A Ramadan Diary

Digital Originals

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

June 14, 2018

By the time most of you read this, Ramadan would have finally wrapped up and I’ll be in the middle of breaking my final fast for the month Thursday evening, as soon as the sun sets at 8:35 p.m. — and not a second later. After, I’ll be celebrating the first few hours of Eid al-Fitr, which loosely translates to ‘the feast to celebrate the breaking of fast’.

Hundreds of millions of Muslims all over the world will be partying, in a halal way of course. Those celebrations will go from Thursday evening to the wee hours of Friday morning. Hopefully I don’t regain the 13 pounds I lost during the month in one day.

While there’s a definite sense of accomplishment and a spiritual renewal, the end of Ramadan is also bittersweet because, at least for me, my intense focus on the faith will eventually fade. I’m not saying that I’ll have a full blown existential crisis a few weeks after Eid.

I’ll still be studying and reading up on my religion but that feeling of closeness with God won’t be the same. In Ramadan, the physical and mental work hand in hand to bring your whole being into the practice. I’ll also miss the camaraderie among my Muslim sisters and brothers who’ll all eventually have to return to the daily grind of family and work.

But I have to admit that every Ramadan since 2011 has seen me grow stronger spiritually because of the rigorous fasting and my reading and studying of the Quran and several other Islamic scholars’ works. I can also say that I’ve been more at peace with how life has turned out for me so far, especially after my decision to get sober and clean and start practicing my faith again all those years ago.

As they always say, upwards and onwards. Thanks for reading. Before I sign off though, I’ll leave one of my favorite duas (calling out to Allah) for you to enjoy here. I think it’s one of the most beautiful prayers one can say:

O Allah, place light in my heart, and on my tongue light, and in my ears light and in my sight light, and above me light, and below me light, and to my right light, and to my left light, and before me light, and behind me light.

Place in my soul light. Magnify for me light, and amplify for me light. Make for me light and make me a light.

O Allah, grant me light, and place light in my nerves, and in my body light, and in my blood light and in my hair light and in my skin light.

O Allah, make for me a light in my grave and a light in my bones.

Increase me in light, increase me in light, increase me in light.

Grant me light upon light.

Eid Mubarak everyone!

June 13, 2018

Thursday is the last day of fasting with Eid al-Fitr the following day. Although I’ve been saying that Ramadan has been a spiritual godsend, I can’t help feel a little relieved that it’s almost over. Mostly because it’s a sleep deprived month. Since it’s happening during the summer months, the days are long and the evenings that much shorter, so I have very little recovery time in between days.

Besides the psychic and spiritual payoff, I actually physically feel a lot healthier now. I’ve lost weight and my mind is a lot sharper. My body is very thankful that I’m not stuffing it with junk during the day, but I give no guarantees about what I ingest after Friday. Fair warning, I can’t stop thinking about coffee and cookies. I haven’t had a cup of java since Ramadan started.

So today (Wednesday) is one that will be spent taking stock of my Ramadan. And I can’t say that I’m satisfied with my actions. There’s always slippage but thanks to this practice of blogging about my fasting and faith for CGTN’s website, I’ve been forced to make myself more accountable and honest. Also it’s a lot easier to write about Ramadan when you’re out there doing stuff for the holy month.

One of my Ramadan goals has been to be hyper-aware of my actions and choices during the fasting month, and whether I can call them ones a true Muslim would make. And I have found myself wanting.

Going forward, I promise to not just eat salty oatmeal cookies for dinner

Most times, especially outside of Ramadan, I don’t give too much thought to my daily life. The fasting month helps me live more deliberately with Allah on my mind, which Muslims are encouraged to do not just during the month, but every single day of our lives.

That’s why I always treat Ramadan as my rallying point, especially to ask for forgiveness. But Islam isn’t so hard on its believers. There is no concept of original sin like in Christianity, where we are all born with an innate ability to commit sin or evil.

In my religion, I was created by Allah to be forgiven. God willing, my prayers, apologies and repentance for my shortcomings are accepted this month. And going forward, I promise to not just eat cookies for dinner.

36 hours and counting.

June 12, 2018

And then there were two.

Ramadan has pretty much wrapped up for me- with just Wednesday and Thursday left for fasting. The end of Ramadan always been bittersweet mostly because I hate saying goodbye to a month that’s always been magical for me. The spiritual afterglow never really lasts and then I eventually find myself back in the rat race. But I’m hoping this year will be different.

I’m a little sentimental today because the end of Ramadan always means that I, along with all the Muslims around the world, will be reminded again of our own mortality. One of the main messages most lectures given around this time of the year usually urge us to be fully present in our beliefs because this Ramadan may be our last. That always bums me out.

Ustadj (Teacher) Usama Canon, one of the most influential Muslim thinkers of this generation

But getting a spiritual hip check into a wall of reality is always necessary. They’re right in saying that this Ramadan may be the last for a lot of us, a reminder that nothing lasts forever, albeit a brutal one. For those who really want a sobering wake up call, some Muslim scholars urge those wavering in their faith to spend a day hanging out in and around a freshly dug grave.

I’ve been thinking of my own death in recent days, but not in an unconstructive way. Islam keeps reminding me to keep my eyes on the prize. Hint: it’s not this world. This dunya will eventually cease to exist. That’s why I’ve been willing to forego most of my ambitions and to focus on the things that matter to me the most.

This year though, God reminded me of the impermanence of things in a more personal, direct way. One of the Islamic scholars I really admire- and who’ve I’ve met several times- was diagnosed earlier this year with ALS, a disease that ultimately claims its victims lives within three years. Usama Canon is one of the most charismatic and influential Muslim thinkers of this generation, someone I genuinely admire. He’s also the imam who served as a witness and presided over the conversion of my brother-in-law into Islam.

Though Usama’s diagnosis has been devastating to his family, his friends and students, he’s seems to be at peace with the disease, a testament to the strength of his faith. May Allah make it easy for him and his family and grant him jannah (paradise).

June 11, 2018

I went to bed at 6 a.m. this morning after spending Sunday evening til the early hours of Monday praying Laylatul Qadr in the Adams Center in Herndon, Virginia. I’m a little dizzy but I feel very cleansed psychically. So apologies in advance, if I go a little off the rails.

The Adams Center in Herndon, Virginia. I spent Laylatul Qadr (the Night of Power) in there.

Laylatul Qadr roughly translates into the night of power, a special evening where good deeds performed that night are equal to those over a THOUSAND MONTHS. That means the prayers I did overnight are worth that much. Jackpot. That should make up for a very small fraction of all the questionable things I’ve done in this life. Now I just need a thousand more Laylatul Qadrs and I’ll be set.

Laylatul Qadr was the night when Allah asked the angel Jibreel (Gabriel) to begin revealing the Quran to the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). This night countless angels also descend upon the Earth to visit obedient Muslims and say greetings of peace to them.

This night we also focus on reading and reciting the Quran to savor and enjoy its wisdom, and to make sure angels hear us. Apparently, angels are pretty massive beings in terms of size. Jibreel for instance, is so big that he can apparently fill the whole horizon if he chooses to make himself appear before us- which he did twice for Muhammad (pbuh).

That means Earth is probably the size of a volleyball compared to the angels. I can’t help imagine that some of them have a very hard time keeping themselves from spiking our world into dust like one because of certain people. Like that guy in the White House. Forgive me Jibreel.

We’re also supposed to make lots of dua, the act of calling upon God to hear our prayers and to tell and ask him anything we want. Muslims are supposed to tell him every good and evil thing they’ve ever done and what they want to ask forgiveness for. And I heeded that advice to the fullest last night. I prayed for peace and happiness for the world. I also asked him for help with certain difficulties in my life.

