani meal to break my fast last night.

For example, Islam warns against building up your knowledge about Islam just for the sake of accumulating knowledge. That doesn’t necessarily mean Islam is against gaining knowledge, but it tells us to guard against using knowledge to show off.

For example, someone may begin memorizing some obscure Islamic text for themselves, which isn’t evil in and of itself. It starts becoming a problem if a question is asked about the text and that person answers just to impress.

That kind of answer only feeds your ego and pride, and does not necessarily further a belief in God or strengthen your convictions as a Muslim.

Meraj calls it a ‘nafs trap’. So instead of praising God, you start praising yourself for your stockpiling of knowledge.

While the talk covered some serious aspects, most of it was actually funny, light-hearted conversation. We talked about sports, babies, economics, the U.S. bond market, broken hearts, girlfriends and wives.

Among the group were Somalians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sudanese, Indonesians and Latinos.

Just like any other religion, we’re not monolithic.

May 23, 2018

It’s day seven of Ramadan and my body has somewhat readjusted to the lack of food and water. I’m no longer dealing with headaches and hunger pangs. The thirst will always be there, but it doesn’t bother me as much. Just don’t ask me to run a marathon.

Screenshots of my app that tells me when to pray and break my fast.

I’m looking forward to breaking my fast today with some of my Muslim brothers and sisters during the Halaqa (a Quran study group). Ramadan iftars (the meal to break the fast) are meant to be done in groups because the month is not just a time for getting closer to your religion, it’s also meant to bring the ummah (the whole Muslim community) closer together.

If you’re wondering how I’m able to figure out what time my pre-dawn meal is and when I’m supposed to break my fast, I get all my info from a Muslim prayer app. It reminds me exactly when I’m supposed to do what.

There are countless Islamic apps available on Google Play and the Apple App store, most of them for free. They’ve gotten a lot more sophisticated and packed with special features. The one I have on my phone can tell you which direction you have to face when you pray.

Muslims have to pray facing the city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, where Muhammad (peace be upon him) began receiving revelations from God.

The app also has the digital version of the Quran — which has the English translations alongside the Arabic. Despite all the disheartening news about technology and its misuse by bad actors, it does have its upsides.

Tonight I break my fast at 8:20 p.m., right before we pray during Maghrib (the sunset prayer).

May 22, 2018

I woke up a little late this morning because I wasn’t paying attention to the Ramadan timetables. The sunrise is getting earlier, so I have to keep moving up my very early morning meal a few minutes every day.

The struggle is real. My roommate Alfie being a nuisance during my pre-dawn meal

So I was pretty groggy and realized I only had 7 minutes to eat my pre-dawn meal of a power bar and a few glasses of water. I keep all of that on a desk next to my bed so I can just grab what I need and not have to trek to the kitchen. But of course I was delayed a few seconds by my roommate who had other ideas.

Alfie tried to grab my peanut butter bar before I was about to unwrap it. He’s a big boned cat who has a very big appetite and every time I get ready to eat, wants in on the action.

Cats figure prominently in Islam and there are a few stories that involve the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and his love for felines.

One of his favorite cats was named Muezza. He was so fond of him that he would let him sit on his lap while he gave sermons to his followers.

Muhammad (pbuh) treasured Muezza so much, that he once cut off part of the sleeve that the cat had fallen asleep on so as not to bother him. Muezza also saved Muhammad’s life by killing a snake that had made its way into one of his sleeves.

Islam also considers cats as one of the cleanest creatures on Earth, and advises Muslims to always treat them with care and respect.

May 21, 2018

I slept most of the weekend away as temperatures in Washington D.C. went above 90 degrees. Besides going to grocery store and seeing a play, I stayed out of the sunshine and heat. As I’ve said before, the biggest challenge during the fast at Ramadan is thirst and dehydration. But taking it easy or just sleeping the day away isn’t really the ideal way to live during the month.

