my ramadan in the midst of a pandemic

Photo by Rawan Yasser on Unsplash

Before every Ramadan, I visualize a month of spiritual productivity. I think of reading Islamic books, making dhikr, memorizing more surahs, reading Qur’an and actually praying Fajr on time. And keeping all the fasts, of course, considering that I don’t have any health problems keeping me from fasting, alhamdulillah. But every Ramadan up until now, it’s always been the same groove– keep the standards of fasting from food and water during daylight hours, staying up super late into the night (“party ’till Fajr”), and sleeping for most of the day.

Past Ramadans, I’ve been really good about praying the five daily prayers on time. I usually don’t pray Fajr on time during the rest of the year, but during Ramadan there’s really no excuse if I’m already going to be up to eat and drink right before sunrise anyway. But it’s been tougher for me this year to pray in general.

I struggle with obsessive compulsive disorder [OCD] in many aspects of my life, and practicing my faith is one of those areas. I first noticed OCD symptoms regarding religion when I was around eleven years old. I would get obsessive thoughts that were considered blasphemous, dirty or inappropriate. I didn’t understand why this was happening; they would come nonstop, including during times when I would try to say a religious word in my mind.

It wasn’t until seventh grade that I looked up why this was happening. In fifth and sixth grades, the amount of my religious OCD was bothersome but manageable. Aside from the unwanted thoughts, I didn’t really feel hindered in completing daily tasks. But in seventh grade, it spiked and became more significantly energy and time consuming.

I had trouble starting my salah and I had trouble saying the shahada, or the statement of faith. I would keep feeling like I was doing something wrong with starting my salah; it just didn’t feel right and I got all these “bad” thoughts that I thought invalidated my prayer and good intentions. I thought that it was my job to control them– I thought that I could control them, and I just wasn’t doing it despite trying very hard. Where prayer was only supposed to take five to ten minutes, I would take up to an hour or more. What was supposed to be a time and place of peace for me became an anxiety-inducing activity.

It got better and worse throughout the rest of middle school and into high school. While it usually took me a few tries before I was able to pray, it only took me on average between ten and twenty minutes. Of course, there were times when it took me much longer, but it was mostly more peaceful. And I didn’t struggle with saying the shahada the same way I did in seventh grade.

In high school, I faced about the same amount and type of struggles with my religious OCD. But it went to a whole new level in my freshman year of college.

The first semester, everything was fine– in the sense that it wasn’t much worse than high school. In fact, it was better even. But the winter break following, praying became hell for me. But the thing was, it would be hell for me not to pray, either. Perhaps my OCD spiking was linked to my depression. Up until this point in my life at nineteen, I have never felt this way— I have never felt depression to this extent. I have never felt so numb and lacking of passion. It sucked.

It again took me way too long to pray a single salah. It would take me several minutes to an hour or more. Whenever I would start, I would think that I had it, but then I would get the dreadful feeling that I was wrong and had to start again. And again and again and again. It sucked, to say the least. And I couldn’t just “ignore” it– no matter where I went, the feelings caught up with me and wrapped around my avoidance and around reality that everything was fine.

My depression got a little better once I went back to campus for Spring semester, but my anxiety over praying got worse. Tears never came to evidence the pain, but it was torture for me to pray. I didn’t understand why and how this was happening. What was I doing wrong?

My stomach would be in a constant state of anxiety; I would be doing an assignment and my focus would be hindered by the physical pain birthed from the mental. I would keep thinking of how I would have to do the next prayer, how I would have to make wudu’ and pray. I would obsess about how I had to get the next prayer done and make sure that I wouldn’t miss it— I would keep thinking about how soon it was coming up with each minute going by and I kept thinking about how I had to “get it over with” sooner rather than later. I didn’t realize it back then, but I was anxious about being anxious. The end of a prayer was only the beginning of a countdown to the next prayer, a prison rather than a place of of peace.

And how much I longed for prayer to be a place of peace. It definitely got better throughout sophomore and junior years– I was taking an average of twenty minutes or less to pray each salah, and I didn’t face the same dread of anxiety. I even used to pray in public, in the hallway of the building where my favorite coffee shop was located. The OCD anxiety and the anxiety of random people seeing me was still there, but I was still able to do it.