The main prayer room of the Adams Center where I spent eight hours praying and reciting the Quran

I’ve been banging my head against certain figurative walls the past few years, trying to fathom everything that’s happening in the world and in my life. I have had real difficulties accepting certain realities. I also ask why Allah does certain things to people (ie: Palestinians, Rohingya Muslims, Syrians, Yemenis, Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians in the 1990s, Jews (during the holocaust), the Congo (under King Leopold), the Filipino Muslims, etc.). But I can’t begin to fathom what God’s purpose was in having those tragedies happen.

There are also certain personal struggles I’ve tried to overcome but to no avail. But last night as I was praying and listening to hours of beautiful recitation of the Quran, I started getting very emotional, as did countless other believers around me. Some crying out loud and weeping. Even though I could only pick up certain phrases and words in Arabic, its effect on my psyche was nothing short of miraculous.

As I was praying in that room, my mind started getting unblocked. Certain answers presented themselves to some of the most despair-inducing problems of my life. I started tearing up then, thankful and awe struck. Some of the solutions were so simple I didn’t even realize they were staring me in the face.

At that moment, a famous quote by Rumi popped in my head, the one that asks, “Why struggle to open a door between us, when the whole wall is an illusion?”

I don’t even know when and where I heard that but I never really think of Rumi. I actually started chuckling to myself a little then, a mile-wide grin on my face.

My breakfast at iHop (or is it iHob?) after Laylatul Qadr. Yeeeaaahhh boyeee.

I spent a total of eight hours praying and meditating in that mosque, but it felt like it was over in a blink of an eye. That’s how engaged I was, even though I can’t speak or understand Arabic. But I was in a state of flow and everything presented itself so clearly. I can only hope that this state of being lasts beyond this week.

Of course, to put the proverbial cherry on top, my friends and I went to the iHop near the mosque in the wee hours of Monday morning. What’s a more perfect way to wrap up the most illuminating evening I’ve had in years than with pancakes, eggs and bacon (turkey, that is)?

Three days til the end of this wonderful Ramadan.

June 8, 2018

A thousand nights of prayers. That’s what a day of fasting during the month of Ramadan is equivalent to. It’s like a cheat code that gives you an unfair advantage in the faith game.

At least that’s what the Imam said referring to an Islamic text. That was one of the main takeaways in his sermon in the jumah (Friday prayers) I attended in downtown Washington D.C. which is held every week in one of the prettiest churches in the city. It was also the last jumah before Ramadan ends, so it was a special event. In six days, the fasting month will be over.

Friday prayers in one of the prettiest churches in Washington D.C. The sermon was pretty good too.

He also asked the crowd to keep the sense of community among Muslims strong even after the month of Ramadan- saying that we need each other’s support and love. He said the key to belief is love for others. Without it, we’re just fooling ourselves.

And when he started talking about the rates of suicide in the U.S. surging 25 percent since 1999 and it being in the top 10 causes of death in the U.S., I knew he was obliquely referring to Anthony Bourdain’s suicide, the celebrity chef who took his own life overnight. He urged those who need help and someone to talk to reach out, saying no one has to be alone in suffering.

Bourdain’s death has led to an outpouring of grief from some of my closest friends and I admit I was a little saddened by it, even if I didn’t regularly follow his adventures or writing.

But his passing is just another reminder how this world is meant to break your heart. The Quran reminds us of that ephemeral nature of dunya (the physical, material world) repeatedly but we all somehow forget it constantly- only to be shocked awake with terrible events and tragedy.

And just to wrap up this week in my Ramadan diary, I’ll just leave the tweet below for my readers to think about:

June 7, 2018

My favorite basketball team, the Golden State Warriors are a game away from winning its third championship in four years. The game was pretty exciting though and I was on my feet pumping my fists at the TV occasionally for most of the game.

After all that testosterone and jubilation for the win died down, I just felt empty and a little depressed because the game had no bearing whatsoever on my life except for a few cheap thrills.

