Six years ago, I moved from Mexico City to Edmonton, Alberta, in Canada. Although I moved here to study, my trip to the north resulted to be a whole religious experience. Having grown up in a nuclear family that had left Catholicism and had sought dogmatic atheism, I was largely unfamiliar with religious diversity. Thus, coming to Canada quickly sparked my curiosity, and here I am six years later with a degree in Political Science and Religious Studies.
My first contact with Islam was when I was still learning English at the University of Alberta. Since Alberta is the centre of petroleum exploration and petroleum engineering education in Canada, I studied in classes where half my classmates were from Saudi Arabia and the other half from China. My first encounters with Saudi classmates, especially males, were quite frustrating. Many of them felt the need to show some kind of pious superiority, while others felt attacked in an environment where their religion was often being connected to 9/11.
As for myself, I was struggling to come to terms with the strong secular principles I had learned through my family and I had started to question the strong reactions that my parents showed when presented with the issue of religion.
By my second year of university I was already “religion-shopping,” which led me into my first Religious Studies class. In this class, one of the projects was to visit a religious community other than our own and write about our experiences. Luckily for me, it was Ramadan, which allowed me to observe the Muslim community in Edmonton from a special angle. While looking for appropriate clothes to visit the local mosque, I met an Egyptian friend of mine who introduced me in a non-academic manner to Islam. She taught me about worship, spirituality, prayers and Ramadan. Through that friend I was later introduced to other ladies who were more than happy to talk to me about Ramadan and what it meant for them.
On the surface, I was introduced to the idea of fasting. While I had seen Muslims fast in the past I had neither tried it myself, nor had I paid enough attention to the spiritual connotations of fasting. Nonetheless, I was truly impressed by the effects that the spiritual part of Ramadan had on some of the ladies I got to know. Some of them focused on memorizing Qur’an, while others sought to amend past wrongdoings. Some others would pursue specific types of sacrifice such as not eating meat (on top of the fasting), or praying all night every night during Ramadan.
After seeing the kind of commitment that Ramadan inspired in some Muslims, I made a commitment to try it myself the following year. Although I was not a Muslim at the time, I was welcomed into the mosque as a “friend,” and I was taught how to fast and what to seek in terms of my spiritual relationship with the divine. The first day of fasting I felt I was dying… Perhaps I was a bit dramatic, but after 18 or 19 hours of fasting in northern Canada, with the sharp summery sun and the extra-long days, I could not think of anything but a big, fluffy cupcake with whipped cream and cherries on top.
By the time I would break my fast, my family would be already in bed preparing to sleep. At the beginning, fellow Muslim friends told me to rest and perhaps even take a break from work. However, it seemed for me that I had the moral responsibility to carry on with my regular activities, as I had been told that Prophet Muhammad had done. Half way through Ramadan I had lost 5 pounds, but I was getting used to it. The cupcake craving never went away, and until this day I crave it. The fact that my family was neither Muslim nor sensitive to religious issues meant for me that I had to break my fast alone and I had to watch my family eat and drink snacks all day long on weekends. Similarly, when at work, people would look at me with pity because I could not eat, and they would try to help by telling me “don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone if you break your fast.” Even though I was puzzled by these situations, I later realized that having someone not eating in an office setting seems to make people nervous.
My first Ramadan went on successfully. I managed to fast all month long, and without noticing, I had also disciplined myself in many other aspects. Fasting during Ramadan also gave me a glimpse into what my spiritual life would be if I was a Muslim. I not only dedicated the month to reading the complete Qur’an, but also introduced myself to Islamic scholarship. Today, I can actually say that my first Ramadan probably changed my life in unimaginable ways, and I think that my family would agree (because they never thought I would go on seeking a religious experience… but oh well!) Allah guided me through a different path and I learned a lot about myself through it. To this day, Ramadan is for me a time of “renewal” and I have been able to break away from particular traditional practices in order to find those spiritual practices that enhance my personal relationship with the divine.
For more on Ramadan, and to read the rest of the posts in MMW’s Ramadan 2012 series, click here.