By Merium Khan
I still remember the moment vividly: I was 13 years old, and at a Muslim youth camp. A fellow teenage camper was talking about Ramadan when her voice started to tremble. As she described her inability to fast due to medication, the tears started to flow and her voice dissolved in grief. It was so poignant, but being a young, healthy person, I couldn’t possibly truly understand that sense of loss she felt—until recently.
A few years ago at the age of 25 I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and found myself unable to fast.
During the first Ramadan that I could not fast due to the illness, I faced the stark reality: I would likely never fast again for the rest of my life. Long night prayers would be lost to me as well, as lack of sleep would exacerbate my symptoms just as surely as lack of food.
My mind flashed back to that fellow camper from years past, and I finally truly understood. Like her, I found moments when grief overwhelmed me, such as the time at a friend’s house when I hung my head, sobbing, until her 7 year old daughter patted my leg and said, “Khala, Allah understands…He understands.”
Since then, I have wished that somewhere buried in those “How to be a Super Muslim During Ramadan” articles and khutbahs, there were more useful Ramadan resources for Muslims with a chronic illness. We eventually just learn to stumble our way through the month, and after crossing off the things we can’t do, learn to figure out what we can do and how to survive the month without worsening our illness.
These are a few lessons I have learned these past few Ramadans as a young, non-fasting person:
- Ramadan Prep:
The weeks before Ramadan require extra rest. Don’t skip it; take it like a medicine otherwise you’ll have less energy when you need it in Ramadan.
- Conserve Energy:
Don’t use up all your energy in the beginning of the month. If you end up staying up too late, attending or hosting too many iftars, or otherwise overdoing the stress on your body in the first part of the month, forget about having the strength to do any ibaadah (worship) in the last ten nights (ask me how I know!).
- Pay Your Fidyah:
Have your fidyah arrangements planned out ahead of time and pay it promptly. Fidyah is the payment for missing the fast, and the details are beyond the scope of this article.
- Illness and Ramadan-Move Beyond Your Grief:
It’s okay to mourn what you have lost (ability to fast, to pray at night, etc.) but don’t let that be a trick to prevent you from doing what you actually are able to do. I realized that with a shock one year when, after playing pity party for the first week of the month, told myself, “Wait. You can’t pray qiyam, but you sure can pray your five prayers awesomely. Why aren’t you doing that at least?”
Reading and listening to extra Quran, making extra dhikr are also acts of ibadah that can benefit those who may not be attend taraweeh or qiyam.
- Consider priorities:
You may have to turn down some or all iftar invitations to preserve your health for prayers and worship. This is especially true in the summer months when iftar time is late. Don’t let cultural or social pressures cause you to compromise on your health, especially during such an important month of worship.
- Use Post-Iftar Time Wisely:
This is tricky but essential: when Isha is late, any taraweeh or qiyam can become a difficulty if not a near impossibility. This is particularly true for those whose illnesses will be exacerbated by lack of sleep and rest. Being able to restructure the time to get down to worship between Maghrib and Isha is going to be important during these summer months. I’ve found it difficult to apply this (especially as a wife/mother), because there’s such a rush between Maghrib and Isha and so much to get done.
- Watch How Much Time You Spend Eating:
One of the things I remember about fasting is how much more time there seems to be in the day when you’re not spending any on food and drink. So for those of us who cannot fast, we can reconsider how much time we choose to spend on eating during the Ramadan days. This doesn’t mean skipping meals, but perhaps minimizing meal prep times, or skipping the non-essential snacks and “comfort foods” that may take up time to prepare and eat but are not essential to our health (like a leisurely snack of tea and cake). This frees up valuable time for worship.
- Don’t be Shy to Get Help:
Your caregivers and friends are still there to help and support you, even when they are fasting. There is this tendency, since we are not fasting, to not ask others for help because they are fasting and we don’t want to burden them. This can lead to burnout and disease flare-ups, so we have to be open and ask for help when it’s needed even though we may feel bad about it. For those of us who have family responsibilities, it is important to be honest about our limits.
My husband will ask me in all honesty: “Can you do _________, or are you too tired?” and he trusts that I will be candid and not try to push myself to be the “Super-Wife.” This however has taken a lot of communication on my part, and understanding and compassion on his. It means that he has to eat a solitary suhoor, and sometimes even a solitary iftar on occasion if I am not feeling well. I have had to learn to put away my desire to do things perfectly, and allow him to help and support me in order to be well.
The Final Stretch:
All those beautiful and inspiring articles about how you’ve got to push your hardest, turn the last ten days into a sprint for the finish, and do what you’ve never done before? Lovely for the average folk, but it’s not going to apply to you if your illness is of the type that flares up due to lack of rest. Take the advice that will benefit and craft your own schedule. You’re not in Ramadan to aggravate your illness; rather you need to worship Allah in a way that recognizes that your body has a right over you. Always look for quality over quantity.
Ramadan conjures up so many feelings for those who deal with illness. There is the loss of the ritual worship (fasting, sometimes Qiyam), and even some of the usual habits and routines require change to accommodate life with an illness. It leaves a person with a sense of loss, and yet eventually we learn to create our own Ramadan routine that will allow us to participate in the month and yet stay healthy.
If your heart aches over the loss of fasting, remember this: the One who has ordained fasting has also ordained for you this illness as a test, so rejoice in the fact that there is mercy and wisdom behind his decrees. I take comfort in the fiqhi ruling that states that whenever fasting becomes harmful for a person, then in that case, fasting actually takes the ruling of haraam (forbidden). Therefore, by abstaining from fasting, I am preserving my health and, Allah willing, earning reward by avoiding this harm on my body. In the end, there is always some divine wisdom that we may never see:
“And Allah knows, and you know not” (al-Baqarah: 216).