Since it’s Ramadan, I tend to be more introspective about how I’ve been living my life. Most times I think I’ve been sleepwalking, acting like an automaton. But it’s hard to be conscious and self-aware of every waking moment.

But my ruminations won’t necessarily lead to my withdrawal from the world. And Islam frowns upon people who turn into hermits, since Muslims are expected to engage the world, no matter how ugly and demoralizing it is.

One has to find a healthy balance between deen (roughly translates to religion or faith in English) and dunya (which is the material, physical world).

It’s OK to watch the Warriors during Ramadan. (Taken in 2016 when I saw them beat up on the Nuggets)

This world is seen as the ultimate test for us as Muslims, to find out if one’s able to withstand the lure of shiny baubles, power, fame or wealth and still be a believer. But being one also doesn’t mean we turn into dour, humorless people who can’t have fun. A lot of us are deeply engaged with the world, regardless of how we’re portrayed in most Western media.

Some of the funniest , intelligent, cultured, and compassionate people I’ve met are Muslim- whether they identify as straight, strict, gay, super-religious or even lapsed.

Striking a healthy balance between deen and dunya is key as a practicing Muslim, for me at least. So the next time I see the Warriors play, and I’ve seen them several times live in Oakland as well as TV, it’s all good. Fun and faith go hand in hand.

Go Dub Nation!

June 6, 2018

I was talking about hitting that proverbial wall earlier this week. The past few days have seen me getting increasingly unmotivated about fasting.

The past few pre-dawn meals have been blah in terms of reawakening my faith. I’ve been waking just minutes before I have to down a glass of water after which I go through my pre-dawn prayers. Unlike the revelatory first week of Ramadan, the last few days have been a slog. I go through the motions of praying, then fall right back asleep without any rumination.

But there’s nothing like a blaring fire alarm at three o’clock in the morning to shake me out of my spiritual malaise during Ramadan. Someone (God? Or that notorious pothead on the second floor?) had accidentally or deliberately tripped the fire alarm and the whole building had to evacuate.

Nothing like a 3AM false fire alarm to shake me awake from my spiritual malaise

So I was on the street waiting with a few dozen of my neighbors half asleep and dazed looking up at the building as fire trucks and firemen rushed around to see if anything was indeed ablaze. Those 20 minutes outside in that brisk early morning air helped me wake up which has been a struggle the past few days.

Since I only had an hour and a half before I had to do my Ramadan morning routine, I just decided to stay up until I had to drink my water and pray. It’s funny how faith works. You somehow get a subtle push from the cosmos when you need it most.

I was the most present I’ve been in days for this morning’s pre-dawn prayer, a gift for someone who’s gotten a little stuck in insignificant details of life during the fasting month. But as Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, God doesn’t demand perfection from people. Even just trying is enough.

So with that in mind, I thanked the prophet and God for being so understanding. Though I hope Allah doesn’t poke fun at me when the world finally ends.

Seven days to go until the end of Ramadan. May I be more present and thoughtful for the sake of my faith, however imperfect it may be.

June 5, 2018

I’ve hit a spiritual wall- something that inevitably happens midway through Ramadan. But my running up against that wall doesn’t mean that I’m abandoning fasting altogether.

The past few days or so, I’ve been struggling to get into my faith emotionally and intellectually. It doesn’t help that I’ve been breaking my fast alone at work (I work evenings) and when I get home I’m too tired to do anything. But those aren’t real excuses.

I just have to do to what I usually mid-way through the fasting month: fake it until I make it. Sooner or later, I’ll break through that wall. In the meantime, I’ll just have to keep reading the Quran and my Islamic theology/philosophy books and praying.

I wasn’t always practicing. At points, I was just Muslim in name. I’ve said in earlier posts that my faith has repeatedly ebbed and strengthened in various stages of my life. There was even a time when I actively questioned the existence of God and the purpose of religion, as one is wont to do when they’re young, arrogant and thinks they’re indestructible.

