In Los Angeles, the man driving the car I am sitting in the backseat of wants to tell me how much he likes my name. I nod. It’s a powerful name, he tells me. A friend of his son has the name. He asks me if I am Muslim, and then asks me if I know what my name means. This happens often: I am in a car, being driven by someone who perhaps has a name close enough to my name for them to ask me if we are of a shared faith. The question “Do you know what it means?” is both test and icebreaker, and the answer is yes, I do know what it means. Although some days, depending on the eager energy of the car’s driver, I might pretend that I don’t, just so they can have the satisfaction of telling me.
In Los Angeles, though, I say that I know what it means. Today I would like to be the one unboxing my own complications. The name Hanif, in so many words, translates to “true believer.” I tell the driver this and he nods with a satisfied approval. “The one true believer,” he tells me. “What do you do with that burden?”
I imagine the question to be rhetorical.
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. Because the calendar is lunar, the month of Ramadan shifts from year to year. The observation of Ramadan, however, is immovable. Muslims observe the month by fasting to commemorate the first revelation of the Qur’an to the Prophet Muhammad. The fasting is an obligatory act — one of the Five Pillars of Islam, rooted in a commitment to focus and to cleanse the mind and spirit. The fast lasts from dawn to sunset each day, over the course of 29 or 30 days, depending on when the crescent moon is spotted.
While Ramadan isn’t entirely about abstaining from food — those committing themselves to the fast are also expected to abstain from sex, and impure or violent thoughts — the idea of abstaining from food and drink is the one which takes top billing. Even water, which is what I find myself having to explain most to my non-Muslim friends who stand, slack-jawed, at my explanation of the fast.
When I was young, I imagined Ramadan as performance — something that set me apart from my peers, who would watch what they viewed as my suffering, and be in awe.
“Ramadan” comes from the Arabic root “ramiḍa,” which means dryness. The throat becomes accustomed to it after the first week or so, depending on the weather. I played soccer in the fall when I was in high school and college, and when Ramadan came, my teammates would watch in awe as I ran miles during afternoon practices or sprinted through games, but didn’t quench my thirst until the sun began to descend. In some ways, this was a part of the performance of it all. When I was young, I imagined Ramadan as performance — something that set me apart from my peers, who would watch what they viewed as my suffering, and be in awe. The fact that I could play a game that we all played, but do it without nourishment, made me a fascination. The refusal of water was a way for me to champion myself above all, for one month.
Today, when my friends touch my hands with concern and ask, “Not even a drink of water?” with the sun beating down on us both, I sigh. “No,” I reply. “Not even water.”
I don’t remember when I stopped praying five times a day, but it may be worth mentioning that I never really prayed five times a day. My parents, who converted to Islam well into their adult lives, often trusted us to pray on our own, save for Maghrib, a prayer which comes as the sun sets. It was the prayer we made as a family, and so I made it nearly every day of my childhood, because that is what my family did.
But the older I got the harder it was to commit to praying everyday. You have to wash yourself for prayer, making the intentions to say the prayer, say the prayer, and then make intentions after the prayer. I would sneak into rooms and close the door and wait in silence, making my family think I was praying as I read or played Tetris on a Game Boy. In Islam, there’s something especially sinful about pretending your way through prayer, especially if you have the time and the able body to do it.
Once I moved out on my own, I still tried to make a prayer or two a day in good faith, before realizing I didn’t ever see myself as someone who was invested in it. And, I would think, what is worse? To pray out of obligation, or to not pray at all?
I am lucky in that as I have aged and gotten outside of the community of Muslims I was raised with, I have found others like me. Muslims who commit themselves to a few of the faith’s rigorous tenets, but largely lapse into measures of sinful living. The Muslims who drink, or stay out late and sleep through morning prayer. The Muslims who eat the meat that isn’t halal and move into apartments with the partners they aren’t married to. There is a whole section of my life reserved for these people — some of my closest friends. We know each other’s language well. The language of trying to be all parts holy, and only settling for some.
I don’t know why Ramadan is the act of faith which has endured for me. I hardly refer to myself as a practicing Muslim these days, but I am still very invested in the rigor of Ramadan. And I suppose that might be it — the rigor is the act I still chase after. A part of this is routine — even when I stopped praying in my early twenties, I found myself still adhering to the commemoration of the holy month. But a part of it, I imagine, is like the home-run hitter who comes to the plate with the bases loaded and his team down by four, swinging for the fences and trying to get it all back at once.
I don’t know why Ramadan is the act of faith which has endured for me.
I know the ways in which I fail in the face of my beliefs, and yet I wish to consider myself forgiven once each year, when I wake up early to pray and have a small meal with the sun breaking over the horizon. When I abstain from food and drink and still take a long run. I suppose it has never stopped being a performance, but when I engage in Ramadan now, I feel closer to my faith than I did before. I am performing it for no one but myself, in most instances. I am often traveling, or secluded during the month. My non-Muslim friends and peers rarely know I’m fasting, or often forget. To go about it in solitude is my preferred mode now, when nothing else matters but the monthlong journey back to some emotional center I’ve thought myself to be lacking. When the month ends, I don’t return to a dedicated spiritual practice, and my life resumes as it normally does all other 11 months of the year. But for as many days as it takes the crescent moon to unsheathe itself, I remember all of the old prayers I skipped. I remind myself how to talk to a holy entity. I don’t eat, sure, but the not eating has become the easy part, particularly as I’ve aged. To find the humility to imagine yourself as small in the face of something larger than you is the hard part, and for me, that has little to do with not eating, and more to do with the knowing that you could eat, at any time. That you have the ability and privilege to fill yourself, and you still choose not to. I do this in the name of a faith that I am uncertain of, and haven’t always felt at home in, and that makes the act both more complicated and more fulfilling.
Hunger is a many-layered feeling which doesn’t always have to do with food. I view it as the need to fill a void, or the hollowing out of a space that understands itself only as a vessel for fullness. I am hungry for many things, and rarely do I consume things which satisfy that need. I think I am most hungry for the other lapsed Muslims, who I love during the year, but run toward during Ramadan. When we can text each other across cities to check in, or when any of them offer to break fast with me if I am in their city. Though it is difficult to explain on a short car ride, if I am a true believer of anything, it is this. ●
Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. His first collection of poems, The Crown Ain't Worth Much was released in 2016 and was nominated for the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award. His first collection of essays, They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us, was released in fall 2017 by Two Dollar Radio.