On Being with Krista Tippett

Samar Jarrah, Wajahat Ali, Sahar Ullah, et al.

Revealing Ramadan

Last Updated

May 14, 2020

Original Air Date

September 10, 2009

This year Muslims are experiencing a Ramadan like no other. The month is usually a period of both intimacy and great community. Now Muslims are improvising, as in many places the rituals of Ramadan must be experienced at home or online. This show, recorded in 2009, grew out of an invitation to Muslim listeners to reflect on what it means to be part of what often is referred to in the abstract as “the Muslim world.” We received responses from all over the world and were struck by the vivid stories about Ramadan itself, across a remarkable spectrum of life and spiritual sensibility.


Image of Allee Ramadhan

Allee Ramadhan is a retired federal prosecutor and the father of 11 children. He lives in Maryland.

Image of Ilana Alazzeh

Ilana Alazzeh is a multimedia artist, photographer, and activist. She is the founder of several interfaith, diversity, and economic justice groups, including Muslims Against Homophobia and LGBT Hate.

Image of Nadia Sheikh Bandukda

Nadia Sheikh Bandukda is an attorney specializing in labor and employment issues.

Image of Nicole Queen

Nicole Queen is a photographer living in Dallas. She co-hosts the podcast, Salam, Girl!

Image of Sabiha Shariff

Sabiha Shariff lives in Dallas, where she volunteers with the Texas Muslim Women’s Foundation.

Image of Steven Longden

Steven Longden is a Mancunian who converted to Islam in 1993.

Image of Samar Jarrah

Samar Jarrah is an author, journalist, and co-host of “True Talk,” a global affairs talk show on WMNF in Tampa. She grew up in Kuwait.

Image of Wajahat Ali

Wajahat Ali is a columnist at The Daily Beast and his essays, interviews, and reporting have appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and The Guardian. He also is a Senior Fellow at the Western States Center and Auburn Seminary. He wrote the celebrated play, The Domestic Crusaders. His first book, Go Back To Where You Came From: And Other Helpful Recommendations on How to Become American, will be published in early 2022.

Image of Yanina Vaschenko

Yanina Vaschenko emigrated from Russia to Dallas when she was eight years old. She is a bilingual elementary school teacher. She grew up in the Russian Orthodox Church.

Image of Maria Romero

Maria Romero is Mexican American, an attorney working in legal services, and a mother. She lives in Seattle.

Image of Ibrahim Al-Marashi

Ibrahim Al-Marashi is an associate professor of History at California State University San Marcos. He has also taught in Turkey and Spain.

Image of Sahar Ullah

Sahar Ullah is an artist and academic. She’s a lecturer in Literature Humanities at Columbia University and the founder of the theater project, Hijabi Monologues.

Image of Mary Hope Schwoebel

Mary Hope Schwoebel is a former senior program officer in the Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding at the United States Institute of Peace. She is an associate professor of Conflict Resolution Studies at NOVA Southeastern University.

Image of Adnan Onart

Adnan Onart is a poet. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he is an active Muslim member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation.

Image of Feruze Faison

Feruze Faison grew up in Istanbul and, when we spoke with her, was teaching elementary school in New York.

Image of Tayyaba Syed

Tayyaba Syed is a Pakistani American author of children’s books, including The Blessed Bananas. She is also a freelance journalist and writing coach.


Krista Tippett, host: Ramadan commemorates the month when the Qur’an’s first verses were revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. It’s marked by recitation of the Qur’an, prayer, and fasting from sun-up to sundown. The Ramadan fast is a spiritual discipline of commitment and reflection. But it is also meant to align Muslims with the larger experience of need and hunger in the world.

This year, of course, Muslims are experiencing a Ramadan like no other. The month is usually a period of both intimacy and great parties. Waking before the sun rises for breakfast. Prayers with one’s family. Ending or “breaking” the fast after nightfall in celebration with friends and strangers. Now, Muslims are improvising, as in many places Ramadan has been forced inside and online.

This show grew out of an invitation to Muslims listeners leading up to Ramadan in 2009. We asked them to reflect with us on what it means to be part of what often is referred to in the abstract as “the Muslim world.” We received responses from all over the world and were especially struck by the vivid stories about Ramadan itself that nearly everyone had to tell — across a remarkable spectrum of life and spiritual sensibility.

Feruze Faison: First of all, it teaches you that you can do so much more than you think you can. And at the end of the day, when you take that first sip of water, it is the sweetest thing in the world.

Mary Schwoebel: And also how it makes you compassionate, because when you are hungry, you understand the experience of those people who are hungry every day of their lives.

Wajahat Ali: Ramadan is not just predicated upon eating or not eating or drinking or not drinking. It’s a state of mind. And it’s an attempt to achieve God consciousness that carries on throughout the day.

Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.

[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]

We begin with Samar Jarrah. She was born in Kuwait and has lived throughout the Middle East. She came to the U.S. in 1989.

Samar Jarrah: I just got back from Jordan, actually, last night — very late last night. And my family was telling me, “Why can’t you just stay a bit longer and spend the week from Ramadan in Jordan or in Egypt?” And I said, “You will never understand this, but the best Ramadan I ever spend in my life is always in America because I feel sometimes I’m the only person fasting.”

It’s more strenuous. I feel like every day is a jihad for me. It’s a struggle to maintain my faith, to maintain my fast despite the amazing food around me and the smells. If I go shopping or if I go to the mall, there is food everywhere. Everybody is eating except myself, and this brings me amazing strength. And I wake up very early in the morning. I can be lecturing, I can be driving to my classes a hundred miles each way, I can be feeding the homeless, I can be doing amazing stuff that I would not be doing if I were living in a Muslim country because the whole country would be fasting and I would be one of many.

[music: “Waiting” by Joan Jeanrenaud]

Jarrah: Last year, I was giving two lectures in a row in Sarasota to a college, and the lecture starts one hour and a half before the time of breaking the fast. So I was giving the lecture, and at around 7:45, I paused. And I just took a date and a sip of water, and I told my students, “I’m breaking my fasting.” And I continued another hour and a half, and then I had another hour and a half to get back home. And I was not weak; I was full of life.

And I felt, “My God, now I understand what it means to be fasting Ramadan in America.” I bet you, if I was living in my mom’s house, I would be dead if I missed my meal half an hour after the time of the breaking of the fast. This experience is priceless, and that’s why I did everything. I even paid extra money for my ticket to make sure I arrived before Ramadan starts because this is where I feel I’m really fasting with a meaning and a purpose.

Especially, it happens that, during Ramadan, we go and feed the homeless. So there is so much food I am giving those people, and people are telling me, “Why don’t you taste this? Why don’t you taste this?” And I tell them, “I can’t. I’m fasting.” And they say, “Why don’t you just have a sip of water?” And I say, “I can’t. I’m fasting.” And you can’t imagine how blessed I feel that I’m feeding homeless people, and I am fasting, and I can’t touch the food. And that’s the whole idea of Ramadan, not to be able to eat, to feel with the poor and the deprived. And I just love it.

[music: “Dervish” by Joan Jeanrenaud]

Wajahat Ali: My name is Wajahat Ali, and I’m from the Bay Area of California.

Tippett: Wajahat is a first-generation Pakistani American, a playwright who trained as a lawyer. Since we spoke, he’s become an op-ed contributor to the New York Times.

Ali: I remember when I used to go to UC Berkeley, we used to always say “breaking the fast.” We’re “breaking the fast,” we’re “breaking the fast,” we’re “breaking the fast.” But I remember my Arabic teacher is like, “No, linguistically, what you’re doing is actually you are opening your fast. You’re opening your fast with a date.” So from then on, I’ve always said “opening my fast.”

And essentially, that act of worship continues throughout the month. It doesn’t end with the fast, right? And I’ve been growing up with non-Muslims my whole life. So sometimes, they give you — most of my friends were being atheists, also, and agnostics, which I thought was great, and Christians. So sometimes — once in a while, they’d give these snide comments. They’re like, “How does a Muslim fast during Ramadan if he has, like, sugar problems? And what does a Muslim do if he has to eat?”

I kept telling them that Ramadan is not just predicated upon eating or not eating or drinking or not drinking. It’s a state of mind. And it’s an attempt to achieve God consciousness that carries on throughout the day. So even if you can’t eat the date, you can be nice to your neighbor. You can repair relations with your family members. And you can help prepare the meal for the Muslim who fasts. And so your fast continues after you open it with the date.

There’s a great story that I tell, and I wish I had more opportunities to tell it. Islam has a lot of beauty in it. And I can understand the viewpoint of many in America who see the violence and arrogance espoused by reactionaries, which mars the beauty of Islam in their eyes. And that’s understandable. As a Muslim American, I can understand why people would have that reaction and limited understanding of Islam. But it’s also a religion which inspires the poetry of Rumi, whose love for the divine has created verses that survived 800 years and nourished the spirits of lovers around the globe. And when it comes to Ramadan, some of the most beautiful moments that exist within the Muslim community and within Islam become manifest during this month.

