As an atheistic Satanist and minister, I have always thought back to my teenage years when New Atheism was in its heyday, how cringy the gotcha-style rhetoric of that brand of atheism was at the time, and basically tried to do the opposite. As a minister, it’s been my observation that most criticisms of religion in the popular consciousness are age-old questions that theologians and philosophers from a variety of religions have tried to answer or at least interrogate. This perspective has allowed me to recognize and appreciate all the reasons why a person might engage with religion even if there are problems, doubts, or struggles that make it difficult sometimes.
Everywhere I looked people were talking, laughing, and sharing in the joy of seeing so many people they know all in one place.
Nowhere was it more evident why someone would choose Islam than when I went to an iftar meal. For those unaware, iftar is the meal eaten after sundown that breaks the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan. As it was explained to me, there are two reasons for the fast. The first is to demonstrate obedience to Allah. When a person sublimates their desire for food and water with a desire for Allah, they demonstrate their mastery of a will to obey over the body’s biological drive to sustain itself. The second reason is in solidarity with the poor. Ramadan is usually a time when giving to the poor, which is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, is strongly encouraged, and Muslim organizations have been built up to make this as easy as possible for folks to do.
A little disclaimer: I may misremember some details and I’m probably using certain words wrong, but hopefully just like reading the Qur’an in English, I get points for trying.
I was studying at university at the time, and the local Muslim Student Association invited all students, family, and community members who weren’t regular attendees of their events to join them for iftar one night of Ramadan. There was also an added challenge, they encouraged everyone who could to fast for the day. They had done this every year I had attended school, but I hadn’t had the forethought to actually do it until my final year. Everyone I’ve ever talked to about fasting for Ramadan says the first few days are the hardest: caffeine headaches, stomach aches from a lack of food, and you have to remind yourself not to drink water even though your body is begging for some of that sweet, sweet dihydrogen oxide. They were absolutely right. That day was rotten from the moment I woke up until the time I got to the community iftar.
I confess that I did cheat, a little. I didn’t stop smoking. To be in full compliance with the fasting rules, I should have refrained from smoking from sunrise to sundown. In Islam, people who are pregnant and people with health conditions that might make it dangerous to fast are exempt and there are ways to atone if you break your fast. I figured that quitting smoking without enough preparation would make me an absolute nightmare of a human being to be around and that I’d rather be able to go about my day without making it obvious I was fasting.
Every time I think about that night it’s almost enough to make me head to my local mosque and say the Shahada.
I showed up with the punctuality of a mastercraft clock, but to my disappointment, there were very few people there and food was a long way off. I didn’t realize that the listed time was their best guess at when the sun would set and not the start time (actual sunset). The trade-off of coming early was the chance to talk to some of the senior leadership in MSA who asked me about my experience of fasting (it was awful) and shared with me how they make it through the entire month. An hour after the official start, people had finally found their way to the large ballroom where tables had been set up.
I’m terribly shy around people I don’t know, but I said hello to a few people I knew and waved at others who I recognized but had no meaningful interactions with. The president of the MSA chapter welcomed everyone, made a few announcements, and then the whole assembly split into two groups by perceived gender binary. I have participated in Friday prayers by invitation before, but unless I feel particularly moved to do so I don’t usually pray just to fit in. That’s true at a church, synagogue, and a masjid. The gender divide thing always made me uncomfortable, but I also know there’s a lot of internal debate about it and some mosques don’t have that divide.
After the prayer ended, everyone filed back to their seats, and a few more words from community leaders before we could eat. While those leaders spoke, large piles of dates were placed on the tables alongside bottled water. I don’t recall if I had ever eaten a date before, but that date was the best thing I have eaten in a long time. Very few things I have eaten in my lifetime have hit quite like those first few dates. A random woman at my table was kind enough to warn me that dates have a pit in them. I might have tried to eat them like Indiana Jones and ended up like the monkey.
I wish I could tell you I remember everything I ate, but I can’t. All I know is that I enjoyed every bite. The reason I can’t remember the food is far more important. Everywhere I looked people were talking, laughing, and sharing in the joy of seeing so many people they know all in one place. It was similar to the same elation I had seen at Seders and Easter dinners, but many times bigger. It’s these moments of community, these moments of togetherness that brought me to tears. Every time I think about that night it’s almost enough to make me head to my local mosque and say the Shahada. This was Islam in practice.
Nothing could capture the sheer wonder that was iftar that night of Ramadan so many years ago. I will forever be grateful to MSA for sharing that experience with me. In one night it taught me what months of studying the Qur’an in a stuffy classroom never did.
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