2016-06-30
Hala Shah, a 21-year-old Muslim senior at New York University, is currently celebrating the month of Ramadan and sharing her weekly journals with Beliefnet. Each week she will write about what Ramadan is, what it means to her, and memories from past Ramadans.

Dear Journal,

Every year as Ramadan approaches, we watch the news, call our families, search the Internet, maybe even gaze up at the sky on a clear night, all in search of the moon. Upon sighting the new moon, Satan is locked away, and we begin our fast with hope that our diligent prayers and good deeds will keep the angel on our left shoulder busy erasing, and the angel on our right shoulder busy engraving.

As often happens, this year some countries sighted the moon when others didn't. Although my family and most people in North America started the day after the Middle East started, I chose to start a day early. It wasn't because I think the countries in the Middle East were right and North America was wrong. Rather, I wanted the day to be a test, a preparation for the real thing. I remember days when I was little and would thrust open the refrigerator door, take a bite of a tantalizing goody and realize, oh no! I just broke my fast! I wonder how many adults still do that every once in a while. I almost did. That test day gave me the chance to train my mind to remind me, when seeing, smelling, and hearing about food and drink, that I can't eat or drink. This way when Ramadan really started the next day, I wouldn't be weary of my fingers casually plucking a grape or my dry lips taking a sip from a beckoning water fountain.

Another bonus from the trial day was rooting out all the glitches in my daily routine. That day, as I headed to my evening class, "making the documentary: art and techniques," the thought of soft, sweet dates wafted through my head and down to my stomach. But with little time to spare, where would I find any? True, you don't have to break the fast with dates, as the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) did. But for me, dates are extra special because I used to hate them. I remember years ago I would cringe at the sight of my father's shriveled, giant bug-like dates. And it was in just the past year or two that I tried one and liked it! Now I love them, can't get enough of them, am downright obsessed with which ones are best (I like them plump and with the pit). So I hopped from grocery store to grocery store on campus in search of my gooey brown friends. But sadly, I ended up breaking my fast with Sour Jelly Bellies.

"God was planting seeds in my soul..."
Read more on page 2 >>


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  • My new love of dates holds added significance since it corresponds with my renewal of faith. After the age of six, when my parents separated, I no longer lived with my father. On top of that, he was living overseas while my mother, brother, sisters, and I all lived in the United States. When he came for month-long visits, the first things I dug out were a backgammon set and a deck of cards for playing Basra. It was, and still is a tradition for us. I showed absolutely no mercy, beating him almost every time, and gloating over my victory and his humiliating scores. He would then joke that he let me win, I just was lucky, all the usual excuses! And of course, the one or two times that he did actually win, he too earned the right to excessively revel in his success. But amidst the fury of non-stop backgammon and Basra competitions, there were the quiet moments when we would pray together. After we finished our prayers, he would shake my hand and kiss my forehead with such tenderness. In these moments I could feel his soul, so pure from having just prayed, and so content and honored to be by his daughter's side.

    So growing up, God was planting seeds in my soul, one of them being the date seed, and another the call to prayer. But it wasn't until I entered college and soon after got married, that those seeds took root, allowing me to develop my own religious conscience. With this renewed, actually blossoming of faith, began my love of dates. To me, it's not a coincidence. I'm not superstitious, but it's a clear sign of God's plans for my life.

    It's these subtle signs that I look for in my daily life. My husband is always telling me to not stress over school and work so much and to remember that only family and faith warrant such concern. Of course this doesn't mean that I shouldn't devote my best efforts to school and work. It's the opposite. But I realized the other day as I was about to break my fast, what exactly this balance of priorities means. I was faced with the dilemma of choosing to either break the fast at my campus's Islamic Center, pray, and arrive 30 minutes late for class; or go to class on time, silently eat my date as the professor lectured, and say a brief dua in my head. For any other class, it would not be such a big deal. But the professor for this class always harps on us about being late. Why was I nervous about how to deal with this though? What was there to fear? Did I really think that she would penalize me for coming to class late so I could fulfill my religious obligations? Most professors are reasonable if you just talk to them before hand. So I wrote her an email explaining why I would be late and assuring her that I would find out what information I missed. To my surprise, she not only accepted my tardiness, but also wished me a "peaceful Ramadan."

    "There is not a single act He does not see."
    Read more on page 3 >>


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  • I take this as a sign that no matter what, if I'm doing something for God, like sacrificing class to break the fast correctly, then God will take care of the situation. I won't be left stranded with an angry teacher and a bad grade if I just act responsibly, explain nicely, and give advanced notice. But even if my careful plans do go awry, say I encounter a professor who, unfortunately, has zero understanding and acceptance of religious obligations, I will know that I did the right thing and God took notice. There is not a single act He does not see. Perhaps neglecting my religious obligation in favor of my class would have satisfied a temporary material need. But in the long run, where are the professor, the class, and the grade going to be? Gone. And where will my good deed be? Insha'Allah, engraved in my soul.

    Another lesson I learned that day was to have faith in myself and mankind. As I waited for the azan with a date resting in my palm, our school's first Muslim Chaplain, brother Khalid Latif, began telling the story of a man who told his wife that she was more beautiful than the moon. And if she wasn't, then he was divorced from her. Scholar after scholar told the man that he was divorced from his wife since a woman is not more beautiful than the moon. But finally, a scholar came forward in dissent from the others and explained that the man was not divorced from his wife since God made men and women the most beautiful of His creations. In this life, the biggest threat and danger to mankind is itself. But as one of God's most beautiful creations, I cannot lose faith in the divine breath that created me, my brothers, and my sisters. I was born pure, without sin. If my soul grays it is because I allow the divine breath inside to drift away.

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