And I remember one time when I went to Mecca, which is the holiest site of pilgrimage for Muslims — I was in Mecca, and I was doing umrah. Umrah is essentially like a mini version of hajj — it’s the easiest way I can explain it. And I was in college, and it was during Ramadan, and I had just finished umrah, which took about two and a half hours. And I haven’t eaten anything, and I’m fasting, and it’s hot, and I’m wearing these two white shawls. And I remember praying that, “I wish the sun would set. And I’m hungry.”

And I remember in the Masjid al-Haram — that’s the name of the mosque with what you call the black cube, the Kaaba, in it. The sun set, and the entire world just woke up, and everyone went to the mosque. I remember about 15 or 20 children came up to me and each one taking my hand and tugging my finger with smiles on their faces saying, “Come, come, come. Come to the mosque, come to the mosque,” in Arabic. Basically, what they had done is they had prepared a small bowl with a date and some fruit and some milk — thousands of them, thousands of these bowls on these mats for all the Muslims around the city who were coming to the mosque.

So these children, who I’ve never met before in this life, just one after another, one after another, just said, “Come to the bowl that I prepared.” “Come eat the bowl that I prepared.” “No, please eat my bowl.” “Please eat my bowl.” And I sat there eating this bowl, opening my fast next to strangers I’ve never met before, and greeted them with peace in the mosque, in the holy mosque. There was just a sense of overwhelming beauty. And it’s a memory that I cherish that sometimes, when you see the violence and extremism and the arrogance and the ignorance and the anger — that memory nourishes me.

[music: “Sayyid Dance” by Vassilis Tsabropoulos, Anja Lechner, and U.T. Gandhi]

Tippett: Yanina Vaschenko lives in Dallas. In an essay she wrote to us, she shared how Ramadan was a way into Islam for her.

Yanina Vaschenko: So I first fasted for Ramadan, and I loved it. It was strange because I have never been a person who skipped a meal or gave up the extra piece of cake. So how could I not eat or drink the whole day, over and over again? It had to be something bigger than my base desires that was driving me. And that was the most peaceful I had ever felt. It was unreal. Of course, it was not something I was going to forget about, but it led me further and further into Islamic practices.

Tippett: Yanina’s family moved from Russia to Texas when she was eight years old. She was raised in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, spent several years as a nondenominational Christian, and converted to Islam in her early twenties.

Vaschenko: I know a lot of converts, and I know the convert syndrome, especially with Islam, and that is to be better than and more pious than the born Muslims because you feel like you have to make up for the fact that you’re starting late or you don’t know all the rules and things like that. And I don’t have that feeling at all. So I don’t use Arabic words in my speech, I don’t dress a certain way, because, in Islam, it doesn’t say you have to. I mean, I haven’t found any proof that you have to. And that’s the good thing about it. This religion in particular tells you, “You choose your own path. You use your own brain.” You act according to the rules that have been given, but there’s always that emphasis on finding out the best way to do something.

Two special resonance moments, I guess, would be the first time I fasted for Ramadan. I actually did it for the whole 30 days. It was just a completely new experience for me. You just get this indescribable peaceful feeling. It’s almost — you don’t know why it’s happening. But not only are you practicing self-restraint, it’s almost like you’re doing something for a higher power. I guess that’s where the peaceful feeling comes in.

And that was the first time I had ever felt that way before, so that’s a special memory. Also, it’s hard to learn the movements and the prayers in Arabic and do them the correct way and sequence. It took a while of practicing in order to commit that to memory. So when I could do it, I felt like — it was almost like I was finally committed to something. It was something that was a little difficult. And any time something is difficult, you appreciate it more when you succeed or you master it, I guess. So in that sense, it was an accomplishment. And from now on, I’ll never forget those words. Once you commit something to memory, even if you don’t say it for a long time, it’s always there. And I feel like, no matter what, I can always pray and use those words to have peace and inner calm.

[music: “Old” by So Percussion]

Tippett:  I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, “Revealing Ramadan,” exploring the delights and the meaning of Islam’s holiest month.

Maria Romero: My name is Maria Enriqueta Romero.

Tippett: Maria is Mexican American, grew up Roman Catholic, and married an Arab Muslim man. But only after their divorce did she convert to Islam.

Romero: I think the most difficult Ramadan was — I hadn’t converted to Islam yet, but I was “studying” Islam, so that Ramadan came around and I was fasting. And my mother was quite opposed to me coming to Islam. “Why didn’t you come to Islam while you were married to this person? That I could understand. I can’t understand you doing it on your own.” In years past, in order to support him, I would fast with him during Ramadan even though I wasn’t a Muslim.

