How I became a ‘Ramadan Muslim’

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‘Ramadan Muslim’ – it’s a condescending, derogatory term used to refer to Muslims who ‘all of a sudden’, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, ‘show up’ to attend the mosque for every Taraweeh prayer, stop cussing/smoking/drinking/clubbing/pre-marital sexing, pray all of their five prayers, and fast from sunrise until sunset ‘religiously’.

I grew up playing at the local mosque in the hour leading up to Mughrib prayer while my dad volunteered and socialized. I attended an Islamic School where our classroom windows had a view of the mosque. I’ve attended jumuah prayer for an overwhelming majority of the Fridays of my life. I began volunteering and organizing around the mosque in my early teenage years, and continued well throughout high school, college, and even after. The mosque has been a constant space in my existence since before my first memories, and up until about 3-4 years ago.

I am now/have been for quite a while, for lack of a better term, a ‘Ramadan Muslim’, if I can call myself even that. My mosque-going has dwindled down to special occasions such as weddings and a few days in Ramadan (give or take, mostly take).

This happened slowly over a few months – there was an increasing internal friction I experienced while attending that led to an eventual halt in my attendance. This was also connected with a lot of other ‘questions’ and thoughts I had about the Muslim community/institutions that I had for several years. In any case, ‘I couldn’t take it anymore.’ There was a rift between me and the mosque, me and this space that had been such a central part of my life. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it or explain it, and it has been something I have been pondering/analyzing/discussing ever since. It’s a relationship that has been on my mind constantly.

A lot of my issues have to do with rhetoric and subject matter that mosques/institutions perpetuate/are influenced by. Rhetoric because it shapes our attitudes, and subject matter because it is what informs us and dictates our topics of conversation and concern.

Over the years, I’ve been able to deconstruct/unpack a few of my issues with the mosque/Muslim or ‘Islamic’ institutions and sources of ‘knowledge’:

