Every year around this time, I start to see a certain kind of article circulating. Actually, it happens about a week and a half earlier each year, because Ramadan comes about eleven days earlier every year.
Ramadan is one of twelve months in the Muslim calendar. It’s different from the Roman Gregorian calendar, which is synced to precise calculations about the geometry of the solar system and divided into 30- and 31-day months plus one of 28- or 29-days, or even the Jewish lunar calendar with twelve months of 29 or 30 days, and an intercalary lunar month of 29 or 30 days added periodically to synchronize the twelve lunar cycles with the longer solar year. Passover is always in the verdant springtime, and Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when the harvest has begun.
In Islam, the holidays cycle throughout the year. The Muslim calendar has twelve months of 29 or 30 days, each month beginning the morning after the first sighting of a new crescent moon. That adds up to 354 or 355 days, which means that each Muslim month or holiday — Ramadan, Hajj, Muharram, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha — falls ten or eleven days earlier in the commonly used solar calendar.
So, it’s actually about a week and a half earlier each year that I start to see a certain kind of article circulating. Articles about how lonely Ramadan is for new converts to Islam. Articles about how lonely Ramadan is for Muslim students abroad, especially women. Articles about how lonely Ramadan is for single adult Muslims, especially women and divorcees. Articles about how lonely and difficult Ramadan is for refugees, even resettled refugees. Articles about how heartbreaking Ramadan is for people facing collective or individual loss, or managing other kinds of grief.
Of course, holidays across all religions can be difficult for people who are alone, estranged, besieged, grieving. Christmas, Purim, Newroz, Samhain, even secular holidays like Thanksgiving and New Years can bring up deep, even unexpected emotional reactions.
In the fall of 2001, I was studying abroad in England, living alone in dorms at the University of East Anglia on the outskirts of Norwich. On the second Sunday in November, I took the bus into Norwich to services at the historic Unitarian Octagon Chapel, and then into the city centre for lunch at my favorite soup place. (This was before my Argentinian Unitarian professor friend had introduced me to the wonderfully civilized English pub tradition of Sunday roast.)
After that, it was the weekly grocery shopping at Tesco, where I was picking up the usual things — frozen quiche lorraine, pasta and sauce, soups and breads. I remember wondering whether I should pick up some of the trappings of a Thanksgiving dinner. That was silly, I scolded myself. I wasn’t in America. I was in England; I should do English things. (I did leave Tesco with a small jar of cranberry sauce.)
Wednesday morning, well before my alarm, without coffee, I snapped fully awake. Laying on my back, staring up at the blank white ceiling of my little single room, I said, “Who am I kidding? I can’t not have Thanksgiving!” It’s my favorite holiday.
I got up, got dressed, went by the campus cafe for a latte and a scone with jam and clotted cream, and got on the bus. Soon I was back in Tesco with a basket in my hand, shopping for a Thanksgiving dinner for one. It was a dismal affair. An over-microwaved turkey breast, an under-microwaved baked potato, some frozen peas, a little jar of jellied cranberry instead of my beloved cranberry-orange relish, alone at the kitchen table because none of my flatmates knew what day it was. It would be the last time living abroad that I didn’t make some sort of arrangement to celebrate Thanksgiving with people who would appreciate what the holiday meant to me.
But Christmas, Purim, Newroz, Thanksgiving…. These are one-day holidays — or maybe five if, like me, you count the day after Thanksgiving and the following Monday, the sacred Pennsylvanian holiday of the first day of buck season. Easter is several days over consecutive weekends; Passover and Hannukah are each eight days.
Ramadan, however, is a whole month, 28 consecutive days and nights followed by the 3-day Feast of Breaking Fast: Eid al-Fitr.
Theologically, Ramadan is a month of austerity and deprivation, a time of grateful meditation on the bounty God has provided, a time to build empathy for one’s neighbors and siblings in faith who live without, and a time of charity, of sharing one’s own bounty and redistributing a community’s wealth to serve a greater good.
Culturally, however, while Ramadan is a time of daily deprivation, it is a time of nightly sumptuous, decadent feasts and big gatherings of friends, family and communities. If ever you are invited to share a Ramadan iftar breaking of the fast with a Muslim family or congregation, I recommend abstaining from all but water throughout the day yourself, because you’ll be confronted with mountains of protein- and grain-dense foods, and it’s the only way you’ll be able to eat enough that you don’t insult your hostess … and then there will still be dessert!
The first nights of Ramadan are generally spent with near family. In the village of my Peace Corps service, that generally included the large families of three or four neighboring uncles, and great-uncles and second cousins farther down the road. After the first few nights, families start to travel to the next town or city to visit maternal relatives and more distant cousins. Around the middle of the month, gatherings of friends, colleagues, classmates or congregations are more common. Later in the month, the family gatherings resume, culminating in the big family daytime feast of Eid.
All of that will be different this Ramadan. Nothing is the same this year.
Unless they already live together, Muslim families won’t be gathering to break the fast together. Mosques won’t be assembling their congregations in the basement around trays piled high with catered Indian food donated by a community member’s restaurant, Muslim Student Associations won’t be filling meeting rooms with potlucks of their traditional foods, and synagogues and churches won’t be hosting Muslim communities for interfaith exchanges.
Single Muslims, students still at universities abroad or at a distance, guest workers abroad, single parents, bereaved Muslims, newlyweds, new parents, Muslims who’ve just lost their jobs….
They’ll get up before first light alone, or with only the people in their home, to guzzle water and a protein-rich suhoor meal. They’ll be quarantined alone with their hunger and thirst from 6:00 a.m. until 8:00 p.m. They’ll cook alone, and sit alone when the food is done, wait alone for the tinny sound of the adhaan from their smartphones, the signal that they can eat. Night after night after night for a month.
Maybe they’ll get on Skype, on Zoom, on the phone with friends and family, like we did in my house for Easter brunch, but just like my Easter brunch, which was wonderful, it won’t be the same as cuddling my niece and nephew, taking an afternoon walk together, sharing my brother’s pancakes or my mother’s muffins or my cousin’s husband’s German Easter cake. We’re all doing what we have to do, but we also all know it’s not easy.
If you have Muslim friends, family, neighbors, coworkers or community members, maybe take a little extra care to be in touch with them. Don’t make assumptions; your Muslim friends will have seen this coming, will have made plans and arranged contingencies as best they can. But maybe make yourself available a little bit extra.
- Maybe offer to delay your own dinner until sunset and eat together over Skype.
- Maybe offer to call in the last ten minutes before sunset; staring at the prepared dinner and unable to eat it yet was the hardest part of each day when I fasted.
- Maybe call at mid-afternoon on a Saturday, when lips have begun to chap from thirst but there are no work meetings to distract from the thoughts in your head.
- Maybe offer to Netflix Party in the evening when your Muslim friend isn’t lounging in the living room with extended family.
- Maybe just check in and say hi at any time, in case they want someone to talk to.
We all need our friends to be there for us in new, creative ways right now. How are you showing up in your friends lives right now? And how can you do a little extra for your Muslim friends between April 23rd and May 23rd this year?