It’s almost Ramadan, a sacred time for my Muslim family. Unlike many families, I celebrate this holiday without my parents. Instead, I spend Ramadan (and other Islamic holidays) with my husband, children, and Muslim friends. This year is no different.
I converted to Islam in my twenties — and my decision was difficult for my Christian mother to accept. (Read Patricia Raybon’s corresponding piece here.) We argued and fought about my choice for years, gradually causing a tear in our relationship.
We don’t celebrate religious holidays together like we once did, and now my own family alternates between sharing traditionally American holidays like Thanksgiving with my parents and in-laws. While I don’t expect my Christian parents to know that the holiest of Muslim holidays is nearing, deep down I am bothered by their lack of awareness.
My mother didn’t accept my decision to convert, and Christian holidays were a painful reminder of our theological differences.
Every year Ramadan arrives, and my parents unknowingly treat it like any other day. Sometimes they call to ask what I’m up to, and I don’t have the heart to tell them that it’s a holy day. If they do find out, an uncomfortable discussion arises about how my family is observing the holiday.
Our lack of cohesiveness around the holidays has been especially painful for my mother. Soon after I converted, I stopped flying in on Christmas. I felt conflicted about engaging in a celebration related to the trinity. I don’t think I noticed my own absence as much as my mother, who spent her Christmases at home with my dad, sister, and niece.
I knew this gap bothered her, but we didn’t discuss it in depth until many years later when she shared her feelings with me in our book, Undivided. My mother didn’t accept my decision to convert, and Christian holidays were a painful reminder of our theological differences. I’m still not sure if she was more saddened by my absence or by my conversion. I was hundreds of miles away in a new city with my husband, distracted by our new baby.
It took me a while to see that the thread keeping my family and I close was beginning to wear thin. Each visit was strained with debates, arguments about religion dominating our conversations. My young children seemed to be the only reason we were held together at all — and deep in my heart, I wondered if my parents where only really visiting them.
This year, my mom wants to visit in the summer. I look at my calendar, checking the dates that Ramadan will fall on. It has always been awkward when they visited during previous Ramadans.
Though we were fasting, I’d spend the day in the kitchen making sure my constantly hungry dad had his three square meals plus plenty of snacks. We’d politely turn down his offers to share. Then every night we would leave for the mosque for prayers. I’d dress the kids up nicely and meekly say goodbye as we left, avoiding awkward eye contact with my mother on the way out.
I struggle with how to maintain authenticity in my faith as part of an interfaith family, especially when holidays coincide with family visits.
We’d get invited to iftars, meals for breaking the fast, and I’d always ask my parents to come. They reluctantly accepted one invitation and tagged along. The evening was awkward, with my mother sitting uncomfortably next to Muslim women who tried to engage in small talk with her.
I’d wince every time I looked over at her face as she tried to look comfortable among people whose faith she disagreed with so adamantly. The Muslim women would figure out she is a Christian and try to be more friendly and engaging. I’d pray for the dinner to be over quickly, relieved when it was time for my kids, husband, and I to leave for the mosque.
We stopped inviting my parents to these dinners and began to worry that their lack of enthusiasm for Ramadan would ruin our children’s perception of the holiday. So I tried scheduling their visits during times that didn’t conflict with Islamic holidays.
Lately, however, I find myself conflicted with this approach. I struggle with how to maintain authenticity in my faith as part of an interfaith family, especially when holidays coincide with family visits. I can’t fault my mother for not feeling comfortable visiting me during my holidays.
Still, I have come to realize that we need a way to celebrate our family without negating our commitment to either of our traditions. It’s a conundrum we haven’t yet solved because each of us holds on so strongly to our own beliefs.
I have some Muslims friends who don’t understand the approach I take with my parents. They lack empathy, since everyone in their families shares their faith. They don’t understand how different and difficult it can be when your parents disapprove of and reject your sincerely held beliefs.
For our family, Ramadan is an experience of the mind, body, and soul. It requires us to be completely present in the moment, relishing every second and worshiping as often as we can. It’s difficult for me to feel spiritually fulfilled when my mother outwardly opposes my religious practices. I try to ignore her disapproval, focusing inwardly on worship and my personal connection to God.
We can appreciate that we all love God — and remember that God wants families united in love.
Since my acceptance of Islam some 15 years ago, I have also tried hard to emphasize to my family that my relationship with God comes first. Although I love them wholeheartedly, I won’t compromise my beliefs to demonstrate my love.
At the same time, loving and treating my parents with kindness is a part of my faith. I sincerely believe in the importance of respecting my parents’ right to observe their own holidays, making sure to call during times I know they aren’t in church and accepting their gifts graciously.
I think that our love for one another and our commitment to remain true to our faiths can lead us to mutual appreciation and respect. I know that if each of us is sincere to God in our own ways, we can value the significance that our holy days hold in each other’s lives.
In the meantime, we can continue to create our own special times to be together. We can appreciate that we all love God — and remember that God wants families united in love.
The opinions expressed in this piece belong to the author.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.