Alfie pretends to read along with me over my shoulder. Cats aren’t into Islamic philosophy much.

Those periods of faithlessness were some of the most miserable times of my life. I just didn’t know it then, but I relied on other things and people to fill that God-shaped hole to my own detriment. That phase in life lasted longer than I cared for because I chose to be blind.

But don’t get me wrong. My return to Islam wasn’t marked by a single dramatic event in my life. Rather it was a series of simple realizations over a period of time. It very slowly dawned on me that the most peaceful times in my life were ones when I actively practiced my faith.

However, I also have to clarify here that I haven’t transformed into some sort of Quran-thumping zealot. Questions and doubts about certain facets of Islam still bother me. My faith is not blind.

Anyways, I also wanted to share a pic of me over the weekend when I was lazing around the apartment and trying to read my Islamic philosophy books. Alfie didn’t like that I wasn’t paying attention to him and decided to do something about it.

June 4, 2018

Feeling sleep deprived, even though I spent most of the weekend sleeping. Apologies if this post is a little scattered.

I spent the better part of this weekend reading Oliver Leaman’s “A Brief Introduction to Islamic Philosophy,” and Chuck Palahniuk’s “Adjustment Day.” I can say that the two books sort of strangely work together. Still, not an ideal pairing for Ramadan, especially Palahniuk.

Some light weekend reading for Ramadan

I haven’t finished either, but from what I’ve read in Leaman’s and Palahniuk’s work, both take their shots at Western civilization. Leaman says that early Islam rejected the notion of Western philosophy because the scholars of that age believed the two are inherently incompatible. A mode of thinking that Leaman says is flawed.

Palahniuk – ever the nihilist – uses his satirical novel to skewer late 21st century Western capitalism and the corruption that comes with it.

Not that Islamic civilization doesn’t have problems of its own.

Leaman takes issue with Muslims having to backpedal and apologize for the religion’s perceived backwardness by Western thinkers.

I studied this a bit in university, and Islamic civilization’s golden age (7th-14th century) continues to be influential to this day. Arab thinkers came up with algebra and algorithms, and calculus, and radical advancements in medicine (diagnosing cancer).

But, just as Muhammad (peace be upon him) would say – and I paraphrase here – nothing lasts forever. Sadly, the decline and fracturing of Islamic civilization continues today.

But Western civilization doesn’t seem to doing that well, either. I don’t have to look beyond the White House to know that we’re in serious trouble.

I am, however, also guilty of trying to apologize for what’s happening in the Muslim world and the sporadic terrorist acts committed in the name of my religion. Everytime I catch myself doing that, I get a little frustrated. I, along with a billion other Muslims, have very little to do with the violence being perpetrated by a very small group of extremists.

After all that, I was glad to get respite from such gloomy thoughts when I broke fast with fellow Muslims over the weekend. Here’s to better fasting days, God willing. Nine days to go.

June 1, 2018

I went to a concert last night featuring one of my favorite bands at one of my favorite venues in Washington, D.C. And I couldn’t help feel a little guilty because it’s Ramadan. This month is supposed to be one for reflection and austerity when one should control one’s desires and appetites. It’s also a time to get closer to God and to read the Quran.

Reading Al Muminoon (The Believers), a chapter from the Holy Quran

I’ve been reading more of Islam’s holiest book than usual because this is the month to do it. All your deeds- good or bad- have extra weight during Ramadan. I was reading the surah (chapter in English) titled Al-Muminoon (which translates to “The Believers”) recently and a couple of versus stuck with me- the ones that actually urge Muslims to turn away from idle talk- which I take to also mean to avoid idle actions- which some scholars believe is where listening to music falls under.

Muhammad (peace be upon him) also urged Muslims to be not be deluded by the distractions of the world because our purpose here is greater than anything else in the world. And again some scholars consider music to be a major distraction because they claim it makes us lose control of our emotions and makes us susceptible to wrong actions.

