Ramadan is going mainstream. Why buck the trend?
Betteridge law of headlines is a short adage that states "Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no." In the case of Shahed Amanullah's article titled "Is Ramadan Morphing into A Meaningless Holiday Season?", the answer still remains a resounding no. In fact, Ramadan is adapting and growing its own voice in the American community with mostly positive impact.
The article begins with the pretext of nostalgia. His earlier Ramadans were met with curiosity, office whispers by co-workers, and a deluge of questions. Intimate iftars with quiet prayer and family gatherings were the norm. In essence, it was a perfect vision of a Ramadan filled to the brim with meaning.
However, now that DKNY has launched a Ramadan brand and iftars are turning into nightly affairs scheduled in advance, this must signal trouble. Ramadan is becoming synonymous with political Christmas dinners and state Jewish ceremonies: watered down socialite mixers.
In this article, Amanullah's past memories serve as a litmus test for the present. It's a tone filled with a sentiment akin to "those were the good ol' days." This type of thinking is limited. It forces a tunnel vision that uses the past to try and predict the future.
Comparisons lose sight of a larger Ramadan conversation happening right now, in the present.
In my view, Ramadan has two states that affect each individual, Muslim or non-Muslim. You have an internal state that I describe as an internal monologue and mental/spiritual response. And, you also have an external state, where you present and implement your Ramadan thinking.
From the Muslim perspective, we contemplate internally on the big picture of life and the hereafter. It is a time of meditation, reflection, remembrance. Externally, we are encouraged to perform the individual rites of Ramadan with our internal state radiating purified intentions. From the non-Muslim perspective, hearing the word Ramadan triggers an internal curiosity of the Islamic tradition. Externally, a non-Muslim will translate those thoughts into verbal questions. Intrigued by the fasting and the ritual prayers, these individual create a way to translate curiosity into action. They ask the question: How can I respond to Ramadan?
There's also community internal and external states. The internal monologue happens among our private gatherings of friends and family, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. When the topic of Ramadan comes up, we share our individual thoughts and form a collective groupthink (i.e. How are we going to approach Ramadan?) Then, the external state answers the question (i.e. How will we, as a group, respond to Ramadan?). These steps can include knowledge acquisition, mutual respect, and participation in rites.
In the individual and the community, the internal monologue is key to shaping the external response.
The large conversation of Ramadan hasn't changed since its inception: a massive exercise of individual restraint, reflection, and communal bonding. Individual acts such as reflection and dhikr (meditation upon Allah) are paired with communal acts such as iftars and tarawih. This activities are encouraged and even mandated.
Holiday shopping seasons, political state dinners, and Best Buy ads are byproducts of this conversation. Islam has already defined the framework. What is changing are our internal perceptions and their effect on our external reactions. If we internalize these modern developments as a deviation of Ramadan spirit, then of course our external response will be to denounce the impending doom.
However, if we pivot our internal thoughts, we can set a different chain reaction. Ramadan sales are a perfect opportunity to explain the definition of Ramadan to co-workers. Political dinners become touchpoints with our lawmakers to keep Muslim-Americans in mind when crafting political moves. And ads about Ramadan serve as further proof of the growing, positive influence of Muslims in America. Being a devout Muslim and subscribing to Islam turns into a plus point. You can feel comfortable talking about Islam at the water cooler in the office.
Also, the very act of Iftar was designed with family and community in mind. It encourages you to get outside your comfort zone and reconnect with the faithful who want to grab a bite at sundown (and share prayers in the service of Allah). Taking pleasure in the suhoor and the iftar is actively encouraged in Islam (an important distinction: gluttony is looked down upon but joy in Allah's sustenance is permitted).
I am aware of the negative consequences of Ramadan becoming mainstream. Consumerism is a slow moving poison that dilutes and rewrites sacred holidays. Political motives stain the spirit of Ramadan. And humans are turning into public vanity mirrors reflected by their social media feeds of food, drink, and pleasures of Ramadan (how else can you show off fasting?).
Zooming in on these negative effects will force us to miss the forest for the trees. Instead, I encourage you (to take a page from Amanullah's book) to keep blogging, lobbying, and spending on Ramadan. Muslim has a unique opportunity now more than ever, to get our message out to the masses. We can help affect the internal and external states of non-Muslims. We can shape the response of Ramadan and help people rediscover our best kept secret holiday, a holy month that recharges us and makes us who we are as Muslims.
I'll end on a small heartfelt encounter I had this past weekend. I was in Long Beach with one of my friend's celebrating his birthday. We had finished praying on the beach in the cooling sand and dipped our toes in the water. When sundown approached, we headed back when we were stopped by Adele, a non-denominational Christian and former Georgia resident. She had recently moved to Long Beach and was inspired by her church to host a barbeque for her neighbors to spread the word of God. She had noticed us praying earlier and thought we were nice, respectful people. Having never met us before, she gave us her home address. We were invited to come by her home anytime for some afternoon sun and grilled food.
She taught me a valuable lesson: communication and trust are key ingredients to change perceptions. If we want to make sure we don't lose what Ramadan is really all about and what it was meant to be, we need to be more like Adele. Continue the conversation, amplify it, and let it breed. Individually and collectively, let us become ambassadors of our faith and shape our internal and external states.
With Allah's will, Ramadan can become a refreshing way to talk about Islam again.