Ramadan for the Unsure
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When people ask me about “faith,” I don’t know what to say. I don’t spend a lot of time on matters of faith. The more that I have attempted to engage Islamic theology, the less useful it appears. The big controversies that have divided Muslim theologians aren’t too thrilling for me: the Qur’an being eternally coexistent with God or having been created at a moment in time doesn’t change anything for Islam in my world. The question of what the Qur’an means when it says that God has hands or settles over a throne doesn’t keep me from sleeping at night. When people claim ownership of the secret decoder rings that can tell us when God really means what he says and when he hides behind metaphors, it seems to me that they only penetrate the deep mysteries of themselves. During my time with the Five Percenters, I came to see theology as “Willy Wonka Math,” meaning that it’s the kind of math that puts you in a world of pure imagination.
Now it’s Ramadan, the month during which Muslims fast from dawn to sunset for 30 days. At first glance, the big ideas behind Ramadan are pretty spooky. Among other things, Ramadan is a celebration of a supernatural event, the revelation of the Qur’an. It was reportedly during this month that the Qur’an’s 23-year process of revelation began. In special taraweeh prayers, Sunni Muslims recite a portion of the Qur’an every night, completing the entire Qur’an by the month’s end.
There are times when I can get into the mystery of god, yes. But I don’t always place stock in the idea that my Qur’an provides me with information regarding an entity that the Qur’an itself tells me is beyond my comprehension. It’s not that I’m an unbeliever, not exactly. I just don’t care about the Willy Wonka Math enough to deal with questions that would render me a believer or unbeliever in the eyes of those who feel qualified to assess my faith. I still kiss the Qur’an and place it on my highest shelf, but my reasons don’t hinge on the book’s author having a throne above the heavens. For me, considering where I’m at with matters of faith these days, this year’s Ramadan fast will have more to do with the Prophet than God.
It was during my experiments with South American hallucinogens that I found my image of Muhammad, broken by years of questions and challenges and disillusionments, healed and whole again. This isn’t to say that I had an instant “born again” moment at which a light was switched and my life instantly and permanently changed. I’m still not a person of heavy ritual discipline. The only thing going for me is that I am willing to sit with the hadith collections in ways that I haven’t been for most of the past 20 years that I’ve been Muslim. I have taken up interest in Muhammad not as an eternal “Muhammadan reality,” as some mystics have treated him, but as a purely physical body, a man who lived on this planet. I’ve done this in such a way that I’ve lost all interest in abstract theology or systematized esotericism. I just want the man.
There are some Muslims today who would all but erase Muhammad from Islam, reducing him to the role of a mailman whose job was simply to show up at our door, deliver a package from the Lord of the Worlds, and then walk back out of our lives. These folks tend to assume that all of the troublesome aspects of our tradition stem from the hadith, Muhammad’s recorded sayings and actions. If we can only jettison the hadith, they promise, then Islam will be free of whatever they consider to be its unattractive qualities: these usually include ritualism, legalism, religious intolerance, superstition, gender oppression, and exaltation of Muhammad beyond his status as a mortal human being. The Qur’an, in contrast, is seen as the home of clear gender egalitarianism, mercy, justice, tolerance, pluralism, spiritual insight, rationalism, and everything that enlightened moderns want their religion to be. The Qur’an-only people may be giving too much credit to the revealed text, while also neglecting the full complexity of the hadith tradition. Sometimes—as in 4:34, the Qur’an’s so-called wife-beating verse—Muhammad’s life helps me to deal with the Qur’an’s more difficult spots. In many other hadith reports, Muhammad’s tenderness, patience, humor, and even moments of anger lend a vulnerable human balance to the Qur’an, which we treat as the speech of God.
Honestly, there are statements in both the Qur’an and hadith about the nature of God and unseen-type things that just trip me out. I’m not worrying about them, and I’m not obsessing over what I believe or disbelieve. I have come to be less concerned with the way that my insides can change my outsides than the opposite: how do my actions transform my heart? That is why I will fast this year. I am walking on the path of one who was better than me. This Ramadan, I will look to Muhammad’s custom, his sunnah, as a way of being in the world. This is not in opposition to my celebration of the Qur’an. As Muhammad’s wife A’isha said, Muhammad’s personality was the Qur’an itself.
In my moments of hunger, I will think about his hunger. In intimate family meals and large community celebrations, I will strive to remember his habits and manners. Hopefully, the Prophet’s example will make me a greater help to those who have no choice but to go without food throughout the year. Sitting as Muhammad sat, or eating as he ate, may seem insignificant, but my intention is for them to serve as reminders of his overall treatment of people. I will also pray as he prayed, and whether or not the object of my prayer is at all compatible with his, I will have him in my heart as I move like he moved. I cannot claim to be on the right track in terms of aqidah, but I will try to be strong in my love for the Prophet, which is also an expression of my love for my Muslim family and communities. Creeds and faith may come and go, but I presently find love to be much more compelling.
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