And the year we got married, Ramadan and Lent fell around the same time. I had told him, “OK, I’ll fast with you, but on Fridays, we have to break our fast with fish because I can’t have meat on Fridays.” But things get better. Last year, we opened our home to single and convert Muslim females because I know what it’s like to not have a tradition, a family gathering in your home, and specific particular meals for Ramadan.

And last year was the first year that I felt I had a home large enough where I could welcome someone and that I had the financial resources to be able to say, “You’re welcome in our home. I may not know you, but you’re a convert or you’re a single sister, and I don’t want you to be alone for at least one night.” We would do it on Wednesdays. We’re not having it in my home this year, but we’re having it in cabanas because they’re larger, because we hope to have more women.

[music: “Rose” by Ludovico Einaudi]

Tippett: Ibrahim Al-Marashi grew up Iraqi American in northern California. Now a scholar of modern history with a focus on the Middle East, he’s taught in the U.S., Turkey, and Spain.

Ibrahim Al-Marashi: I was studying as an undergrad at UCLA. And I remember that, during the day, a fellow Iraqi Muslim, who doesn’t practice the faith — she knew I was fasting, yet she was still eating an ice cream in my face to kind of taunt my practice of my religious belief at the university. And I remember that moment because, usually when you think about Muslims, you think of this one monolithic block who’s engaged in kind of these Islamic rituals without any kind of deviation, yet I still remember this girl eating her Baskin-Robbins ice cream in the classroom.

At the same time, there was a Jewish person in the class, a Jew from Iran. He also had an ice cream. It was a very hot day. He knew I was fasting, and he walked out of the classroom. It just goes to show me that you have this kind of image of Judaism and Islam locked in this kind of intractable conflict. Yet it’s those kind of daily moments that — here is a Jew from Iran more considerate of my religious beliefs than a fellow Iraqi-Muslim. That kind of reminded me that it doesn’t matter what religion you are. You can be sensitive to other peoples’ beliefs.

One of the interests I have, particularly living in Islamic Spain, is this kind of interplay of this kind of harmony in Jewish-Muslim relations as well as what — the Spanish term — the “convivencia,” the ability of Spaniards, Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike to live together. This is one of the areas I find that’s fascinating to research. And I often remember that Ramadan incident when I’m reading various books and sources on the subject.

[music: “Two Oldtimers” by Eno-Moebius-Roedelius-Plank]

Sahar Ullah: My name is Sahar Ullah.

Tippett: Sahar comes from a Bengali family. She’s an artist and an academic in New York City. She spoke with us from South Florida, where she grew up.

Ullah: I have a lot of stories. The first Ramadan that I actually fasted the entire month, I happened to be in sixth grade. I was really excited. “I’m gonna do this. I’m gonna be like an adult, and I’m gonna fast the entire month.” Ramadan, in the States especially, is always marked by Muslims debating whether the moon was sighted and whether today is the day or the next day is actually the first day of Ramadan.

But anyway, the first day of Ramadan happened to be on the day of the first field trip of the year. And I was so excited about this field trip because we’d get to go to McDonald’s for lunch and we didn’t have to bring our bag lunches. When I found out that Ramadan was starting on the day of the field trip, I was so mad. [laughs] And then I thought to myself, “I should be a really good spiritual person and consider this as part of the struggle, the struggle of being Muslim.”

And of course, my friends — they didn’t make it any easier. [laughs] So when we went to McDonald’s and everybody ordered their meals, I just sat there staring at them. And I remember one of my friends — she kept eating her fries really slowly in front of me and telling me, “Mmm, don’t you want some fries? Don’t you wish you could eat these?” And I kept saying, “No, I’m fasting, I’m fasting. I can’t eat them.” And then maybe half an hour later, before we were about to leave, the manager came up and she is like, “I’m looking for a young lady in a plaid shirt.” And she saw me, and she said, “Well, this is for you. There’s two gentlemen who wanted me to give this to you.” There were two big meals with a burger and fries and drinks. [laughs]

I remember those two men. They were looking at us because all of my friends were teasing me. And they were wearing scrubs, so they looked like they were either med students or physicians. And they must have thought: one, that I was poor, and I didn’t have the money to get food and I was too proud to ask anyone else for food, or that I was starving myself. But anyway, it was a really nice gesture. But at the same time, I couldn’t eat it. There was still four hours left for breaking the fast. So I gave away the burgers, and I gave away the drinks, and I broke my fast with the fries on my first Ramadan. That’s always a memory I turn to and laugh about, speaking of being Muslim in America. [laughs]

[music: “Two Oldtimers” by Eno-Moebius-Roedelius-Plank]

Mary Schwoebel: My name is Mary Hope Schwoebel.