But other experts say there’s nothing in the Quran that explicitly says that music is evil and forbidden. I also believe that Muhammad (pbuh) has never really uttered anything against listening or playing instruments. So there’s a real dichotomy when it comes to opinions about music and it’s obvious where my sentiments lie.

Like I’ve said before, Islam is not a monolithic religion. Our levels of practice and belief lie in a very, very wide spectrum- from the black and white take of the Wahabi or Salafi school of thought to the deeply mystical Sufi sects. I lean more towards the Sufi side of things, but not entirely.

Most of the Islamic scholars I follow are among the most liberal or tolerant. And they all drop references to pop culture to hip hop to rock and roll. Suhaib Webb is among them and probably the best example of a mix of western pop culture and deep Islamic knowledge. It’s not unusual for him to drop several rap references in his sermons- like lines from Eric B and Rakim and Jay Z.

I also point to Yusuf Islam, who the Western world probably knows as the folk-pop star Cat Stevens. He gave up his music career when he converted to Islam but recently started making music again and going on tour. He’s still a devout Muslim but one that pursues his art and uses his God-given talent.

As I’ve mentioned before, Islam is a religion of moderation. I may not be perfect but I’m not a lapsed Muslim either. I may be in the wrong here, but I think there’s space for music and art even during the month of Ramadan. And besides, if music was forbidden why would some of the Muslim brothers and sisters I know make something like this during this holiest of months:

May 31, 2018

Last night I went to Taraweeh (or tarawih), voluntary prayers Muslims perform after the obligatory five we have to pray daily. They’re only done during Ramadan and I consider them extra credit that I actually like doing. They can last from as quick as half an hour to four or five hours. The imam (or the person who leads the prayer) recites several verses of the Quran during the prayer and we reflect upon them.

But I wasn’t really that into taraweeh growing up in the Philippines. Since my country is predominantly Catholic, there weren’t many options for prayers except a few mosques that were all very hard to get to. So my family ended up going to the Indonesian embassy in Manila because it was easy to get to. Maybe I was too young to appreciate it, but I found it soporific. It also didn’t help that it lasted two hours. As a child of 12, that’s too much to ask for.

I appreciate it a lot more now, especially if the imam’s recitation of the Quran is flawless. Last night, the imam was the perfect combination of a great voice, impeccable pronunciation and pacing. When it’s someone that skilled, tarawih can be spellbinding. At some parts, I fell into a trance as the words echoed around my mind and my heart. It was almost physical.

It also helped that we held taraweeh inside one of the most beautiful churches in Washington D.C. The acoustics were pretty amazing since I felt like I was submerged in sound.

There are nightly prayers held in other parts of the DC metropolitan area, but this is the only one I know of that’s held in a church. If you’re wondering why we’re praying taraweeh in a Christian place of worship, it’s because its keepers are willing to lend the space for other faiths. It’s meant to build up interfaith fellowship, something that we should all strive for.

Taraweeh prayer and Quran recital last night in a Washington DC church

Praying and reciting verses from the Quran surrounded by Christian iconography is something that is oddly soothing for me. Maybe because it reminds me of how I grew up. Half my family are hardcore Catholics and the other half, very Muslim. My father was Catholic and converted to Islam when he married my mother.

I also appreciate the taraweeh I went to last night because it’s also probably the most egalitarian in terms of gender. The women’s and men’s sections were side-by-side. In other spaces, the men are always in front and the women in the back. In some extreme cases, the women are in a different part of the building altogether (ie the basement).

It’s unfortunate that some spaces are so segregated because in the time of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), women also prayed right next to the men. I don’t buy the excuse that some give for separating the women: that they’re a distraction for men. It’s a pretty chauvinistic take and something I’ve had trouble accepting my whole life. But to each her/his own.