  • The idea that the congregation is a population of sinners and need to be preached to/reminded, rather than approaching/treating the congregation respectfully as a group of individuals who are able to critically think and choose their actions/make ‘good’ decisions for themselves. Anyone who has the mic has not spent every waking minute of their life with me, and thus can’t possibly know whether I’m on the ‘naughty or nice list’. Why not speak to me on my level, even if you think you know what’s better/best for me?
  • Fear-mongering/fear-driven faith and a fixation on Heaven/Hell. We’re all in it for Paradise after all. Yet the Prophet Mohammad, in all the examples that I have gotten to know him, was a servant to God out of love and need, and worked tirelessly for the people to bring social justice and create a better world for all of humanity – because of love, even for his oppressors. Not because he was fixated on getting into Paradise and avoiding Hell, but because he wanted to please God and not displease him (metaphors for Heaven and Hell, but not the end goals – the end goals were God’s Love and showing God gratitude). In my experience this creates a paradigm where people exercise faith based on this fear rather than a higher moral calling, leading to sever hypocrisies in their actions/being a part of social ills.
  • Lack of women’s voices and thus perspectives. I said it. ‘But he’s married to a woman’. Yes, so are most of the men who partake in systems of patriarchy. ‘But we have women’s classes with women speakers/teachers’. Yes, but who has the ‘power’, the privilege of speaking to the entire congregation?
  • Men speaking for and on behalf of women. A few people speaking on behalf of all. What voices are silenced/never heard in the process? What voices/backgrounds/experiences/information are privileged in the process?
  • Absolute Truth. Knowledge is delivered in a manner that holds it as an absolute, inarguable truth. This causes some congregants to force these ‘absolute truths’ i.e. guidances/perspectives on others and causes some congregants to feel marginalized if they have a different experience/alternative perspective. Also, belief in ‘absolute truth’ as perceived and conveyed by a few does not bear in mind that the deliverer of the knowledge, and even the sources that he has studied, have their biases and limitations, and are often outdated/antiquated/culturally irrelevant.
  • Privileging so-called ‘Islamic’ knowledge and history over other sources of information and perspectives – sociology, anthropology, public health, psychology, non-‘Islamic’ i.e. non-Khalifate/Arab/male history, social & political sciences, etc. ‘Duh, it’s a mosque/Islamic institution’. Who has the authority to define what is allowed to be perceived as ‘Islamic’?
  • Agendas. Knowledge is not delivered in a manner that calls upon the audience to engage and evaluate it. Knowledge is delivered with an agenda for shaping human behavior based on very specific perspectives of what is ‘good’ behavior. Usually, the only topic related to women on this agenda is how she presents herself physically/how she behaves, i.e. hijab/modesty.
  • Use of Arabic/Arabization of Islam. Can we reference words/concepts, figures, examples, historical and current events in China, Iran, Pakistan, Ghana, African-American communities, Indonesia, Latin America, basically the entire world? Are those examples not worth looking into, are they ‘less’ ‘authentically’ ‘Muslim’?
  • Romanticization of historical figures/moments in Islamic history. What about the blood, the gore? What about the dude that PEED (yeah, urinated) in the mosque? What about the Muslims that used to drink, while being Muslim? What about people with mental health issues at that time? What about the women who walked side by side with men in the market, how women navigated in physical and intellectual spaces? What about the poverty – the sheer poverty? Our collective memory picks and chooses moments of Islamic history that reinforce patriarchy and so many other problems in society, while ignoring the other socio-political realities that existed in the same time and space that is being romanticized, that could inform us in so many ways. And why do we need our historical figures to be ‘perfect’ anyway? And why are they almost always male? What about the women? Where are their stories? Somehow, though history is full of examples of how marginalized peoples such as freed slaves and women were the most included in Islamic spaces, we are marginalizing those very people today.
  • ‘Othering’ of non-Muslims and even Muslims who are non-practicing/practice in a different way/are non-orthodox.
  • Moving between a healthy pride in identity to an unhealthy superiority-complex centered around Islam. Obviously a person follows/adheres to a faith because they believe its the right one, but its another level of insecurity/judgment when one feels that others must be wrong for one to be right. And feeling ‘accomplished’ because one is a part of Islam and is a Muslim. Yes, golf clap… we make the world a better place just by breathing and existing. While I am proud of my Muslim identity, I don’t think I’m cooler or better because of it, and have a hard time being around this attitude.
  • Disillusionment with religious leaders. This is one of my hardest learned lessons. Leaders are fallible, and can have the darkest of flaws, regardless and counter to the praise and pedestal which congregations hold them to. Any type of limelight/spotlight/excessive praise and attention/’celebritization’ can heighten one’s vulnerability to overseeing ones flaws or having excuses made for your flaws/your flaws ‘covered up’. Realizing this made me detach and learn that I needed to be responsible for learning my faith and that I can never truly ‘rely’ on an outside source to the point where I turn my brain off and just accept. A leader shouldn’t be made into some celebrity – a leader should be held accountable.
  • Framing of Muslim life in terms of mosque-goers, with no respect to the spaces people create for themselves outside of the mosque. Only mosque and mosque-related gatherings can be considered ‘Muslim’ and ‘Islamic’. Why are you not at the mosque, you Haram people? It’s not possible to be a good Muslim without the mosque! So the mantra goes.
  • Generalizing of ‘good’ vs. ‘bad’ behavior/Muslims. Countless times I have heard examples used to praise ‘good’ vs. ‘bad’ behavior that chooses to embarrass one set of people and behaviors to privilege one set of people and behaviors. Why do we have to hate on someone or something to get a point across? That is not intelligence.
