This Ramazan, let’s make sure that converts are as much part of the faith as us
Ramazan and I are old friends. From a young age, mother would always let me stay up well into the night to fold samosas (fried dish with savoury filling) and fatayer (Middle Eastern meat pie) for the next day. For me, Ramazan means sleepy eyes, knowing smiles, and a month of eating on the floor with my family and praying with friends at the mosque I grew up in. More than anything, Ramazan means coming home – back to my community, back to my mama’s kitchen, and back to the One who sustains me.
We are the lucky ones, those of us who have those deep traditions to fall back on. However, let’s imagine for a second that we didn’t grow up in a family that observes Ramazan. Imagine discovering a new faith and a month that is meant to be about building a relationship with your Sustainer and your community. However, it becomes a month where you are isolated. You feel like a stranger on the outside looking into a community that has accepted you, but not entirely.
We seem to forget that Islam is a choice and not a pre-packaged culture, that there are many among us who were not born Muslim, but are just as much part of the faith as us.
We forget that Islam has no culture, and that imposing one creates the illusion that Islam is exclusive rather than inclusive.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve seen many mosques support converts as they come to Islam. I have been there when new Muslims take their oath in accepting Islam, and I’ve seen how proud the community has been in welcoming them. But what happens when they are no longer new Muslims? Do we think about them when we are in our ethnic communities speaking in our languages and eating our traditional Ramazan meals?
Unfortunately, many go years after embracing Islam – some remain the only Muslims in their own families – and they feel isolated and alone. Meanwhile, we are basking in the company of our community of friends and family.
For Melissa Gomez, a Canadian convert, her first Ramazan lacked a certain degree of spirituality because she did not have a strong community.
“Everything was alien to me. The people, the way things were done, the religious mannerism. The entire experience of Ramazan was new,” said Gomez.
“The people that I was around at the time I converted seemed very conservative and gated, so I felt socially awkward. I couldn’t relate.”
Gomez expressed that had she been welcomed into a community that accepted her for who she was, and supported her growing journey, it would have changed her experience.
“I am not always strong enough to cultivate that spiritual connection. I need to feel connected so that vibrancy bounces back and forth between good people,” said Gomez.
And that is what Ramazan is. It’s as much a personal journey as it is a communal one. It’s why we spend so much time with our families, chosen or otherwise, to encourage each other and help one another grow. But not everyone is extending that arm, and if they are, not everyone feels comfortable being in spaces that seem focused more on a cultural experience rather than a religious and spiritual one.
As born-Muslims, we seem to have become possessive of what Islam looks like.
But what sort of global community are we cultivating if Islam only seems to be open to certain cultures or regions of the world? Even the way we think of Ramazan food is exclusive, and I know that I am guilty of that. I can’t imagine a Ramazan without my mama's samosas or malawah (pancakes). It almost wouldn’t seem like Ramazan. And what’s so bizarre about that is that it’s just food. But for converts, everything is new, literally. Everything, from the way they dress, to how they eat and talk, and even sometimes their own names.
Have we ever thought about perhaps including their traditional or favourite meals in our Ramazan feasts? Or what we do to make them feel welcome in spaces we have very clearly marked as ours?
“I think the best support is just letting new Muslims process everything at their own timing, not treating converts like pets,” said Gomez.
“Giving them space to grow. If people just understood that we all come from different backgrounds.”
One of the spaces that Gomez was able to find and build a community in is the Green Room in Edmonton, Alberta. It’s a space that provides Muslims a community to grow in together. Almost like a cross between a cool halaqa (religious gathering) clique and a mosque.
“People are looking for a place to belong, for a place to feel at home, to grow, to be themselves and develop their spirituality and a meaningful connection with each other and with The Creator,” said Taouba Khelifa, an organiser at the Green Room.
“Human beings are social creators; we want to belong to a place and a group of people.”
The Green Room has established many programs that are examples of what we can do as a Muslim community to make new Muslims feel like they are as much a part of the community as we are. Last year, the Green Room hosted a series of iftars called ‘Open Doors Ramazan’, where families would sign up to host those who were celebrating Ramazan without their families. This included converts, single Muslims who were away from home, and students. It was a beautiful way to connect people during a spiritual time.
“More than any other time in the year, I think that Ramazan must be a time where we open our homes and doors to anyone who is spending this time alone. It’s not just about breaking bread together, it’s about building a community,” said Khelifa.
“Fostering meaningful and genuine relationships with people, creating friendships and family, I really believe that it’s in those moments of cooking and eating together that real, grassroots, community building takes place.”
So, can we? Can this be the Ramazan that no converts are left to break their fasts alone and pray in their rooms? Please.
This post originally appeared here.