By John Austin
When I discovered that I wanted to be a Muslim I don’t think I really knew what was involved. This was not for lack of knowledge about the religion but perhaps a lack of knowledge about myself, and a lack of knowledge generally. I knew that I would be required to kneel in submission to God five times a day, abstain from alcohol, along with a host of other minor ascetic measures. But when one actually finds himself in the throes of post-Shahada conversion, it becomes a different matter altogether.
I converted to Islam the previous spring, and spent the subsequent months in a frenzy of learning how to be a Muslim. So ensconced was I in the honeymooning phase with my new religion that one of the greatest obligations I have as a Muslim had crept up on me.
I was completely unprepared for Ramadan that first year. I had not prepared myself, physically or mentally, for the rigors of a month long fast. I was, in fact, still largely oblivious to what that entailed.
That year, Ramadan coincided with the holiday season. It was winter (how I long for those short days!). My family was entertaining, as we often did at that time of year. Our favorite foods were in abundance and were always at the tip of one’s fingers. The holiday season in our home was more of a grazing season since we were constantly shoveling food into our mouths, only vaguely aware most times that we were actually eating.
I recall instinctively plucking a slice of prosciutto from a platter, and subsequently stuffing it into my mouth. I even made sure to opt for the sparkling cider instead of the white wine, thinking to myself, “Nice save, John, you’re doing well.” Which is not to say that I didn’t know that prosciutto was pork, but that I had never really given it much consideration. How much do we really consider what our food is until we are forced to avoid it?
I was mortified, not only by having eaten pork, but by the sheer degree to which I had indulged. I had let God down. What’s worse, I had poisoned my body as well as my psycho-spiritual connection to the Almighty. Is it bad to say that I was also wracked with pangs of disappointment at having to scratch cured Italian meats off of my list of favorite foods? My dietary dilemma had become a full blown moral quandary. To my mind, at the time, not only was I assigning partnership with God, I was doing it with what Muslims believe, arguably, is one of the filthiest creatures on Earth. An internal struggle was being waged between my love for my religion and my love for prosciutto!
It took me a couple of days to reconcile myself with the prosciutto incident, and it wasn’t long after that that I encountered my next Ramadan pitfall.
In order to maintain some semblance of fitness I had modified my workout schedule. Gorging myself on pre-dawn Sohoors was making me put on weight, so I started going to the gym late at night and then praying and eating afterward. On one particular occasion, I had dozed off at my desk before having a chance to shower, pray, and then eat. When I woke up, the sun was already ablaze in the morning sky, which meant that eating was out of the question.
I couldn’t go to school smelling like a gym sock, so elected to take a shower. I was going to have to do a wudu (obligatory pre-prayer ablution) at some point anyway, and it wasn’t like no one in the history of Ramadan had ever showered during daylight hours. What I wasn’t prepared for was the temptation represented by the mere act of showering, my thirst evidently compounded by the workout and my lack of a pre-dawn meal. I stepped into the shower and let the water pour over me. I splashed water on my face and let it run over my head. Without thinking, I found myself ladling water into my mouth with two hands cupped together. I must not have been in my right mind at the time. Who else becomes so enamored with the act of drinking warm, hardened water, from what amounts to a giant tap.
When I finally came to my senses, I backed away from the shower head as though it were a djinn or a demon materialized in my bathroom to tempt me away from the straight path. I was dejected. I had succumbed. Again. Defeated by the seeming simplicity of a previous life. The things that I had taken for granted now represented a tangible threat to my immortal soul. Something as a simple as a shower or brushing one’s teeth had transformed into a potential exercise in hedonism.
I found my first few Ramadans fraught with such perils. They were nothing so grand as adultery or larceny or murder. Those things were obviously easy to avoid. It was the small things that caught me: unleashing a flurry of expletives at the guy making a left hand turn from a right hand lane (cursing and losing ones temper breaks one’s fast), smoking a cigarette (yes, I smoked in those days) because cigarettes do not constitute food or water, or buying turkey sausage I later learned was encased in pork intestine.
I was a lot more neurotic in those days. Everywhere I looked there seemed to be pitfalls that put me in perpetual fear for my immortal soul. As I matured as a Muslim, I came to realize that it was about one’s intent, something that many of us seem to forget. At some point intent must be followed up with action. And it occurs to me, as we approach this month of reflection, that there is a difference between stumbling in an attempt to do right, and justifying the means with the ends.
Am I a perfect Muslim today? No. But am I a better Muslim today than I was fifteen years ago. And I can’t help wondering if that’s all God really expects from us, to be better today than we were yesterday. If it is, then I expect many of us are doing ok.
John Austin is a contributor to Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex, and Intimacy, available now from Beacon Press. He is a graduate of George Mason University and runs a small interactive design company in the Washington, DC, area. When not designing, he writes fiction and essays.