When my dad was still alive, Ramadhan was one of his favourite months. However, he did not fast or pray taraweeh at the masjid. He didn’t wait anxiously for Laylat ul-Qadr or do special shopping for ‘’Eid al Fitr. My dad, you see, was not even a Muslim! He was a Catholic and a diabetic who needed to eat frequent, small meals throughout the day. During Ramadhan he would wash them all down with a hearty iftar at Maghrib!
The concept of fasting from food and water all day seemed extreme to my dad and all my non-Muslim family when they first learned about our holy month. Nothing in the Catholic faith comes close to the self-deprivation required by Ramadhan. Although many Catholics try to abstain from eating red meat on Fridays during the month of Lent – and some opt, additionally, to sacrifice a beloved treat like chocolate or soda during that month – nothing they do truly resembles the all-day fast that Muslims undertake. To outsiders who do not know about the feast of mercy that comes with this amazing month, Ramadhan’s ongoing fast sounds like a miserable, unbearable and even unhealthy experience. Thanks to my dad, I know it is up to us Muslims to show them otherwise.
What eventually demonstrated the true meaning of Ramadhan for my dad was the warmth and hospitality he received from our Muslim community here in California. He basked in the attention from the open-hearted brothers and sisters who welcomed him into their homes. He came to appreciate the palpable atmosphere of festivity, self-discipline, gratitude and God-consciousness that is evident throughout the month. He admired the colourful decorations we and our friends displayed around our homes – crescent moons, lanterns and homemade “Welcome Ramadhan” banners. He attentively listened to our children reciting Qur’an and understood the beauty of it, if not the exact words. Like the rest of us, he enjoyed the fragrance of the big pots of soup simmering slowly on the stove, tempting our taste buds until Maghrib. At first we thought it was a coincidence that dad’s visits always seemed to coincide with Ramadhan. Then he explained that it was his intention to spend that special month with us whenever possible and we felt honoured and pleased.
My dad was the kind of person who tended to watch conservative news programmes and listen to right-wing radio commentators. Living in the U.S., that meant that he inevitably heard a lot of Muslim-bashing because “the evil of Islam” is a pet topic of many conservative pundits here. No wonder he and my whole Catholic family had many reservations when they first learned that I had become Muslim! According to the news stories they listened to, Muslims were terrorists, extremists, anti-American and misogynistic. It must have been very difficult for my dad to reconcile with his daughter being in league with such people and yet he knew that my husband and I did not fit any of those horrible criteria. I suspect that in the early days he came to the conclusion that we were the exception to the rule: most Muslims were backwards, but his daughter and son-in-law were reasonable.
One evening, during his first Ramadhan visit with my family, my dad’s opinion of Muslims changed once and for all. He was invited to attend an iftar with my husband and several of his friends. “Iftar” was an entirely new concept for my dad, but eating good food with good company was not! He readily accepted the invitation and began to speculate enthusiastically – even as he ate his lunch – about what food would be served that evening. He had come to realise that dining with our friends meant that he would enjoy a smorgasbord of delightful international dishes: Arab maqlooba, Pakistani samosas, Malaysian curries, Moroccan harira – his mouth watered at the mere thought of all those delicacies!
That night, the iftar meal and camaraderie were all that he had wished for. What could be more fun than a bunch of guys eating delicious food, recovering their energy and vivacity after a long day of fasting, laughing and swapping stories? However, when the enjoyable iftar was finished, my dad had trouble rising up from the low cushion where he had been sitting. Immediately, two brothers spotted the problem and kindly lifted him to his feet. Shortly after, my dad had another embarrassing struggle as he tried to get his special orthopaedic shoes – which he had painstakingly removed upon entering the host’s home – back onto his feet. Two different brothers assisted him this time, gently sliding the shoes where they belonged and fastening the straps. Tears came into in my dad’s eyes. Here were a group of men who were almost strangers, yet they were assisting him with the same tenderness that a son shows his own father!
After that experience, my dad started to tell everyone he knew, “I know what they say about Muslims on the news, but they’re wrong. I have met many Muslims and they are some of the kindest, warmest people I have ever known.”
That was a transformative thought. Ideas like those open the doors to further dialogue, learning, respect and change. Those helpful brothers at the iftar probably never realised how much their small acts of kindness influenced my father. Like all good deeds, there was a wonderful ripple effect; when my dad shared the story with his friends back home, even more people received an education about Islam. Potentially dozens of people now have a new perception of Muslims, all thanks to a couple of small acts of kindness at an iftar.
We Muslims should never underestimate how much our actions can influence non-Muslims. Our patience, care, generosity and friendliness are the best remedy to the stream of negativity that others hear about our faith. During the month of Ramadhan, we have many opportunities to show the true face of Islam. We can demonstrate that our fast makes us strong, even as our bodies feel weaker. We can counteract any negative impressions people might have by showing how controlled we can be, even in challenging circumstances. Insha Allah, any daw’ah we make during this amazing month will be blessed exponentially, as our good deeds during Ramadhan are so generously blessed by Allah (SWT).
This Ramadhan, why not invite some non-Muslim friends or neighbours to an iftar and make them feel welcome and appreciated? They might feel comfortable enough to ask the questions that are burning inside them: “What is Islam, really?”, “Are all Muslims like the ones I hear about on the news?” or “Is your belief so different from mine?” While preparing the evening meal, we can also do our best to prepare adequate, upbeat, accurate answers to these profound questions.
Laura El Alam is a frazzled but grateful wife and mother of four in Southern California. She is a revert to Islam, a homeschooler, a bibliophile and an advocate of afternoon naps. Some of her random thoughts can be found on the blogosphere at babygizmo.com.