  • Conformity in the name of Islam. As a social space, individuals are judged by their outward displays of ‘religiosity’ and treated with varying degrees of praise/respect or discrimination based on these aspects. Wearing skinny jeans and a loosely fitted dupatta with your hair showing? Not of the ethnic/racial majority in attendance? Do you want to come to the mosque with your blue hair or tattoos showing? Without someone wanting to change you or to adopt ‘Islamic’ culture because its the ‘right’ culture? You have to come ready to ‘fit in’ to a perceived ‘appropriate’ self (rooted nowhere in Islam) and check yourself at the door.
  • Male gaze. Be they horny or be they scouting a future wife, I have often been uncomfortable walking through a mosque space for being on the receiving end of ‘objectifying’ gazes, mostly from men, also from women, regardless of whether I am dressed like a nun, sack of potatoes, or ‘mosque’ appropriate loose clothing. It doesn’t matter, those eyes are staring and boring holes in my skin. Some spaces are definitely better than others, but this has been a consistent, uncomfortable aspect of my experience nonetheless. One would be mistaken to think that I am advocating for further segregation of the sexes. This type of intrusive looking/staring is an ugly part of culture.
  • “Well, it’s not compulsory for you to go to the mosque anyways.” Yes, because we still interpret everything according to the era when people used to bury their daughters, and this is coming from a ‘modern’-day society that is soaked in patriarchy, domestic abuse, objectification of women, lower wages and less opportunities to advance for women, and people who still believe a woman can’t run for president of the United States let alone mosque board (women’s committee only!) because you don’t know what she’ll do when she’s on her period (while women across the world are actively demonstrating this is clearly not the case). The mosque is a powerful place to perform prayers, build your network, be exposed to community events, job opportunities, community-building opportunities, and a healthy and safe social outlet. Who is that being taken away from?
  • Archaic structure/format. A pre-determined 30-40 minute duration reiterating a point that is often made clear within the first few minutes of what is more aptly described as a rambling ‘lecture’ than a reminder. More importantly, out of practicality, there is no space for discussion/elaboration/disagreement, leading to a ‘hegemonic‘ voice that delivers information without being challenged with alternative perspectives. ‘But he’s an imam/teacher, not a speech writer.’ Yes, he (always a he) is an imam/teacher, not a speech writer. But why hold an audience captive for a lengthier duration than is necessary to make the point? And why not afford more time for conversation around the subject matter?
  • Lack of authentic/personal voice. The mannerism is this same ‘style’ of speaking/intonation that is present in some example that every Imam decided to be influenced by, in order to have an air of legitimacy and be taken seriously. In all fairness, the congregation is at fault for having views that only certain types/styles/manners of speaking and presenting oneself can be perceived as ‘Islamic’ and an ‘Islamic authority.’ If you don’t know what I’m talking about, go and listen to the speaking style of pretty much any three-four Imams/speakers at random. Why not sound like himself? Why put on a theatrical persona of ‘a voice of reason/authority’? ‘You’re tripping’. In all likelihood I’m delusional; I have accepted this.
  • ‘Boy’s Club’ or ‘Inner Club’ of influence on influential decision making that will affect the congregants as a whole. Where are we investing our money/resources? How are we determining what topics need to be addressed in our communities? What’s our vision for the future, and who is determining that vision? What if we don’t have the same vision?
  • Access to leaders for women. Where’s the leader after jumuah? Crowdsurfing in the men’s section (I’m being sarcastic). Basically, he’s engulfed in the men’s section/by men/having conversation with men/being exposed to perspectives of men. Want to discuss an idea he brought up during the sermon, or had some further questions, or a completely unrelated concern? Have fun trying to get a hold of him/find him.
  • Acknowledging/legitimizing other cultures, let alone respecting them. There is no culture except Islam! Only Islamic culture is beautiful! And Islamic culture is whatever I think it is! Even though Islam came for all time and all peoples, and we were made into different nations and tribes to get to know one another, not colonize each other/destroy each others cultures/exert a cultural hegemony.
  • Disconnect from contemplating/acknowledging/dealing with systems of class/institutionalized racism/sexism within the mosque and greater community/society.
  • The underlying desire for everyone in the world to become Muslim. The underlying idea that when one meets a non-Muslim… if only they were Muslim! If only that one part of them could be saved/fixed/be able to go to Heaven. The secret hope that they’ll convert. Of course, I get really excited when a celebrity becomes Muslim, mostly because I have a fragmented and fragile identity and I seek validation from public figures/pop culture embracing/accepting my identity.
  • “You just want everyone to tell you that you are right!” No, YOU just want everyone to tell you that you are right, and you’ve already assumed the position of right. Why do I have to prove myself to anyone?
  • Being expected to commit to or be loyal to a mosque, being expected to attend ‘enough.’ What if I’m an introvert, or a nomad, or need some space? What if I’m just really busy? Who are you to expect anything of me? Who are you to know my needs?
  • “It seems like your problem is with mosque-goers, not the mosque.” I have chosen not to make the distinction. The people create the environment in the physical space.
  • “I can give you tons of examples on how you are wrong on each of the points you’ve made.” I can surely find examples as well; these are broader, systemic issues I have perceived to exist. “It seems like you just have problems with the community.” Where else does the community gather and exchange ideas?
  • “You’re just pointing out all the problems.” Yes, that is precisely what I am doing. In all the years that I have felt/thought these things, I haven’t been able to put them into words, and that’s exactly what I’m doing. I’m not claiming to do anything besides that. I’m not writing this in a space that will just put the problems out there for people to see and take pride in the failures of Muslims; this is a space that for me creates a lot of healthy conversations and invites people to share their perspectives. And I am not pointing/blaming anyone here.
  • There’s much more that I continue to unpack/deconstruct/try to put words to as time goes on.