Muslims are expected to go about their regular lives even if they’re fasting. It’s to let us experience how the poor and disadvantaged live every day. And that means going to work and exercising and keeping the same level of activity as the non-fasting months. I tried it on Saturday by bicycling around town. Needless to say, I got really dehydrated and parched, so I had to head home and sleep the headache away. My air-conditioning unit was on full blast as well.

I have some friends who work out during Ramadan (during the daylight hours!) and have no problems just going about their day. There are some professional athletes who actually fast and still play without the benefit of hydrating themselves during the game. Hakeem Olajuwan of the Houston Rockets fasted during the basketball season, and he’s known as one of the greatest centers to ever play the game.

It’s been six days since Ramandan started, and slowly my body is readjusting. My headaches aren’t that bad anymore and hopefully by next week I won’t be feeling sluggish at all. Actually, my mind gets sharper and I’m more focused as I get deeper into Ramadan. That’s one of the obvious benefits.

While it may seem counterintuitive, fasting acts like a reset button for your body. One might think this is quackery, but there’s science behind it.

According to a study by Harvard University, fasting slows the aging process by “recharging” the mitochondria. Mitochondria are known as the powerhouse of the cell. They also control metabolism, so as we age they get worn out — which probably explains why it’s getting harder for me to fit into my clothes.

But fasting may still help me avoid buying bigger pants. The same Harvard study shows that fasting recharges the mitochondria and gives our metabolism a boost by helping the mitochondria work better with peroxisomes (a small part of a cell) which helps burn fat.

Scientists aren’t sure why this happens — but I’ll take it.

May 18, 2018

My pre-fasting meal on day three of Ramadan consisted of a bunch of pills and three glasses of water. I have no appetite for solid food when it’s that early. I tried to have at least a few bites of something just to have something in my stomach, but I just didn’t feel like it.

I also awoke with a massive headache, which made it harder to concentrate for the early morning prayer. I also tried to read some verses from the Quran, but my mind just wasn’t absorbing anything. I plowed on until the page was just a bunch of letters floating around a vast white space. No use for faking it ‘til I make it, so I turned off the lights and fell asleep.

I’m not as dehydrated at work today, or maybe my body’s given up trying to let me know it needs water. I don’t want it as much, which is good.

During Ramadan one aim is to try to control your nafs (ego) and its desires. Which isn’t easy to do, especially in today’s world of hyper-consumerism where you can buy anything your heart desires, whether it be the latest smartphone, or that fair-trade latte that comes in a million possible flavor combinations.

Ramadan is the perfect antidote to that kind of materialism, though I know that I should be constantly keeping my nafs and its desires in check at all times. That’d be truer to the faith and would be following the footsteps of the Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him). According to some scholars, Mohammad lived a very simple life and had little in terms of possessions. Something I should definitely aspire for.

May the next few days be easier for me.

May 17, 2018

One of the Islamic scholars I follow and read regularly says one of the main purposes for Ramadan is to remind us of how blessed we are and to be grateful for all things. Hamza Yusuf has a pretty straightforward metaphysical equation: 
Gratitude = Increase in blessings from God
Ingratitude = Decrease in blessings from God

Pretty simple really. Whine about your station in life and God will definitely give you something to complain about. But be thankful, and God will give you more to be grateful for. Ramadan is the perfect time to put this equation into practice. It’s only day two, but remembering gratitude is something I find to be crucial in correcting my mindset.

My thirst reminds me of the miracle of water and how wonderful it is to drink. It’s the essence of life itself. Every time I break my fast, that first glass of water is a godsend. Water isn’t something I usually I think about outside of Ramadan, but every fasting day just reminds me to be extremely grateful for it. But writing about water when you’re thirsty, it was hard.

Last night I went to a halaqa (a study group that studies Quran) at one of the major universities in D.C. and we read a few verses from the chapter titled “The Prophets” which was more of an overview of all the prophets who received revelations from Allah. We also broke fast together and I was filled again with gratitude. That’s another great facet of Ramadan, I get to hang out with my Muslim brothers and sisters to share food and company.

Despite what others may think, I don’t view Ramadan as month of punishment and self-flagellation. It’s far from that. Sure, it’s a physical challenge and non-Muslims I talk to about fasting almost always react incredulously — Many seeing it as some kind of special torture.

