Reflections on Ramadan, Religion, and Respect

*Reminder that this post is only a reflection of OUR personal experiences and thoughts, and does not reflect any other PCVs or non-Muslims living in Morocco. 

This Ramadan, we have decided to fast.

Because it is our very first time fasting, we are going to ease into it with “baby-fasting,” at the suggestion of many of our Moroccan friends. That means we are allowing ourselves to break fast with water on occasion for the first few days. (Especially because I will still be teaching regular classes. Having a glass of water before I leave for class might be a good idea to keep me from fainting.) We have also decided to drink water before travelling. And we have decided not to fast during the days of our In-Service Training Conference (July 5-11), which is smack-dab in the middle of Ramadan. We’ll re-evaluate our plans for next year’s Ramadan at Eid al-Fitr.

For the past couple of weeks, our friends have been asking us whether or not we will fast—and sometimes encouraging us not to.

“It’s really hard,” Some of them have said. “You aren’t Muslim, so you aren’t required to fast. You should let yourself eat and drink—you’ll feel better!”

Some of them are really excited that we’ve decided to fast. This is purely anecdotal, but mostly older folks are excited and friends our age are skeptical that we’ll make it. Robert says that this makes him want to try fasting even more. (“CHALLENGE ACCEPTED,” he shouted at one of our friends who told us, “You’ve never done it before, so it’s going to be a HUGE challenge.”)

We’ve decided to fast for a few reasons. During a time when everyone in our community is fasting, we want to be on the same level. For us, it’s a magnified version of Ramadans past. Back home, during Ramadan, there were certain things that were adjusted slightly. We’d only plan big hang-outs with Muslim friends for after Iftur (the breaking of fast at sundown) and we’d refrain from eating/drinking in front of them before Iftur (mostly, haha, can’t deny it if we were jerks every now and then). But in Seattle, the vast majority of people around us weren’t Muslim. Here, they are. So, during a time when food isn’t being sold anyways and none of the people we hang out with are eating/drinking—it seems easier and more respectful to just join them.

Because we aren’t Muslim, there are certain spiritual Ramadan things we won’t participate in, of course: praying and attending Mosque. But there are other Ramadan things that I feel like everyone should participate in always: charity, reflection, and refraining from “nonconstructive speech.” (Meaning: no negative talk or pettiness! No talking bad about anyone, talking about anyone behind their back, gossiping, etc.)

Because Ramadan has been fast approaching (pun intended), there’s been in increase in conversation about religion. It was already a pretty prevalent conversation-starter, because our esteemed predecessors are Mormon and everyone who knew them had to ask us whether or not we drink tea. When we first arrived in Morocco, this conversation was reeeeally awkward. But interestingly, having the same conversation over and over again has made us more and more comfortable with our beliefs/non-beliefs.

We are not religious. We do not belong to any religion or claim any religion. We are secular. We, however, don’t claim “atheism” or “agnosticism” for socio-political reasons. Robert and I both have separate, complicated histories with faith.

We are open about this fact with everyone who asks, although it was nerve-wracking at first. We don’t offer the information without an inquiry though. Some people, like our host family, have come to conclusions of their own. They’ve never asked, but seem to know exactly what to think/say. When other people ask us in their presence, they answer for us with the sweetest answer: “Shame for asking!” They say, half-jokingly and half-protectively. “They aren’t Muslim, but they are like Muslims in many ways. They don’t smoke or drink. They are modest and have good hearts.” (Not completely accurate, but we don’t correct them.)

Some people don’t quite understand what we mean when we explain (probably mostly because of language barrier issues). I’m still not quite sure if “madiniyyash” translates correctly to “non-religious.” A few people have suggested that we should just tell people that we are Christian, to avoid complicated questioning and confusion. We refuse to do this. We feel that it is dishonest to misrepresent our beliefs and identities. And it is disrespectful to those we’d be lying to, as well to our Christian friends. It would be infinitely easier to lie. And we understand why many people would choose to for reasons of privacy, safety, and community. For example, non-Muslim Arabs who choose to keep the truth of their beliefs from their communities. We struggled with this at first, but we’ve decided that despite how complicated it can be to explain, it is necessary to present our authentic selves.

We also understand that our specific circumstances and privileges allow us to tell the truth. We live in a large university city with a few non-Moroccan residents besides us. That makes it easier. We can choose to just ignore people who are too pushy about religion, although luckily, that means just one dude so far. (Most inquiries go: “Are you Muslim?” “No, we are not Muslim, but we respect Islam and all other religions.” “Oh, okay!”)The friends and community members who respect us—the vast majority of them—accept us. We also take it as a huge compliment that some people have just assumed that we are Muslim. (I call this the “Are You Indonesian” conversation—Indonesia being an Asian country with the largest Muslim population in the world.)

Religion is important. We live in a world of religion, and as non-religious people, we have to always consider that. It’s  in our language—we say “Thank God” and we say “Hamdullah” even though our conception of “God” is not exactly the same. It’s in our cultures. It’s in our holidays. We celebrate Christmas as secular people, so observing Ramadan with our community makes sense too.

Abstaining from food and drink is only a small part of the Ramadan experience. During the next month, we plan to think deeper and shift our focuses. Ramadan is a time to truly appreciate everything you have, and to think about those who have less. It is a time to focus on cultivating self-control and empathy and love. One person told us, “Ramadan is like a reset button.” The perfect time to rethink your life and goals and desires, to re-plan schedules, and re-evaluate purpose. Another person told us, “During Ramadan, it’s back to basics. Even more basic than food and water and sex: spiritual basics.”

So whatever our beliefs, we do believe strongly in community. And with every invitation to break fast at someone’s house or attend a midnight party, we know we’ve made the right choice for us. Now, to fight through the hangriness!

Ramadan Kareem!

Yours Truly,

Robert & Julie


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