But salah became even more challenging lately. Around the beginning of this year, I’ve started experiencing something different and even more physically painful with regards to prayer. Something much stronger, more potent.

It was as if I couldn’t do it. As if I had forgotten how to pray salah. Like my memories, or rather the ability to retrieve my memory of words I’ve known by heart for years, had been blocked. I knew they were in there, but I just couldn’t seem to remember how to find them. I would be in the middle of a salah and I would be stuck staying the same phrase and get stuck because for some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to continue until after several attempts.

My body stomach would cramp, my body would shake, and my breath became shallow.

Anxiety seized me, and I didn’t understand how or why. It was as if someone was squeezing me, their presence unwanted and repulsive. It was as if that invisible demon’s hands were squeezing my stomach from the inside out. It was as if the confusion and anxiety and the anxiety about my anxiety sucked me from within. It was as if my mind and body were at war with each other.

And it still does.

But alhamdulillah, I’ve been finding ways to cope and pray better but I still have a long way to go. And I hope to use this blessed month of Ramadan to go much further, insha Allah.

With the pandemic right now, I know that many fellow Muslims are feeling sad about the limitations on Ramadan traditions this year. No taraweeh prayers in packed musjids with lots of people coming together as a community. No iftaar dawats, no iftaar parties. No 3 AM IHOP sehri breakfasts with friends and family.

It’s inevitable that with the necessary barriers of socialization as a result of this pandemic, Ramadan isn’t going to be what people are used to. And it’s sad.

But honestly for me, it doesn’t feel that different.

I can’t remember the last time I went to pray Taraweeh at a musjid during Ramadan. I can’t remember the last time I prayed Taraweeh at a musjid with a group of people, period. I used to be able to pray with people. Now it’s extremely anxiety-inducing for me. It’s unpredictable whether or not I’ll be able to keep up with the imam and my fellow ummah praying around me. I’ve tried and succeeded, and I’ve tried and failed.

And it’s been several years since I’ve celebrated Ramadan with close friends. After moving to a different state in high school, I didn’t have many Muslim friends let alone a large Muslim community my age in general to enjoy the holy month with. I didn’t have friends to hit up to go to IHOP with or iftaar gatherings that I would actually look forward to— the only iftaar dawats I would go to felt lonely with me not having friends or anyone my age there, and I would only get there to wait to be driven home. And that was only when I would go to these dawats in the first place— I rarely went.

And with my family members often not being able to fast with me, I would often be the only one keeping roza. Waking up for suhr alone in the middle of the night before dawn made me feeling starved for company even if my stomach was filled with food and water in preparation for the upcoming day’s fast.

But it’s also important to note that I am speaking from my point of view–a position of privilege.

How does it feel for those less fortunate than me in terms of health and wealth? At least when I wake up to eat suhr, I know a have family around me sleeping safely around the house. At least I know that have instant access to bountiful amounts of food and water, whereas there are fellow Muslims around the world who have no choice but to fast on an empty stomach only to break their fast with one. How does it feel for those who are fasting and doing strenuous work, not being able to nourish themselves around their fasts in Ramadan, let alone the rest of the year?

And how must it feel for many converts new to Islam?

Many of them must know loneliness all too well. They’re yet to make themselves home in their Muslim communities, and many aren’t accepted by their family and friends. And seeing the Ramadan feasts prepared by families to share among one another with love, their loneliness must feel even more pronounced.

I pray that God makes it easy on them and that He blesses them immensely.

Regarding my experience and the lack of difference between pre-Corona Ramadan and the current-Corona-Ramadan, I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything Ramadan-related. I haven’t been a regular mosque-goer to begin with, and I don’t have pre and post-fast food outings that I miss participating in. Rather, I’ve actually been feeling more and peace and empowered at being home— even before the start of the holy month.