Tippett: Mary was raised Presbyterian. With the social justice movements of the 1960s, her parents became more secular and so did she. But that changed when she met the man who would become her husband, a Somali Muslim.

Schwoebel: When he proposed, I actually volunteered. He didn’t ask me to convert. Because, as you know, Islam enables men to marry women of the book. In other words, Jews and Christians don’t have to convert. It’s acceptable for a Muslim man to marry them. And it was easy for me to convert because Islam is so logical. And he impressed me in a million ways. He wasn’t a feminist. He’s not a feminist still. He would never call himself a feminist. And yet, I think, because of his Muslim beliefs, he had more fundamental respect for women than anybody I had ever met. So, in some ways, I felt like he was more of a feminist in practice than anybody I’d met who called themselves a feminist.

[music: “Flood” by BRIGHT]

Schwoebel: During a past Ramadan, at my children’s school, they were into diversity training and this, that, and the other. They were in middle school, and it was post-9/11. 9/11 happened when they were in middle school. And there was a little girl, a Somali girl, who got up to speak. And she was a good friend of my daughter’s. My daughter never covered her head, but this little girl does cover her head. And she explained about how Ramadan makes you humble, how it instills humility, and also how it makes you compassionate. Because when you are hungry, you understand the experience of those people who are hungry every day of their lives.

And I think it was so meaningful to me because it resonated so much with my work. Because I do work in international conflict zones and in third world countries where people are, in fact, hungry and in development and whatnot. To me, integration is very important and that my work reflect my beliefs. And my religion is really important to me. And so when she told me that, that was one of those ah-ha moments I guess you can call it.

[music: “Reprise” by Ani DiFranco]

Adnan Onart: My name is Adnan. Although I am Turkish, my name is Arabic after my great-grandfather’s name. And right after the 9/11, this name, Adnan, has been on the most-wanted list of FBI. And so there’s a certain association in peoples’ mind. And hearing Adnan, people are getting a little concerned, maybe.

Tippett: Adnan Onart lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he is an active Muslim member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation. We finish this first half of our program with a poem, “Ramadan in Dunkin’ Donuts,” which Adnan wrote and read for us.

Onart: [reading the poem “Ramadan in Dunkin’ Donuts”]

“Ramadan in Dunkin’ Donuts”

From his asking about the time
and double-checking his watch,
I understood:
he was about to break his fast.
Selamün Aleyküm, I said,
the only Arabic I knew
for all practical purposes.
Aleyküm Selam, he replied.
He was setting his table:
two donuts, one Chocolate Glazed,
the other Boston Kreme
and a thick lentil soup
he had apparently brought
from the grocery store
across the street.
Do you want to sit down
and share?

I thanked him, no.
Aren’t you fasting?
I explained:
my high blood pressure,
my medication.
He pointed to one of the donuts:
Still, he said, let’s share.
The collapsing Twin Towers,
the beheaded hostages,
and the jumpy look on people’s faces
hearing my name.
We already do, I said.

[music: “Axis” by Joan Jeanrenaud]

Tippett: After a short break, Ramadan on a shop floor in the garment district of New York; Ramadan sermons in Texas devoted to domestic violence; Ramadan in Manchester, England; Ramadan and Rumi. You can always listen again, and hear every show we do on the On Being podcast feed — wherever podcasts are found.

[music: “Sayyid Dance” by Vassilis Tsabropoulos, Anja Lechner, and U.T. Gandhi]

Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. We’re exploring the delights and the gravity of Ramadan, Islam’s holiest month. Ramadan commemorates the revelation of the earliest verses of the Qur’an to the Prophet Muhammad. It shifts along the Western calendar across time, according to cycles of the moon, and depending on the lunar cycles of any given year, it is either 29 or 30 days long.

Several years ago we  invited a wonderful array of Muslims to tell us what it means to observe Ramadan, in spiritual terms and in their everyday lives. We put their voices and stories back into the world now – as Islam’s holiest month is improvised like all else. Prayers and the daily celebration of breaking the fast have — in many places — been forced inside and online.

Feruze Faison: My name is Feruze Faison. I am from Turkey, and I’ve been living in the United States in New York City for the past 20-something years.

Tippett: After an early marriage in the U.S., Feruze met the love of her life, who happened to be a woman. This is a source of estrangement between her and her family. Her Islamic sensibility is deeply influenced by the Sufi poetry of Rumi.

Faison: Fasting is a very interesting experience. The fact that — first of all, it teaches you that you can do so much more than you think you can. It could be 90 degrees and on a regular day when you don’t have to fast — you can’t go without drinking water more than an hour. But during Ramadan, for some reason, you can. You can go the whole day. And at the end of the day, when you take that first sip of water, it is the sweetest thing in the world.

That accomplishment — that, “Wow, I can actually do this” — that was always a big deal for me, even as a young child. Even though I didn’t do the whole month, but I did a day here, a day there. I was like, “Wow, I could actually do this. If I can do this, God knows what else I can do.” And fasting clears my mind. I can only talk for myself, but I feel that I could really concentrate more, and I could meditate much deeper.

And the reason for this, as I read from an author from Turkey, Ahmed Hulusi — he explains it. He says when you’re not fasting, a lot of your blood and a lot of your bodily energy is around your intestines, your stomach, so your brain loses out on a lot of energy. But once you stop input to the stomach, now your body can really heal other parts. And the brain can take as much energy as it needs and wants. So your thought is much clearer. And your understanding — when you read and you meditate, you understand much more.

[music: “Old” by So Percussion]

Tayyaba Syed: My name is Tayyaba Syed.

Tippett: Tayyaba is a mother of three. She’s an author and a journalist and has written several books for children. “In my faith,” she wrote to us, “parents are highly regarded. We have to honor and respect them unreservedly and treat them with utter kindness.” Her Ramadan story revolves around her father, who passed away a few months after she spoke with us.

Syed: I do remember watching my parents and my older siblings fasting as a younger child and wanting to be able to fast, too, because it’s such a big part of our faith. And I think I was maybe nine or 10 years old. Kids do not have to fast until after puberty or once you’ve entered puberty. I woke up — we have to eat before the sun comes up in the morning. So I woke up, and I’d had some breakfast. And I think around nine, 10 o’clock, I told my father — I was like, “I think I can do this. I think I can continue the rest of the fast.”

And he was so concerned. He was like, “No, no, no. You’re too little. You do not need to fast. It’s not obligatory on you. Don’t worry about it.” And I was like, “No, Dad, I can do it. Just let me try. Just let me get through the rest of the day.” He’s like, “Let’s take baby steps. You woke up, that’s a big thing. You had breakfast with us. That’s a big thing. Maybe next year, you can fast for half the day.” I remember he was like, “Here, drink this water and break your fast.”

I was so devastated. I was so disappointed. But when I was able to fast, it was a great big deal. A child’s first fast is a big deal in our faith. But, yeah, that’s one of the first memories I have of Ramadan. It’s a beautiful month of spirituality and unity and family and community coming together. A lot of time is spent in the mosque in prayer and reading the Qur’an. I love it. I’m really excited about the month.

[music: “Ahuvati” by Kaki King]

Allee Ramadhan: My name is Allee Ramadhan, and I’m from Derwood, Maryland. I was born as a Muslim here in America more than 65 years ago, and I did not stress that fact in my life as a child.

Tippett: Allee is the father of 11 children and a retired federal prosecutor.

Ramadhan: Well, first off, my faith, what I enjoy about it and what I have always treasured about it, is that I saw it as a personal faith. In other words, there was nothing between me and my God. And so it allowed me to interpret certain things. It allowed me a greater freedom in my understanding of my God. So as I try to practice my faith in praying five times a day, it constantly, in a sense, keeps me — as a reminder and in contact with my faith and my God.

And therefore, I try to remain humble. I think it helps me to remain humble. When you remain humble in a world, you approach people in a kind of a quality. It manifests itself in everything I do. Because I am a diabetic, I don’t fast during the month of Ramadan. I know the month of Ramadan is a time of discipline, but I don’t see fasting, and I don’t see it as something that God wanted us to put our lives in danger on. There are other ways that I try to celebrate the month. I try to be a little more generous than I normally am. So I try to compensate in other ways.

[music: “Fleeting Smile” by Roger Eno]

Ilana Alazzeh: My name’s Ilana Alazzeh. My father, who’s Palestinian, lives in San Francisco. And my mother’s actually Israeli American, who converted to Islam. And my stepfather is Pakistani. So I have a really mixed family, and we have really mixed heritage.

Tippett: Ilana shared many stories with us, but for her, it’s her family’s religious diversity that illustrates a quintessential aspect of being Muslim in the United States.

