“Not Even Birthday Cake?”; Coping With (Non-Muslims’) Reactions During Ramadan

gorgeous calligraphy, created by cruel uncultured barbarians no doubt
gorgeous calligraphy, created by cruel uncultured barbarians no doubt

When I was small, my schoolyard friends would gasp in shock at the idea of going without food or water for as long as a drop of sunlight hit the pavement. (“All day?” they’d marvel with the same tone that they’d ask, “You run THAT fast?”) Pleased with the astonished reaction, I would boast that not only could I abstain an entire day without complaints, but I had already done it not once but twice. (“Did you die?” asked a girl. “Of course she didn’t die!” snapped another.)

Unfortunately, I can say now at the much less acceptable age of 23, that the questions have not grown less ridiculous. They are, in fact, more ridiculous due only to age, since you can be sure when a child asks if you’ve died it’s because the kid’s smart enough to have considered all possibilities for why you might appear alive. Adults are not so fluid, much more unimaginative, and much less bearable.

Or maybe it’s yours truly who has grown increasingly fatigued with the reaction. “Really, you have to go the whole day?” And they make a face. They always make a face. It’s stopped being that you can go the whole day and more that you have to–because your religion is cruel.

And that, is why this kind of reaction is so grating. It’s not a healthy intrigue with the novelty of the concept, not the thoughtful consideration of a religious objective, not in turn self-reflective of the course of submission to Love and sacrifice. The undertone is that your religion is cruel. And shockingly cruel.

It shouldn’t be hard to recognize why this is so unacceptable. The image of Ramadan as unrelentingly cruel to its participants is akin to that of Muslims as inexorable barbarians, extremists who kill themselves and starve their children. The outraged questions are microaggressive, and–scratching below that seemingly harmless surface, illustrative of the racist and destructive impressions of the interrogator. It’s not surprising then, after all, that this shock applies not only to Ramadan, but that the same children who have an immigrant parent can attest to cringing at similar reactions toward perceived rigidity. I recall once one of the girls in my neighborhood was standing below my bedroom window calling me out to play. “I have to study!” I called back down.

“For what?” she asked.

That was an odd question to me. My mother’d expected study sessions for almost as long as I could remember. It never occurred to me that other children only studied for something.

“You have a test?” she queried.

Yeah, a math test. Conducted by my mother.

“I have to study… to study. I’m memorizing time tables. I’ll get in trouble if I don’t memorize them.”

“You’ll get grounded?”

“I don’t get grounded.” Getting in trouble just meant my mother would be upset with me. Which was terrifying enough, for anyone who loved their mother. “What’s 12 times 8?”

“I don’t know what that means. So you have to study or else you can’t play? My mom would never do that. That’s way harsh!”

“No it’s not!” I said, immediately defensive. She was dangerously close to insulting my mother. I wasn’t happy with my situation, like any other child, but I was also the only one allowed to complain about it. “I’ll play tomorrow.”

“But I have summer school tomorrow!” she groaned.

“When you go, remember 12 times 8 is 96,” I advised before closing the window.

(Incidentally, she actually never forgot that one. After that day it was the only one past 3 x 11 that she knew by heart.)

“Ninety-six,” I said years later, when a friend asked how much the earrings she was examining would cost as birthday favors.

“And you’re coming too right?” she confirmed. “You have to come!”

“Oh. If that’s not weird for you sure. I mean, I won’t eat anything there.”

“Oh right, you have to starve yourself this month,” she laughed. “You can have birthday cake, though right? I mean, that’s just awful if you can’t. Hey, can you have water? You can at least have water right?” When I shook my head she exclaimed, “You can’t even have water?”

“You know, I think I have way too many earrings. Here. Save yourself $7.99.”

People like you, she was saying, are so peculiar. It’s a shame you have to undergo something so cruel.

Ramadan is the month that the Prophet Muhammad (P), who had been up to that point retiring nightly to the mountains to reflect, encountered the angel Sent to disclose the Qur’an.

