Ramadan is here, and while everyone is gushing over how much Baraka they’ll receive and how many new recipes they’ll be bringing to potluck iftars, I’m just anxious. Not excited, I’m agitated. I feel like someone stuck a milk frother in my brain and now I can’t get rid of the sound of the vibrating coils scraping against the inside of my skull.
Ramadan is a difficult time of the year for me for many reasons, the biggest of those being my father. I grew up in a household rife with domestic abuse: my father was verbally and emotionally abusive to us kids, and physically abusive to our mother. This abuse worsened during Ramadan. A lazy and distant father most of the year, the coming of Ramadan would remind my father of the consequences of not teaching us Islam. He would berate and shame us with loud hellfire-and-brimstone sermons that sent us all to bed crying, barely able to eat our iftar, convinced even as small children that God hated us and we were destined for Hell.
I grew up isolated from the Muslim community because my parents were (and are) very antisocial, and now I feel impostor syndrome creep into my brain whenever I enter Muslim spaces. My first experiences at mosques when I was a child were also tremendously negative.
Now Ramadan is here, and all I can do is get to my safe place. A blanket, some chocolate, sitcom television, and my cat. These are the only antidotes for time-traveling anxiety.
I put on “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and wait for the puns and pop-culture references to wash over me and soothe my tired mind.
But Kimmy isn’t letting me rest either, because Kimmy is going to church. Spoilers ahead: Kimmy and I have a lot in common.
Kimmy Schmidt was kidnapped as a young girl by a man who called himself a Reverend and used fear, psychological manipulation, and warped religious ideology while keeping her in an underground bunker. No, my father wasn’t a Reverend who kidnapped me, but emotionally, he held me hostage.
Our house was just as dark as Kimmy’s bunker, and my father set himself up as a person of religious authority while misusing Quran and Hadith to shame and abuse us. For every little thing we did wrong the consequence was the same: Hellfire, and God’s hatred of us.
My father attempted to use religion to justify all of his abusive behavior, and made himself a mouthpiece for God in our home. God hated us, and so did our father. I came close many times to resigning myself to these as facts, and giving up on religion altogether.
But even after all of this, I wanted to know God. I felt God had comforted me when I was a scared kid hiding under the covers from my father. I also feared God in the way only a traumatized kid can, and I wanted to know I was doing the right thing. I suspected that my father was full of it, and didn’t know most of the time what he was talking about. Just like Kimmy, I knew nothing about “real religion.”
This led me back to the mosque, just as it led Kimmy back to church.
After years of questioning, doubting, and never once setting foot inside a masjid, I returned, alone. All my previous experiences at the masjid had been of loud and angry sermons, crying women, unattended children, and scolding aunties who seemed to judge me for every action or inaction, and the continual glare of shame from my father.
Walking back into a masjid for the first time in over 10 years, I was, like Kimmy, overwhelmed. Upon walking into church for the first time since her release from being a “Mole-Woman,” Kimmy marvels at the church bulletin board and all the things “real religion” does.
“Who knew churches did all this good stuff? Feed the hungry, read to the blind, explain movies to the elderly!”
Within a month of going back to the masjid, I was helping make sandwich lunches to hand out to the homeless. I saw brothers just converted learning to read Quran, and sisters just come to America learning to read anything in English for the first time. I saw people donating generously of their skills, their money, and their time. Hellfire and brimstone and shame were absent, and God’s mercy abounded.
In the words of Kimmy Schmidt: “Go Church!”
Standing in tarawih prayer, I finally felt that no one judged or tormented me. I finally understood the difference between my father and these Muslims.
My father, Reverend Richard-Wayne Gary-Wayne, all the church and masjid aunties, as Titus Andromedon explains to Kimmy: they all use scripture in order to feel superior to others, to manipulate people. Prior to returning to the masjid, I was, like Kimmy, exasperated.
“Is this all real religion is?”
In confronting her masjid/church-auntie nemesis with the Bible, Kimmy exclaims, “Maybe there’s no such thing as real religion, because it’s all just people, and people are bad!”
Now, my father, or the Reverend, or a masjid auntie may object to Kimmy’s logic, thinking themselves truly superior and more worthy of God’s favor, and therefore worthy of looking down on others. But to Kimmy’s shock, and to mine, the people in our newly adopted congregations knew this to be true.
Everyone in Kimmy’s church, rather than scolding or shaming her, greeted her with “amen,” and began extolling the many ways in which they were nothing but sinners.
Miss Clara, church auntie, is a gossip.
One woman holds grudges.
The pastor smokes pot.
“So,” Kimmy says, “I guess real religion is about knowing we’re not perfect, but trying to be better.”
Amen, Kimmy. Amen.
Contrary to what those know-it-all, holier-than-thou fathers and uncles and aunties may think, we’re all in the same boat.
This is the point of Ramadan itself. We are all sinners, but that should not stop us from seeking God’s love and mercy. None of us are perfect, but this should not stop us from entering God’s house, from doing what God has prescribed for us. I nearly gave up on God and religion altogether, but the people of Kimmy’s church return every Sunday, knowing that in time, they can improve themselves, and grow closer each week to God.
Ramadan is a return. While some of us may feel we never left God or that he never left us, we all need this month. I need this month. I need this month to grow closer to God, to realize that I’m not perfect, but I don’t have to be. My father may have expected that of me, but God does not. If I were perfect, there would be no need for this month. For fasting. For prayer. For giving charity. For attending the masjid.
So now, I set the chocolate down and climb out of my blanket fortress. Here’s to the return of Ramadan, and to being imperfect.
Ramadan Mubarak, and Ramadan Kareem.