By Tamer Mostafa,
Associate Clinical Social Worker
April 27, 2022
The Humanism of Fasting Ramadan by Muslims
“Just because you don’t get it, doesn’t mean it’s oppressive,”—Ramy Youssef
Just recently, a well-intentioned coworker asked if I would like to go out for lunch with them and other colleagues. I respectfully declined on account of Ramadan, the Islamic month where Muslims fast from sunup to sundown, for thirty straight days. No food, water, desire, or anger for 14 hours a day. Rather than be open or curious about the sanctity and solace that Ramadan offers Muslims, this colleague interrogatively asked questions and made statements that landed as micro-aggressions.
“How does that even work?”
“You’re lying right? That’s impossible!”
“Won’t you die?”
“I feel sorry for you.”
“That’s madness! I could never do that!”
Although all these lines serve as triggers that ultimately came from a space of ignorance, not necessarily mean spiritedness, the last line with its coded word (i.e. madness) is especially damaging because it directly feeds into the singularized stereotypes that Muslims come up against in media, pop culture, and other politically-charged discourses. Despite working in the mental health field for nearly 10 years, micro-aggressions such as the ones my coworker communicated have become so normalized, I am adept at diverting conversations away from my Muslim-ness because validating your truth takes such an emotional toll, it’s difficult to muster the energy on a consistent basis. I’ve worked side by side with folks who vehemently advocated for the Muslim Ban in the workforce, and even had a “liberal” supervisor who claimed that domestic violence was a “Muslim” problem, not a hyper-masculine or patriarchal problem. These examples are not unique to Muslims. Anyone who identifies as marginalized or underrepresented is all too aware of assimilating into normative spaces, only to be othered and excluded by misconceptions that range from mild ignorance to downright discriminatory.
For those of us Muslims who are privileged with family, friends, and community members that make Ramadan as ubiquitous as it should be, this time can still feel excruciatingly isolating because of the underlying rhetoric that underlies moments like the ones I described earlier. When we attempt to comprehend a practice that is not inherently tied to our social location or what’s familiar to us, it becomes comfortably easy to define that practice within a deficit-based perspective, and reduce it to what we think we know about someone’s race, religion, gender, sexuality, etc. Fitting into someone’s stereotype of what they believe it is to be Muslim reflects the general isolation that Muslims experience in America, as we still face the incredible burden of atoning for the violence enacted by a small number of outliers.
“We should believe one another, honor the bodies and lives of one another.”
As a mental health counselor and therapist, I don’t give credence to the idea that mental health issues are always intrinsically, or biologically located within us. At a time when mental health is becoming so politicized in various systems (i.e. schools, communities, workforces, even the Oscars), I believe the state of our mental health is interconnected within the social fabric of how our full, complex, multi-storied selves are seen, heard, and believed. There is a way to celebrate our differences without the binary of what is right vs. what is wrong. Through curiosity, and humility especially, we can strip away the crude burden of validating someone else’s identity, their lived experiences, and the unique social intersection that they occupy. We should believe one another, honor the bodies and lives of one another.
“Truly seeing someone different than us will raise questions, but there is a way to ask those questions from a responsive perspective that doesn’t categorize people into boxes that only constrain our full selves.”
The quote that prefaces this article comes from Ramy Youssef, an Arab-American, Muslim comedian who, in his first HBO stand-up special, uses the quote to punctuate a story in which a white woman returns to America from visiting the Middle East during the summer. Upon learning that Youssef is Muslim, she chastises him for making women wear a hijab (headscarf) in the heat. Youssef, a millennial born in New York City and raised in New Jersey, doesn’t defend or renounce the hijab like the woman impels him to. Nor does he debate the spectrum of reasons why someone would wear the hijab, some of which do center on self-empowerment while others can unfortunately be due to fear or force. Instead, he chalks up the encounter to “the questions that happen when people don’t know each other.” Truly seeing someone different than us will raise questions, but there is a way to ask those questions from a responsive perspective that doesn’t categorize people into boxes that only constrain our full selves.
“Ramadan has been a time for reflection, filled with lightness… a time for us to intentionally practice the values intrinsic to Islam—love, amends, social-consciousness, healing, and equity for everyone, not just Muslims.”
It should go without saying, but Ramadan is not a time of extremism. It is not a “crazy time.” Islam is not a religion of extremism. No religion is. From my experiences of fasting since I was 11 years old, Ramadan has been a time for reflection, filled with lightness, almost like a levity that is unquantifiable. It’s a time for us to intentionally practice the values intrinsic to Islam—love, amends, social-consciousness, healing, and equity for everyone, not just Muslims. With Ramadan nearing its end, I’m wishing an early Eid Mubarak to my Muslim siblings around the world. Wherever you are in your journey, whatever intersection you find yourself at, know that you’re beautiful. Your story is always your story. Love and peace.
About The Author
Tamer Mostafa, ACSW, is a therapist and a poet/storyteller from Stockton, California. Tamer is a Best of the Net and Pushcart nominee, whose debut, full length book of poetry, Where Will I Find America? was released in Summer, 2021. He currently works in a private practice, where he draws from Narrative therapy and mindfulness practices to harness the ideas, skills, beliefs, and experiences that help community members reclaim the preferred stories they want to live. As an Arab-American Muslim, Tamer lives life through spirituality, community work, and the music of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony.