'Muslim-ish': For less observant Muslims, Ramadan remains a cherished ritual

Massarah Mikati, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Religious News

PHILADELPHIA -- Candlelight flickered across Maham Rizvi’s face as she adorned a chestnut-brown coffee table with different mementos: "A River Dies of Thirst," the collection of writings by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish; "Moon and Sun," a poetry book by the Sufi Muslim poet Rumi; a bowl of colorful Turkish soft candies surrounded by tasbih, Islamic prayer beads; a vase holding a dried floral bouquet; a Quran propped open on a book stand.

It was a recent Friday evening in Philadelphia, and a community iftar was being hosted by Queer Māʾida for predominantly queer and trans Muslims to break their 13-hour fast together during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

Rizvi, who uses the pronouns she/they, had just completed putting together what she calls an Islamic altar, a communal ceremony they enjoy practicing to honor emotions, memories and connection to faith. As the dozen or so attendees settled into their seats while breaking their fast with steaming bowls of Layla Çorbasi, a Turkish yogurt-based soup, Rizvi stood in the center of the living and dining areas.

“Hi everyone,” she smiled at the crowd, her voice soft and welcoming. “I wanted to bring an element of communal Islamic practice to our evening. So I set up a little altar that is Islamic. If there’s anything that you have with you that you want to contribute to it, I encourage you to set it down and we can find a moment to acknowledge it and story tell.”

“I love making ceremony out of things. So if it’s uncomfortable, and too much structure, please tell me to bow out, calm down, fall back. My intention is well-intentioned, but not intending to force spirituality or faithfulness,” they said. “I have lots of complicated feelings about religion myself.”

Stories about Muslims, and stories about Ramadan, often feature the stereotypical, practicing Muslim. The one who prays five times a day, dresses modestly, is straight, follows the rules that are associated with Islam.


But those stories fail to represent the majority of Muslims. The ones who may miss prayers and don’t go to mosque. The ones who may drink or eat pork or have sex before marriage. The ones who, in Rizvi’s words, are “Muslim-ish.” And who struggle with finding their place in a Muslim community, and within the Islamic faith, because of that.

While religious observance among U.S.-born Muslims has declined over the past 15 years, 65% of the community still says that religion is a very important part of their lives. Their practice of the religion manifests in different ways: 39% say they pray five times a day, 40% of Muslim women say they wear the hijab all or most of the time, 47% say eating halal food is essential to being Muslim.

Those numbers, according to University of Pennsylvania Professor of Religious Studies Jamal Elias, are “huge.”

But when it comes to practicing Ramadan, those numbers double to 79%.


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