May 30, 2018

Just 16 more fasting days to go this Ramadan, and they’re going to go quick. Like I said in earlier posts, I don’t want this month to end so soon because I enjoy getting to hang out with other Muslims and building a stronger sense of community with like-minded individuals.

But Muslim communities all over the world are very welcoming to fellow believers, or at least according to my experiences.

Late last year, I went to China and visited Beijing, Chengdu and Shanghai. I didn’t really have time in Beijing and Chengdu to look for a mosque or masjid to pray but made an effort to do so in Shanghai.

I don’t really know how I found the mosque but I think I used Baidu’s (China’s answer to Google) search engine to look for Friday prayers (or jumah in Arabic). Fridays are like Sundays for Christians. That’s when we go to our places of worship to pray.

The Shanghai mosque I visited for Friday prayer last year.

It took me an hour to find the mosque in Shanghai because I’m not very good with directions. Also I had to dodge a lot of crazy traffic because drivers there aren’t really that disciplined. But when I finally found it, it felt a little strange at first.

I’m so used to walking into Mosques that are predominantly very Middle Eastern in terms of design, with a lot of the posters and announcements in Arabic. This Shanghai mosque was a hybrid of Middle Eastern and Chinese design. All the signs were in a combination of Chinese and Arabic- with the latter getting some sort of Sinicized design.

When I finally stepped in to the building and went to the washroom to do my ritual cleansing with water, a few Chinese Muslims were there and were a little surprised to see me.

It was awkward at first because they couldn’t really tell where I’m from, though I do look a lot like them (I’m part Chinese) so some of them were gawking at me. But one of them finally approached me to say hi but he didn’t speak English at all. But I was able to tell him that I was from the Philippines in very broken Chinese. After the ice-breaker, everyone in the room gathered around me to welcome me like I was a long lost relative. It was very heartwarming.

The sermon before the prayer was also in Chinese which was a novelty for me. I’ve never heard one delivered in Chinese. Of course, after the prayer other Chinese Muslims walked up to me to say hi.

While I wasn’t able to find a mosque in Chengdu, I did come across a Uighur restaurant. Uighurs are from China’s northwest, and they look more Central Asian than Chinese and they’re also predominantly Muslim. I’m posting a video of this particular joint because it had one of the servers rapping in his native tongue, probably trying to get passersby to try the halal barbecue.

A Uighur barbecue place in Chengdu with an aspiring rapper/marketer

May 29, 2018

It’s not all enlightenment and warm feelings in Ramadan for me. There are days when the world imposes its darkness on my psyche, especially in today’s America, where casual racism and bigotry seems to be a daily occurence. I don’t even want to go into the details of the latest humiliation heaped upon minorities and Muslims.

I’m supposed to rise above the hatred I see on the news on a daily basis- since experiencing anger and frustration can conceivably invalidate my fast. Wanting someone to pay dearly for their views isn’t Islamic. It’s really testing my limits.

But I’m lucky I’m surrounded by such enlightened and kind Muslim friends. When I’m with them, I feel a lot more calm and able to let the insults and slights bounce off of me like water off a duck’s back.

Some of my Muslim brothers and sisters were on the Kojo Nnamdi show– one of NPR’s (National Public Radio) most popular talk show radio programs. They were talking about Ramadan and how it fosters a stronger sense of community. One of my friends was on the show talking about his conversion to Islam and his identity as a queer Muslim.

I don’t know about other religions but being a member of the LGBTQ community is frowned upon by some Muslims for reasons that I don’t agree with. During the interview, the question about how queer Muslims reconcile being gay and Muslim at the same time was asked and my friend responded in a very thoughtful way.

He said most of the bias and prejudice that the LGBT Muslims face come from people in the name of the faith- separating people’s actions from the faith itself. More progressive Muslims won’t judge the faithful just because of their sexual preferences.

