Relaxing on the sofa in my friend’s living room after a comforting iftar meal of molokhia, a tasty garlic-infused stew made from green jute leaves, chicken, and rice, and suddenly my field of vision becomes jarred like broken video footage. I feel a familiar sensation of terror. It begins in my stomach and rises up. Freezing my body along with it. My ears start to ring. I’m fully conscious, and I can hear what my friend is saying, although it sounds a little distant. “Are you okay Yousra?” she asks me, a look of concern etched across her face. “Inshallah I will be, I’m just having a partial seizure, I’ll be fine in a few minutes,” I reply, trying not to worry her.
This is the third time this has happened in a week, and I call the hospital and ask for an emergency appointment with my neurologist. I see her a week later, and when I explain that since the start of Ramadan my partial seizures have increased she tells me it’s a consequence of fasting. The neurologist gives me advice I hoped not to hear, “I’m afraid I don’t think you should fast anymore.” “Just this Ramadan, or ever?” I ask. “Ever,” she replies.
The year is 2017 and I am 28 years old, and despite having had epilepsy for a number of years, my health is generally good. Apart from these episodes I feel healthy and don’t feel like I qualify to be among those who are exempt from fasting in Ramadan. I feel like by not fasting I am somehow sinning.
“The first full Ramadan in which I didn’t fast felt weird. The sense of guilt eventually went away, but I felt I just couldn’t experience Ramadan in the same way my counterparts who were fasting did.”
Reactions from my family were mixed – some urged me to follow the doctor’s advice and reminded me that those who are sick are exempt from fasting, but others told me just to try harder. They mentioned older family members who have Type 2 diabetes and continued to fast against their doctors’ advice. Despite the feeling of guilt, I reminded myself that in Islam, preserving your life trumps everything, and I decided that I wouldn’t risk it. I would either make up my fasts in the winter, when daylight hours would be shorter, or pay a sum in charity, as are the stipulations for those who are unable to fast.
A year later I got married, so the following Ramadan was spent with my husband and in-laws. Again, reactions to me not fasting were mixed. Some people didn’t comment, deciding it was none of their business, but others told me just to try because so-and-so was much older and had diabetes and they were still fasting. But their guilt tripping no longer worked on me. If they wanted to risk their health that was their choice. But my choice is to put my health first, and our faith supports that. In Islam there are always exceptions for those who are sick, so why would I make the practising of my faith harder for myself?
“The month is full of blessings and potential for reward that aren’t just tied to abstaining from food and drink.”
The first full Ramadan in which I didn’t fast felt weird. The sense of guilt eventually went away, but I felt I just couldn’t experience Ramadan in the same way my counterparts who were fasting did. There was no anticipation or longing for the sunset prayer of Maghrib when one breaks their fast. One of the rewards of fasting is that upon breaking the fast, your du’a, or personal prayer to God, is accepted. I felt that I no longer had that entitlement. When it came to Eid, I felt as if I had done nothing to earn the right to celebrate.
The turning point came when I came across a tweet by Mufti Menk, a much-loved Islamic religious figure. It was a reminder that no one can guarantee they will live to see the next Ramadan, and so not to let this special month go to waste. The month is full of blessings and potential for reward that aren’t just tied to abstaining from food and drink. There were things I could do to still partake in Ramadan, and reap its benefits.
My journey to reclaim the month of Ramadan began the year after that. They may be superficial aspects, but I tried to bring back some of the Ramadan traditions I grew up with, ordering decorations for our apartment, and investing in special cooking ingredients to try and recreate my favourite Middle Eastern dishes. Ramadan is just as much about creating a special atmosphere as it is about fasting. I spent the night before Ramadan putting up string lights, and hung star lanterns made from brightly decorated pre-cut card – decoration options today are far more varied than the tinsel and homemade paper chains of the ‘90s!
“Ramadan is here for everyone to enjoy and benefit from, it’s not just for the physically and mentally able ones of us.”
I tried to recreate ‘Ramadan vibes,’ playing beautiful recitations of the holy Qur’an at home, old recordings of classic Ramadan nasheeds, which are religious songs, and reciting the Qur’an aloud myself whenever I got the chance. My health had unfortunately deteriorated. I had been diagnosed with hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and was being investigated for lupus, so going to the mosque for Taraweeh, additional prayers offered at night, was too difficult. But I offered up extra prayers at home, and sat on a chair to pray.
When I had the energy, I whipped up dishes for iftar like wara enab, stuffed vine leaves, kofta, a type of kebab made from ground meat, with potatoes and rice, and koshari, a carb-loaded mixture of rice, green lentils and macaroni topped with a tangy tomato sauce and crispy brown onions. I may have not been fasting, but it was starting to feel like Ramadan again.
Ramadan is for everyone – for the able-bodied, and for those who have mental and/or physical health issues. It was by shutting off the voices of those around me who tried to make me feel guilty for being ill and instead re-visiting the Qur’an and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammed that I was reminded once more that our faith is here to make life easier, not harder. Ramadan is here for everyone to enjoy and benefit from, it’s not just for the physically and mentally able ones of us.
Yousra Samir Imran is a freelance journalist based in West Yorkshire, and author of Hijab and Red Lipstick. @UNDERYOURABAYA
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