‘Do you want to make the mosque a secular space/unIslamic?!’ I don’t know what I want. That’s why I stopped going – I don’t know what the problem is, and the safest thing for me to do for myself was to distance myself from a space that was no longer a constructive/healthy part of my existence, and was actually chipping away at my happiness/sense of self little by little until I felt I was suffocating/drowning.

‘Wow, you really hate the mosque don’t you. Why are you such a hater?’ I’m not a hater, I just crush a lot. Also, this is a very juvenile way of delegitimizing my concerns. If you try to tell me my concerns aren’t valid, I would like to shake your hand and for you to take me to the place where my concerns aren’t valid so I can see it for myself and bask in the ambiance.

I can’t help but feel a sense of longing for belonging to some type of community structure, for some sense of community, but ‘the mosque’ isn’t doing it for me. Even socializing around the idea of jumuah makes me feel that the epicenter of my socializing will be a fraudulent system I don’t believe in, and thus taint any honest connections, because I myself will be lying for wanting to be there. Sometimes I go for the ritual of going with my loved ones. But I can’t make a habit out of it because I can’t live my life performing rituals for the sake of others.

I wish I could go to the mosque. I have no disdain for mosque-goers. I encourage/support some of my family members to attend as a I know it is important to them. I don’t try to convince them of my perspective, reservations, and feelings, though I do communicate these things as a means of expressing myself and keeping my relationships healthy and honest.

I believe various mosques and institutions provide spiritual and social support for many people, and I am happy for them and thankful for that. I am thankful for the space provided from the hard work of countless nameless individuals that gave me a place to grow up/grow, and explore/form my identities.

I’m not here to analyze the root historical causes of these things that are my issues with the mosque. Neither am I here to blame anyone in particular for my qualms. I don’t think its anyones fault. No one person perpetuates these things. I have gained a lot from many people, leaders, and classes at the mosque. This is a larger, systemic ‘thing’ in my perspective. I haven’t tried to ‘fix’ anything – the way I ‘fixed’ this situation for me is to stop attending. I don’t think the mosque has failed me (I haven’t expressed these thoughts to mosque goers, I haven’t advocated in any way for my perspective). I grew apart from the mosque for various reasons which I attempted to deconstruct above, and will be continuing in my journey to understand. I’ve also taken it upon myself (rather than to depend on an institution) to seek the information that I am interested in and to find newer and newer perspectives to broaden my horizons.

I’m not certain, but it seem that I hope to have some form of community one day, and in many ways, I am creating/seeking alternative communities/spaces. However, if it ever means that I need to accept things the way that they are, to turn off my mind and cease critical thinking, to follow blindly, I’ll have to be without one. If I did have one, I would have to work doubly hard to maintain critical thinking and self-education in order to avoid intellectual and spiritual laziness and dependence on an external source.

More perspectives:

“At the end of the day, shunning the mosque will only hurt you. You dont stop going to work because of your coworkers because at the end of the day you need your paycheck. Nothing and no one should hold you back from doing the things that are pleasing to Allah.” – Omar Suleiman

Respectfully, this is a perspective I just can’t bring myself to accept/agree with. For me its a false analogy. I am nowhere near the most marginalized of people at the mosque, and speaking as someone that does feel marginalized, I don’t think that someone who is not marginalized can understand the difficulty of operating/being accepted/flourishing in a space that can be so detrimental to you as a person rather than uplifting. Who needs that? We often use the excuse, ‘Renew your intentions,’ as a bandaid to addressing any real problems we might have. I guess my intentions are just all bad and I need to throw them in the trash and get new ones – that should fix it.

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