As the Prophet, with his thoughts having ascended the realm of immediate human necessities, was brought closer to God, and then–before the unraveling of his human vulnerability–experienced intense fear at the presence of the angel, so do we come to grip with our carnal selves: forced to tame appetites, subdue greed and over-indulgence, and cultivate our humanity so that we may elevate our consciousness toward God.

The fast is broken when the earth has turned so the sun is descended, and is only an inversion of regular eating patterns (i.e. eating during the day, fasting whilst asleep) so that we are conscious of the journey of our bodies during the fast and of the progression of our spiritual selves. It is not in the least bit cruel, and those who are unable to fast are exempt: souls with disabled bodies, souls whose unborn children require nourishment and (more importantly) whose bodies themselves may require medication, and souls with bodies under the age of 12.

In Islam, your body has the right to your kindness. That is both a warning to Muslims (I won’t mention any names, and the Islamic reasons you shouldn’t torture yourself to look pretty for white standards is a whole other post)–and mostly, it’s me snapping some sense at ridiculous non-Muslims and their ridiculous questions. Watch yourselves. Seriously, you sound asinine. It’s embarrassing. I am blushing for you.

11 thoughts on ““Not Even Birthday Cake?”; Coping With (Non-Muslims’) Reactions During Ramadan

  1. Narjis

    Ugh, just ugh. I’m with you 100%. In addition to all of those statements you mentioned, I also despise the phrase “I could never do that” as if I asked them to fast with me or something (and which is also strikingly similar to describing a vegetarian diet to a meat lover) and even that damn raised eyebrow about “not even water?!?!?” Oh, and the “I don’t think that’s very healthy and/or is not a good way to lose weight”. I don’t do this as some crazy diet. It is for reasons you obviously cannot grasp, since you “could never do that”. This is why I generally don’t tell anyone I’m fasting unless they ask me directly why I am not going to lunch with them or whatever. Oh, and then those 5-7 days when we’re not fasting, and they all think Ramadan is over, but oh no, the cruelty will resume once I am ritually pure again, lol, and I don’t even want to get into any of that today…..sigh…..
    I got off track. What I meant to say is, Ramadan mubarrak!


    1. Ahaha, yeah I don’t mention it unless it happens to come up either! In my experience in the 7 days when I’m menstruating if non-Muslims see me eating they usually know Ramadan is not over, so instead they just give me the squint-y eye like I’m “bad” at my religion. Haaa. =-= Ramadan Mubarak! <3


  2. Selina

    “Oh right, you have to starve yourself this month,” she laughed. “You can have birthday cake, though right? I mean, that’s just awful if you can’t.’

    Dumbo. What part of ‘I am fasting’ does she not understand?


    1. I always found it bizarre when people think I’d have “exceptions” for certain things? Like birthday cake? I mean I understand it’s your birthday but my religious practices are not going to come to a halt for your birthday.


  3. Although we (Jews) fast for fewer days a year, and more spread out (4 or 5 daylight fasts, 2 25 hour fasts), those comments from outsiders sound tremendously familiar. Especially the “not even water?”. It’s kind of funny how the word “fasting” means such different things in different religious traditions- it can cause all sorts of confusions.


  4. You know, I’m increasingly ambivalent about Ramadan, and for the most part don’t care about people’s reactions, but this is hands down the best description I’ve read of it. Thank you.


  5. Redda

    “and is only an inversion of regular eating patterns (i.e. eating during the day, fasting whilst asleep) so that we are conscious of the journey of our bodies during the fast and of the progression of our spiritual selves.” I had never thought about that at all!! At the risk of sounding redundant, thank you thank you Nahida! Living in the middle east, I can assure you having your “muslim” friends complain and complain about Ramadan is a thousand times more annoying (more so because it makes me realise how our education-wether self or via schools- is lacking tremendously)
    Ramadan Kareem!!!


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