Alazzeh: My grandfather, who is a staunch Israeli veteran and was a Palmach war veteran, he was kind of uncomfortable with the idea of my mother being Muslim for a long time. And he still is. But that never stopped him from kind of respecting when I was fasting. For instance, one of my brothers was teasing me and eating food in front of me while I was fasting. And he kind of gives him a clap and was like, “Stop being a schmuck,” basically. [laughs]

And I was kind of surprised by that. It was kind of that interesting juxtaposition when you compare it to the culture I was raised in, very Israeli and but also very Muslim at the same time. My father’s family is very Palestinian, I would say. We come from — Alazzeh family has a long tradition of tribes and rulers over in Palestine. So it was just interesting to have that juxtaposition.

[music: “Sand Painting” by Chris Beaty]

Alazzeh: Ramadan usually comes at different parts of the season, depending on what year you’re talking about. Because it’s based on the moon calendar, I remember one time it came upon, I’d say, Christmas time. And there were so many lights outside. I remember my mom was visiting a friend who’s actually a convert from Christianity. And we all piled in the car, my grandfather, my mother, even my step-grandmother at the time who converted — she’s actually African American. She was originally Southern Baptist but converted to Judaism in order to marry my grandfather. And I remember we went out to go see the lights during this one Ramadan night. And we started singing these Christmas songs, and by the end of it, we were also singing these Jewish songs. It was just — during Ramadan — a majority of people in the car were Muslim. So we were just like a whole bunch of puzzle pieces. [laughs] Kind of odd ones, I suppose.

[music: “Sand Painting” by Chris Beaty]

Nadia Sheikh Bandukda: My name is Nadia Sheikh Bandukda. I live near Princeton, New Jersey. My father was born and raised in Kenya, moved to England, came to America, sounded just like me or any other Joe. [laughs] And my mom was from Pakistan, came over when she was 15, but still sounds like she just moved over.

Tippett: Nadia is an attorney who specializes in labor and employment issues. Her Ramadan memory takes place in the garment district of New York City, in a household goods store owned by her father.

Bandukda: After he came back from England, he opened up a small retail store. And it was a largely Jewish-populated district, and it’s a largely Jewish-populated kind of business as well. My father’s business partner was a man named Isaac Cohen, and he broke the fast with us almost every time I visited the store with my dad. We would just sit around. The security guards were African descent. The cashiers were from Southeast Asia. The women on the floor that helped customers with certain questions were Hispanic. You know — exactly kind of the microcosm of what New York is in this small retail store with about 40 employees.

And at the time to break fast, you would see the people behind the register just kind of eating and breaking the fast and us going around with trays, me and my sisters going around with trays giving dates to everyone in the store. Sometimes customers would be like, “Oh, do you sell these in the store?” “No, we’re breaking the fast. Would you like one?” And they would eat it, and it would be interesting, and they would ask where it was sold. It was not about the eating. It was about sharing. It was nice. It was just the whole experience.

[music: “Walking Man” by Zoë Keating]

Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, “Revealing Ramadan,” exploring the delights and the meaning of Islam’s holiest month.

[music: “Walking Man” by Zoë Keating]

Nicole Queen: When I first started the transition from party girl to “I’m going to wear a hijab and devote myself to God,” it was definitely a rough transition. There’s a lot that you have to learn if you want to really take another religion into your heart.

Tippett: Nicole Queen was born in Houston and raised Southern Baptist. Out of college, she worked as a photographer covering celebrities and nightlife. As she grew disillusioned with that lifestyle, she became intrigued with the ideas and preaching of Yusuf Estes, a fellow Protestant Christian Texan who converted to Islam nearly three decades ago. Now in her 30s, Nicole is a practicing Muslim, as is her husband and his family.

Queen: I started to fast the month of Ramadan two years before I actually converted to Islam because I used to think it was just a pretty cool thing. Like people said, “You know what? This month I’m not going to eat or drink anything until the sun goes down.” And that kind of makes you all equal. Everybody is hungry, everybody is thirsty, and it also humbles you. It teaches you what it’s like for the people who don’t have access to all the food and water that we have.

And I remember my first year to fast Ramadan as a Muslim, I thought, “Oh, I’ve done this before.” But when you fast as a Muslim — I remember it was just a completely different feeling. You feel like you’re glowing the whole month. And it’s a really tough thing to do because, when you fast as a Muslim, you’re not just fasting. You have lots of extra praying and everything. Your intentions the whole time are about worship and about what you’re offering to God and your sacrificing that you’re making.

And you get together with other families. When you first become a Muslim, you just feel kind of alone, like as a convert. You feel kind of alone because you’re a convert to them, and to your family, you’re pretty rebellious. You’re being really different. So I remember, that first Ramadan, I really felt like I had a place with people. I had a home with them, and I had a place with my in-laws. So I think that that first Ramadan was when I actually started to feel like I belonged to one group or the other. It really was kind of a special moment for me in that.