But it’s not really. After the first week it’s easy. My body readjusts and it’s smooth sailing for the rest of the month — mostly.

I’m actually pretty excited about Ramandan because it brings me closer to my faith and a spiritual renewal. Ramadan brings so many gifts really, too much for me enumerate here, but ask any practicing Muslim and you might be surprised to find that Ramadan is the time of the year they most look forward to.

May 16, 2018

I always turn inwards, much more so than usual during the month of Ramadan. It’s a time of seeking beauty in every form, part of my attempt at a spiritual renewal. It’s an ennobling process, but the first day is always the hardest.

My head wants to explode. My body is screaming for caffeine and water and I have a migraine. Withdrawal is the toughest thing to deal with the first day. Everything is a struggle. My brain won’t process sentences as fast as I want it. There’s a definite fog blanketing my mind.

I woke up this morning at 4 a.m. to have my morning meal before the fasting day begins. I had a few slices of papaya. It’s a meager meal, but what’s more crucial is my water intake. I try to drink as much water as I can in the evening and in my very early morning meal. After my morning prayers and the papaya, I fall asleep again.

Despite my efforts, I always forget that drinking a lot of water doesn’t really matter on the first day because the thirst is already there by the time I head to work. By 10 a.m. all I can think of is water.

Since this Ramadan falls in the summer months, Muslims have to fast longer because the days are longer. It also doesn’t help that the days are just going to get hotter as the weeks pass. June 15th, the end of Ramadan, seems so far away.

I’ve also been meaning to share the verses I’ve read from the Quran, Islam’s holy book. We’re supposed to read more of it during Ramadan. But I’ll save that for another day. I can barely think anymore.

As a side note, I just want to reiterate that all the views here are my own. Islam, as they say, is perfect and an ideal way of life. Anything I say here about my religion (that others may disagree with), just know that my words are my experiences and may not be the same as other Muslims.

May 15, 2018

R amadan is here, and that means fasting for the next 30 days or so. No water or food from just before sunrise and a few minutes after the sun begins to set. We’re also to refrain from sexual relations with the wife or husband during the fasting hours. During this month, we’re also meant to refrain from a slew of bad habits. Among them are backbiting, or talking behind someone’s back.

I’ve always dreaded the beginning of Ramadan because of the withdrawal symptoms from coffee. Hunger is also a challenge, but the biggest challenge I have is the thirst. Since we can’t drink, I get dehydrated the first few days. That’s coupled with headaches and an overall grumpier and snarky outlook on everything in the world. But my body readjusts after the first week and it’s pretty much smooth sailing after that.

Despite the physical challenges and the myriad withdrawal symptoms, I cherish Ramadan. I see it as a chance to reorient myself towards my faith. It’s one of the five pillars of Islam and it’s required of the billion or so Muslims around the world. Besides instilling discipline, it also improves god-consciousness or Taqwa. Fasting also lets us experience what billions of impoverished people struggle with: hunger and starvation. It makes me more aware of the suffering of others and forces me to practice mindfulness and patience.

This year is especially poignant because of the dozens of Palestinians killed in Gaza when Israeli forces opened fire on demonstrators protesting U.S. President Donald Trump’s moving of the American Embassy to Jerusalem. The move is seen as an affront to all Muslims. Judaism, Islam, and Christianity all have equal claim to Jerusalem’s significance in their faith.

So when I wake up at 3 a.m. tomorrow morning to have my early morning meal right before I start fasting, I’ll be praying for ease to those Palestinians families who’ve lost loved ones in the protests. It’s less than ideal, but if there’s one thing Islam has taught me about this world, it that the world is built to break your heart repeatedly. Knowing that makes it easier to accept the state of things. It’s what I call the Ramadan Reality Check.

Ramadan Kareem (A blessed Ramadan) to all.

Ahmad Coo is a producer and copy editor for the Global Business show on CGTN America. He is keeping a diary of his experiences during the month of Ramadan. It represents his views alone.