Chasing the Perfect Ramadhan

By Zarifah Anuar

As a child, Ramadhan was presented to me as a special, sacred month. Fasting was supposed to not only help us gain an insight into the lives of the poor, but to also test one’s faith and connection to God. Ramadhan to me wasn’t merely a month of fasting and prayer – but also one of deep contemplation, reflection and discovery.

In my teens, I spent many nights in Ramadhan up and awake, simply thinking and feeling. Nights during Ramadhan have always been special for me, not for the food after buka, the terawih prayers, or even the shopping at the end of the month, but for the inner peace and content I felt through the month.

For a long time, I took this feeling – of warmth, safety, peace, being settled – as the presence of the spirit of my late paternal grandmother. She had passed long before I was born, and thus, I have never met her. But the belief that the spirits of the deceased return to us every Ramadhan was one that comforted me, and I spent nights holding one-sided conversations with her, in which I discovered more about myself and my relationship with everything around me.

Perhaps it was my own romantic idealism, or a desperate desire to hold onto something magical in a religion that was becoming more and more restrictive and ritualistic, that I kept this up as the emphasis on the physical, easily tangible rituals during Ramadhan grew. But slowly, the month started becoming a chore for me, and even one that I started to dread.

People around me – family, relatives, friends, and the general community – became obsessed with the idea of a ‘perfect’ fast, one that had a long checklist of following exactly how the Prophet conducted his fast, and another checklist of things to avoid in fear of breaking it. These checklists also included specifications on how to conduct oneself in order to gain the full benefits of Ramadhan, exactly how many rakaat of terawih, solat sunat, as well as other prayers to do and when, as well as signs of the Laylatul Qadr and what prayers and actions to do when they are seen.

Chasing the perfect Ramadhan gradually became an obsession, and I felt the pressure to conform to practice in this extremely specific way. The month started being a chore, and I fell out of love with it. The nights became less and less magical, and I spent them sleeping or pretending to sleep in a bid to get out of terawih prayers that my parents were suddenly very enthusiastic in going for.

Gone was the desire to feel closer to myself, to my late grandmother, and also to God. Previously, hunger never did bother me much during the day, and even when it did I could find ways to manage it, but it soon became so unbearable, I would break my fast simply because I couldn’t take it. When I used to look forward to Ramadhan, I now dread it, because it would be a month of being told what to do, with judgement being passed when those practices were not done.

A month of finding ways to be empathetic to other people’s struggles, contemplation of the self as well as one’s relationship with God, and control of one’s own desires became a chase to obsessively follow the Prophet’s life and habits in a desperate bid to attain the ‘perfect’ fast. And in doing so, it seems that we have forgotten the one thing that the Prophet had also done a lot in his life – contemplate and reflect.

Read the other posts here: Rituals blog series