I missed all but five fasts last Ramadan, and if this sounds like a shocking confession, you might want to try a survey of women to see how many of them have fasts to make up. Many young mothers struggle to make up dozens -if not hundreds- of fasts missed in the alternating cycles of pregnancy and breastfeeding. There are also people with medical conditions that prevent them from fasting entirely, and last year I was a little bit of both.
Ramadan 2012 the fasts in Dubai were 17 hours long and the weather was a daily average of around 45C. That's 113 degrees in case you think in Fahrenheit, and it was sometimes higher, sometimes lower, but never anywhere below 100 degrees. I had a five month old baby to feed and two children to care for when I got a kidney infection that was exacerbated by dehydration. The spiritual bootstrapping that I had been looking forward to all year, every year, was brought to an end having barely begun -after just five fasts.
I felt guilty. I felt cheated. I felt resentful to yet again be sacrificing my personal spiritual goals to the never-ending demands of motherhood. Wasn't it bad enough that I was struggling with Fajr and praying with one eye on the baby and less than half a heart in my duas? I'd been to less than a dozen Jumu‘ah prayers in the previous six years, was forgetting my longer surahs, and now I couldn't fast either?
If I wasn't fasting, then what was I supposed do for the rest of Ramadan?
I wasn't sure, so for lack of an alternative, I sulked. In parallel, I put on a cheerful Momma-mask and tried to make Ramadan special for my children, but when the sun set on the last day and I realized that Ramadan was over, I cried. I wasn't expecting to -and I certainly wasn't planning to- but I was mourning.
I thought it was all gone: the spiritual high, the feeling of lightness that lets you float through hunger and thirst without your feet even touching the ground. I missed the opportunity to get close to Allāh for that one month, when I had always struggled to find that closeness for the remainder of year. The sweetness of the first date after 17 hours of hunger, the life that the first sip of water brings to the body after thirst -it was lost. I thought my soul was a land of drought that was doomed to never again see rain.
Alḥamdulillāh, I was wrong. But it took me a while to realize that. In giving me children and health challenges, Allāh wasn't taking me out of the game, He was raising the bar. Think of it this way: it's easy to clear a forest if you've got a chainsaw. But what if Allāh takes the chainsaw away? Can you still clear the forest? If you want to badly enough, yes. Because fasting is a spiritual power tool, but it is not the only tool in the believer's box.
If you're not into religious metaphors for lumberjacks, then think of video games. When you were young and single and carefree, you could wake up and pray half the night, eat suhoor and read Qur'an until the sun rose. You could sleep after Dhuhr and spend as much time in the masjid as you wanted to because you were playing the game on easy mode. No kids, no job, nothing to stop you from using all the big guns in the game right from day one. Congratulations, you got a high score -but that was easy mode.
Play the game again, and this time put it into “Adult” mode -you get a full-time job so you can't use tahajjud or long taraweeh to level up. There are way more baddies stomping around; family, work, and peers pulling you away from Allāh, and the puzzles you're required to solve to reach the next level are even more complicated. If you get a high score on adult mode, māshā'Allāh, good job. There are still harder levels, and “Mother” is one of them.
When you play Ramadan in “Mother” mode, you get one gun, one medikit, and only six bullets for the whole game. No sleep, rushed Fajr, no sitting peacefully before Iftar because you're busy frying things. You're pulling double shifts: the red-eye suhoor to taraweeh schedule, in addition to the 9-5 kids & school schedule. Try earning Ibadah points when you're busy feeding people and struggling to get enough rest to survive another day. Try -just try- to find the time and the quiet to take your twisted, battle-hardened nafs and strip away the armor to find the softness of repentance inside. But try that later, because right now there are guests coming over so please make two dozen samosas.
Also, the baby is crying.
Oh, and the kids need help with their homework.
And can you please iron this? Thanks.
There's a bright side. The greater the challenge, the greater the reward. In the same way that a person who struggles to read Qur'an is rewarded more than one who reads it without effort -the person who fasts with great difficulty will be rewarded more than one whose fast is easy.
If you're a young mother and you're frustrated with balancing maternal responsibilities and missing spiritual goals, you're not alone. You should not be sad, you should actually be honored. Allāh decided you're ready to play on the next level, and your duties as a mother are not a distraction from the game, they're actually part of the plot.
(Of course, it may also be part of the game to teach you to prioritise and downscale which Ramadan “traditions” are spiritually nourishing and which are spiritually sabotaging, but religious vs. cultural practices for Ramadan is a post for another day.)
