When I chose Islam, almost a decade ago, I did not have much experience with fasting. I had grown up in not a very diverse environment and my experience with the Lent was very limited, coming from a Protestant background. Still, some years we would attend weekly “soup meetings,” where different families would come together during the Lent to eat soup. While eating soup for dinner might be a real challenge for some people, for the often frugal Dutch, it is a very common Sunday meal, so it’s hardly something that would be thought of as “fasting”. Soup served with sandwiches is a legitimate meal to serve guests, to the horror of my husband, and undoubtedly for many other non-Dutch.
I have fond memories of my first years fasting Ramadan. By then I lived in a small Dutch university town and within the small Muslim community I was well-known, and (I guess) quite liked, as I was never short of invitations in Ramadan, and throughout the year, for that matter. The community was very diverse, but really rather small. As such, there was neither place nor reason to distinguish between different Islamic sects, languages or backgrounds. Most of us were living in the town temporarily, so there was a strong feeling that we had to cope with what we had, and it was not much. Our mosque consisted of two adjacent rooms in a partly empty and rather dingy office building. We did not have an Imam, but at times a more knowledgeable person would fit that role for a few months, maybe a year. Before long, he would leave to go back home or wherever his endeavors took him.
As women, we had our “sheikhas” too; that is how we would fondly refer to them. For quite a while this was an Iranian lady, who was Shi’a and had studied religion in university. The other women were predominantly Sunni, but most of us did not have much experience with the more complex religious topics, and therefore our Iranian friend was to obvious to-go person for the more in-depth religious questions. Honestly, I do not think that anyone really cared, until a few Egyptian ladies refused to eat her food, claiming that it could not be halal. And praying alongside her, that would definitely invalidate all our prayers at that time, and who knows, for the day!
At that point even my shahada (profession of faith), which I took in front of many women, was being questioned. As I followed her lead pronouncing that there is no God but God and that Muhammad is his Prophet, I now was, apparently, most definitely a Shi’a too, God forbid!
Of course, everything blew over; the next week, the rumors of a pending divorce, or a possible engagement, were on everyone’s minds. The Egyptian ladies, however, never returned to our small gatherings, and our Shi’a friend became a less regular face in the mosque/prayer room. She would continue having us over in the privacy of her own home, where she would help us with the understanding the Quran and give some general Islamic advice that was accepted by all schools of thought.
Not only did we organize “religious” events, we also attempted to organize “Islamic aerobics classes” using an Iranian workout tape, rented out a swimming pool once a while, and had picnics in the summer. Our celebrations of the Islamic Eid, were popular among Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Overall, all of our get-togethers were attended by non-Muslim women too, some of them interested in Islam (as they had married a Muslim, for example). Others just missed a community to call their own, and found that even though the followed different religions we shared common values. But the most important thing that brought us all together was the need for a community, with its own traditions that would transcend generations of students. I know for a fact that many of the events and celebrations that I was a part of are still being organized in the same way. And that is, somehow, a comforting thought, though I do not know many people in that community anymore.
Even though I love to dwell on the past, be all nostalgic about what I had back then, and the amazing community I was a part of, my reality now is slightly different. I am now in Canada, a mother of two young girls, married into a community where invitations in Ramadan are big happenings and almost formal in nature, and in addition, I recently moved to a new town, where I am just getting to know some potential friends.
So for this Ramadan, my main goal is to think about my own traditions that I want to establish for my family. Having grown up with Christmas, Sinterklaas (a Dutch early December Santa Claus) and Queen’s Day, I am fully aware of how traditions can create fond memories, but as I am not living in the Netherlands anymore, and I do not share these traditions with my husband, I understand the need for creating traditions that help us share our faith with our children and those around us.
One thing that I have appreciated so much, back in my small university town, was the impulsiveness of invitations, the feeling that you are welcome, even though you were not formally invited a week ago. The sharing and really getting together (mostly Muslim, but definitely non-Muslim too), was so special for me then, and I would like to continue that, as a part of this family’s Ramadan tradition.
While it is the month of the Quran, and spiritual development is a very common goal among Muslims, with two children, long humid days, and without the flexibility to attend evening prayers in the mosque on a regular basis, this is difficult to accomplish. I truly hope that by strengthening the ties with the people around me that I am just getting to know, I will create memories for our family.
When it comes to incorporating Ramadan/religion in the lives of my young children, I definitely still need some pointers with that. Even though I am definitely trying to make my eldest one (age 3) aware of God/Allah, and some main concepts in religion, she still believes that going to the mosque equals wearing a fancy princess dress and she finds the whole omnipresence of God rather frightening… So all the parents/caregivers or those with parental experience out there, do share your experiences/advice!
Edited to Add: For more on Ramadan, and to read the rest of the posts in MMW’s Ramadan 2012 series, click here.