For my friend, there is no conflict between his faith and being queer- especially if he’s worshipping as his authentic self. The conflict only comes in when the outside world (other traditional Muslims) sees the two identities as completely incompatible- which often leads to summary judgments of bad or good Muslims, something that angers me to no end. No one has the right to say who’s doing wrong or right, and doing so makes one just an ignorant and arrogant miscreant.

My friend says the path he’s on is one that was given to him by God, a gift from the divine. And though he doesn’t necessarily understand the path sometimes, he doesn’t see a problem with him being queer and Muslim. For him, the faith makes him a better person.

I have other family members who identify as LGBTQ and also practice Islam and fortunately for them most of us accept their sexual orientation while other relatives consider them abhorrent. And of course, those relatives who think that way probably know I’ll tell them where they can stick their sanctimoniousness. Again, no one has the right to judge someone for the way they live their lives.

I say this because I’ve met so many Muslims who are monstrous in character. Some of them are relatives who ostensibly are on the straight and narrow and label themselves as defenders of the faith. But these same people are some of the most vilest human beings I’ve ever known.

May 28, 2018

I spent the weekend reading up on some classic Islamic texts as well as the Quran — part of my efforts to get closer to my faith during Ramadan. As I mentioned in my earlier posts, this month is also one of reflection on how to be a better Muslim, which I admit has been more of a mixed effort the last few years.

Purification of the Heart by Imam al-Mawlud Courtesy: Sandala Press

But that’s the nature of faith for most of us, I believe. There are times when it strengthens and ebbs, much like the waves that visits the shores during high and low tides. Ramadan is the time when it becomes more robust for me.

One of the books I usually turn to during Ramadan is “Purification of the Heart” by Imam al-Mawlud and translated by Hamza Yusuf. It’s a book of guidance meant to keep the faithful humble and free of arrogance, hate and envy. It’s one of my main go-to books when it comes to reacquainting myself with Islam.

The text sees the heart as the most important organ in the human body because the more pure it is, the better human being you become. According to the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), and I’m paraphrasing here: If the heart is sound, then the body is all sound. If it’s corrupt, then the whole body is corrupted.

In the “Purification of the Heart”, Imam al-Mawlud writes that all of us are born with a small black spot in our hearts and depending on how you live, that figurative spot gets bigger or shrinks. When you live a less-than-altruistic life — ruled by your obsessions, desires, and id — that spot grows bigger. But when you are humble and altruistic without seeking personal glory and submit yourself to God, that spot shrinks.

If you don’t focus on things that are good — such as being considerate to others — and neglect your faith, that spot grows. It also expands if you’re evil (i.e. you hurt people, are greedy, and talk behind people’s backs, etc). So if all that you do is detrimental to others, that black spot can grow until it covers your heart, which makes you “black-hearted”. But that spot shrinks if you are good. And if you’re all about good deeds, that spot can shrink so much as to become invisible.

Breaking my fast with friends with barbecued chicken (halal), mac and cheese, and veggies. Yum.

I’m somewhere halfway I think. That figurative black spot is still somewhat noticeable. Ramadan is the time I rally and try to shrink that dot by being more self-aware about how I live my life. That’s the problem with the modern world, I can get caught up in such worldly matters. For example what does it matter if “Billions” or “Game of Thrones” are such a good television programs? I can appreciate good art and programs, but if that’s all that I can talk about and care about, isn’t that ultimately stultifying?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that one should turn their back to the world and modern life. Muhammad (pbuh) also advised all Muslims to take everything in moderation. So, it’s Okay to have fun, but just not focus on fun all the time.

And heeding the prophet’s advice, I broke my fast yesterday with some of my Muslim brothers and sisters last night in Virginia. They’re a fun-loving bunch and liberal-minded group of fellow believers made up predominantly of converts.

While they’re very enthusiastic about the religion, they have their feet in both worlds. So besides talking about Islam last night, we also talked about the Kardashians, Black Panther, and why “Solo” (the newest Star Wars movie) is a disaster. Always in moderation.

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.