[music: “Rose” by Ludovico Einaudi]

Sabiha Shariff: My name is Sabiha Shariff and I was born in Bombay, India, now known as Mumbai. We’ve been here — we migrated to this country in 1982.

Tippett: For most of her life in the U.S., Sabiha lived in New Jersey, where she worked in the corporate world. She’s now retired and living in Texas. As she tells her Ramadan story, she uses the Arabic word for mosque, “masjid.”

Shariff: There is this organization that I’m a member of. It’s called the Texas Muslim Women’s Foundation. Last Ramadan, they had a domestic violence awareness day in all the masjids in the Metroplex at the same day, which was the second Friday of Ramadan. That clearly comes to my mind because it was every — on Fridays, they have a sermon which is called the khutbah — every Friday. That particular Friday, which was the second Friday of Ramadan, this organization requested all the masjids in the Metroplex to give a khutbah pertaining to domestic violence.

I think that it was really beautiful because it drew the awareness that there’s a lot of domestic abuse going on in families here, and it brought the awareness to the general public. I thought it was great because the same thought, the same message, was relayed throughout the Metroplex area on one single Friday. And it was done in the holy month, so that — I think people are more aware during this month because of zakat, the obligatory charity that they have to do is mostly encouraged in the month of Ramadan. People just open their hearts and their wallets, and there are so many causes that come up in the masjids. So many people come and ask for funds, and people just give and give, no matter what their financial status. That, I think, is one of the beautiful things in Ramadan.

[music: “Two Oldtimers” by Eno-Moebius-Roedelius-Plank]

Steven Longden: My name is Steven Longden. I’m from Manchester, which is in the north of England. So this year, at the start of Ramadan, which you need to appreciate that the Islamic day starts at sundown as with the Jewish faith — so at the start of Ramadan this year, it was about half past eight in the evening. So we’re all wishing each other a happy Ramadan in the family and our neighbors and sending emails and texts and telephone calls. And obviously, the children do that with all their grandparents and friends. It’s an exciting time, as you can imagine, for everybody in the family.

Tippett: Steven converted to Islam in 1990. The whole of the Qur’an divided into 30 parts is read in Muslim congregations and families across the month of Ramadan. We close this hour with Steven’s reading of a passage from the Qur’an that expresses the essence of faith and of Ramadan for him.

Longden: Now you’ll have to forgive me because we’re fasting, and my throat is a little dry. So forgive me if it sounds a little bit raspy. I’m going to recite a chapter of the Qur’an which comes toward the end of the Qur’an. It’s one of the short chapters, and it’s called, in Arabic, “Surah Al-‘Asr” — the chapter’s name is “Time.” So here goes:

[Reciting chapter in Arabic]

So that was my little effort reciting the Qur’an. In English, I’ll translate that. So we start every chapter with “Bismillah al rahman al rahim,” which means, “In the name of Allah, the most mystical, the most kind.” “With regards to time, surely humankind is at a loss except those who believe, and do good deeds, and are steadfast in truths, and are steadfast with patience.” And that’s it.

[music: “Soushy the Cat” by Chris Thomson]

Tippett: This show came about while we were listening for stories about living Islam, and nearly every person had a defining, sparkling Ramadan memory to share. We’re currently exploring questions and opportunities to create more listener-generated On Being episodes. If you have ideas about questions or themes for future shows like this send us a message on social media or email us, at [email protected].

[music: “Soushy the Cat” by Chris Thomson]

The On Being Project is located on Dakota land. Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing at the end of our show is Cameron Kinghorn.

On Being is an independent production of The On Being Project. It is distributed to public radio stations by PRX. I created this show at American Public Media.

Our funding partners include:

The John Templeton Foundation. Harnessing the power of the sciences to explore the deepest and most perplexing questions facing human kind. Learn about cutting-edge research on the science of generosity, gratitude, and purpose at templeton.org/discoveries.

The Fetzer Institute, helping to build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Find them at fetzer.org.

Kalliopeia Foundation. Dedicated to reconnecting ecology, culture, and spirituality. Supporting organizations and initiatives that uphold a sacred relationship with life on Earth. Learn more at kalliopeia.org.

Humanity United, advancing human dignity at home and around the world. Find out more at humanityunited.org, part of the Omidyar Group.

The Osprey Foundation — a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives.

And the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education.

Books & Music

Music Played



Funding provided in part by the John Templeton Foundation. The Templeton Foundation supports research and civil dialogue on the deepest and most perplexing questions facing humankind: Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going? To learn more, please visit templeton.org.