To take it up another level, the one who fasts amidst difficulty and gets closer to Allāh in Ramadan will be rewarded for their effort, but the one who Allāh does not allow to fast -but achieves the same closeness- could be rewarded all the more for the greatness of that challenge. If you are someone to whom -for whatever medical reason- the door of fasting is closed, remember that the doors of tawakkul, Qu'ran, sabr, sadaqa, ihsan, and īmān are still open and they all lead to the same place -nearness to Allāh.
Instead of seeing your situation as a disadvantage, try to see it as the next level and thank Allāh for the opportunity to play it. You will have to work harder, think faster, and plan better to be able to reach the same spiritual goals that everyone else is, but Allāh challenges us directly in proportion to our abilities, so trust that Allāh knows you're up to it.
So, if your Ramadan game is on Hard Mode for whatever reason, here are some things you can do even if you can't fast:
- Pray more.
This is a given, but Muslims have an interesting relationship with ṣalāh. If you're not from among the blessed minority who love it, look forward to it, and perform it with Ihsan, then you probably do it because you should, and you may not be enthusiastic about doing more of it than you must. You might not be tremendously excited to hear that you should be praying more in Ramadan, but there's a good reason for this.
“But prostrate yourself and draw near (unto Allāh)” (Surah al-Alaq:19)
In a nutshell, not wanting to pray more indicates a distance from Allāh, or having a heart that is yearning in a direction away from Allāh. The solution? Pray more. Pray harder. Pray longer. The more you pray, the closer you get. Du‘ā’ included.
- Attend religious talks and classes, even if you normally never do and might otherwise not.
Allāh (glorified and exalted be He) has supernumerary angels who rove about seeking out gatherings in which Allāh's name is being invoked: they sit with them and fold their wings round each other, filling that which is between them and between the lowest heaven. When [the people in the gathering] depart, [the angels] ascend and rise up to heaven…
…Then He (Allāh) says: I have forgiven them and I have bestowed upon them what they have asked for, and I have granted them sanctuary from that from which they asked protection.
He (the Prophet ) said: They say: O Lord, among them is so-and-so, a much sinning servant, who was merely passing by and sat down with them. He (the Prophet ) said: And He says: And to him [too] I have given forgiveness: he who sits with such people shall not suffer.[Related by Muslim (also by Bukhāri, at-Tirmidhi, and an-Nasa'i) Full version of the hadith available here: http://sunnah.com/qudsi40/14]
- Share the blessings by sharing Iftar.
Zaid ibn Khalid Al-Juhani reported: The Messenger of Allāh, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Whoever feeds a person who is breaking his fast will earn the same reward as his without anything being lessened from the reward of the fasting person.”[Sunan At-Tirmidhi 807, Grade: Sahih (authentic) according to At-Tirmidhi]
- Wrap yourself in mercy and surround yourself with angels by reading Qur'an in a masjid.
Abu Hurayra (Allāh be pleased with him) reports as part of a longer hadith, from the Messenger of Allāh that: “No people gather in a house of the houses of Allāh reciting the Book of Allāh and studying it among themselves except that serenity descends upon them, mercy envelops them, the angels surround them, and Allāh makes mention of them to those with Him.”[Muslim (4867), Tirmidhi (1345), Abu Dawud (1243), Ibn Maja (221), Ahmad (7118), and others]
- Replace your background noise with Qur'an.
While this is a good tip in general for reducing sins and helping detox your brain from the addiction of music, there is another benefit as well:
The Messenger of Allāh has said: “The one who recites the Qur'an and the one who listens to it have an equal share in the reward.”[Mustadrakul Wasa'il, Volume 1, Page 293]
- Do Dhikr, and aim for quality over quantity.
Rather than target saying a certain phrase a certain number of times and patting yourself on the back for it, pick something and say it once. Then, think about it. Understand it. Ponder over it. Blog about it if you must, but make sure your dhikr isn't evaporating off your lips without ever reaching your heart. Remember that when you make mention of Allāh, he is with you, and he mentions you. Let that sink in -if you even whisper Allāh's name to yourself, he whispers yours back.
On the authority of Abu Hurayrah (may Allāh be pleased with him), who said that the Prophet said:
Allāh the Almighty said: “I am as My servant thinks I am. I am with him when he makes mention of Me. If he makes mention of Me to himself, I make mention of him to Myself; and if he makes mention of Me in an assembly, I make mention of him in an assembly better than it. And if he draws near to Me an arm's length, I draw near to him a fathom's length. And if he comes to Me walking, I go to him at speed.[Related by al-Buhkari, also by Muslim, at-Tirmidhi and Ibn-Majah]
There are many more ways that you can draw close to Allāh during Ramadan other than fasting, in the same way that there are other tools for cutting down trees other than with a chainsaw. So, if you really want to make the most of Ramadan, and if you really want the emptiness of your stomach to put the sweet taste of faith on your tongue, then you're going to have to work for it.
Are you game?