I feel as if God has prepared my ummah and I through the current quarantine situation as a means of making the best out of this Ramadan. I really don’t like sounding overly optimistic and pretend like it’s all rainbows and sunshine— it’s not. It hasn’t been. It hasn’t been fully bad, but it hasn’t been fully good, either. There’s a mix, and I’m not going to deny that this pandemic hasn’t been easy and only half-full. Sometimes the glass is half-empty and it’s okay to acknowledge it and deal with it.

But the way quarantine has prepared me for Ramadan is one of the good things.

I’m someone who prioritizes comfort over style when it comes to fashion and I prioritize my preferences for clothing over what others want to see me in. But like most other people, I’m not completely immune to keeping social pressures from influencing how I dress and present myself. And while some of that influence is necessary out of consideration of others (like in wearing deodorant and respecting certain dress codes), others are too far-stretched and socially constructed to promote certain beauty standards and uphold specific status-quo’s.

With quarantine being in place, I am not as swayed by that influence. The social presence just aren’t there. Dressing to please anybody other than myself is not something I have much brain space and overall motivation to care about. I can make sure that when I am dressing, I’m really only dressing for me. And only for God.

Where I previously had social concerns, I have more energy and more mental room to spend on other things— on myself, and spiritually speaking in the context of Ramadan— on honing my relationship with Allah. Where I had concerns of what others would think of me, now I’m propelled to focus more on how Allah sees me. I have a deeper and more constant awareness of Him, of His everlasting presence with me.

I also have less distractions around me, and I’m distanced from toxic sources that depleted me from good conscience, empowerment and light. I am better able to get in touch with and preserve myself; I’m better protected away from harmful temptations.

And accessing religious content— accessing God— has become so much easier, alhamdulillah. I have more time to delve in information on my computer and at my fingertips anytime I want in the day. I have access to showers and clean, personal, private bathrooms 24/7 now that I’m never in public anymore (yay for bidets!). I have more privacy that I can take advantage of— I can make wudu’ in the bathroom sink without looking over my shoulder, worrying that another woman is going to walk in and look at me like I’m a weirdo putting my feet in the sink. I can find a prayer rug and pray wherever I want in my own home without feeling self-conscious about passerbyers who will see me praying in public on top of my already present OCD and anxiety. I won’t worry about the possibility of being harassed while praying because that possibility simply won’t be there. I can focus better. I can feel at more peace.

As a college student of a large campus, I’m blessed to be able to save lots of energy and strength that would have been spent on walking between classes and buildings this Ramadan. God has blessed me with opportunities to preserve energy to do better on assignments and exams assigned during fasting hours.

He has blessed me to have a more physically comfortable Ramadan, one that makes it easier for me to really focus on my spiritual journey.

Yet, like I said at the beginning of this post, these past two days and fasts, I’ve spent much of the day sleeping. But to give myself some credit, I did watch some very helpful Yaqeen Institute videos that broadened my understanding of my deen and my Lord. And I actually enjoyed learning, whereas I’ve previously been scared.

I’d been scared to find out things that I would regret knowing about my religion. I had been terrified of losing faith in my faith. What if there were things I didn’t agree with and would cause my faith to shake? What if I didn’t understand something, or understood it wrong? What if there were scientific contradictions to the religious teachings? But I learned these past couple of days that learning more about Islam and my Allah only makes me love and learn about my religion more. Learning has been more accessible and friendly than I had previously imagined. And the teachings of my faith make me love God more, which makes me love people more for the sake of Him. My religion truly teaches love and peace. Being a good person is my uttermost top priority in life, and from what I have been seeing and learning inspires me to want to be and act kinder, better. And Islam and science are compatible with and complementary of each other.

And learning more and earning and breathing in the tranquil knowledge and calmness of faith will insha Allah serve as treatment for the wounds where my anxiety oozes and gushes out. Only through learning more about God will I get closer to Him and more distant with my OCD. And through knowing Him more will I trust Him more. And I will learn to trust Him despite and more than I trust my anxiety. I will, insha Allah, learn how and why to trust Him and get better at it with time as I add to my knowledge.

This quarantine Ramadan has been leading me to let go of the worldly and get more in touch with the holy. And through getting more in touch with Allah, I am getting more in touch with myself.

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