By Aya Elamroussi, CNN
Six months after Mussab Ali started his first year of Harvard Law School, he was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and underwent chemotherapy during Ramadan.
Ali was 23 at the time and had just become the youngest school board president to lead Jersey City public schools in New Jersey — a feat he strove toward for years — just as the district was navigating the coronavirus pandemic in winter 2021.
Suddenly, the virus was not only a health issue discussed during intense board meetings on how to safely reopen schools.
As a Hodgkin’s lymphoma cancer patient, Ali’s life depended on not catching the virus that had already killed hundreds of thousands of Americans. He also felt pressured to meet his obligations as a law student and a school board official — all while battling cancer.
“The struggle aspect of it was this impossible balancing act,” Ali told CNN. “I think back, having gone through that and coming out the other side, it’s kind of ridiculous.”
At the time, Ali was living with his family in their Jersey City home while undergoing chemotherapy and attending law school virtually. His mother quit her job as a teacher in New York to avoid catching the virus, and his father and siblings went to great lengths in their months-long quarantine.
“It was very lonely. I didn’t have a sense of community. I didn’t get to feel this very special month where you get to see people and celebrate every night,” Ali recalled.
Due to his treatment, Ali couldn’t fast during Ramadan, which is one of the most communal times of the year for millions of Muslims around the world.
Ramadan serves as a spiritual resetting for Muslims who use the holy month to become closer to God through increased prayer, Quran reading, giving to charity and the general practice of good deeds.
The annual ritual is marked by abstaining from food, drink and sexual activity from a little before the sun rises until the sun sets in a practice of self-discipline and patience. The general goal is to nurture those habits and maintain them beyond Ramadan, which ends Sunday at sundown this year.
Muslims usually gather with family and friends for iftar, the meal after sunset that breaks the daylong fast — a tradition Ali described as “Thanksgiving every night for 30 days.”
But last year, Ali didn’t experience any of that.
“I just remember struggle,” Ali said.
Ali, now 25, said he’s filled with gratitude to experience his first Ramadan this year as a cancer survivor after praying to reach the milestone.
“For some people, especially for non-Muslim people, that might be a weird thing to have been asking for — asking to have the ability to not eat all day,” Ali said. “But that’s something that I really wanted.”
For millions of Muslims, this Ramadan marks a particularly special milestone. It’s the first time many have been able to safely celebrate together since the pandemic began. It’s also the first time many are observing the holy month after undergoing significant changes in their own lives.
CNN spoke with Muslim Americans who reflected on how this year’s Ramadan marks a turning point for them. Here’s what they had to say.
First Ramadan as a Muslim convert
Amanda Rushlow’s soul-searching journey began with an existential question: “I remember asking God, ‘What do I need to do to get into heaven?'”
The question came during a plant medicine ceremony in Peru last year at a time in her life when she was on a search for spirituality and trying to get closer to God.
The answer was an epiphany that led her to read the Bible extensively and explore Christianity, but she noticed what she described as “dissonance” in the faith between what was often preached versus what the Bible taught.
Then she started having conversations about faith with a Muslim friend. To her surprise at the time, their beliefs had overwhelming similarities.
“I remember so much would be aligning,” Rushlow told CNN. And she asked herself, “How is this true? … One of us has to be wrong, and I was very convinced that I was the one who was right.”
Within the US, there are about 3.45 million Muslims, according to 2017 estimates by the Pew Research Center.
And while the population has been steadily growing, more than half of Americans say they don’t personally know someone who is Muslim, according to a 2021 Pew Research Center report. Another survey showed that 52% of Americans said they either know “not much” or “nothing at all” about Islam.
Rushlow took her friend’s advice to research Prophet Mohammed, whom Muslims believe is the messenger of the faith, but with the goal to find fault with the beliefs. And after going down the Internet rabbit hole where she sifted through articles and videos — it was time to go to the source: the Quran, Islam’s holy book.
She listened to it on a trip from her home in Michigan to Arizona.
“I just couldn’t stop listening. I had headphones on the whole time I was hiking. Headphones on the entire flight there and back,” Rushlow told CNN.
And then it hit her: “This is my God,” she said. “I was overwhelmed.”
As she reflects on her first Ramadan as a Muslim, she was filled with heartwarming emotions, especially during her first visit to a mosque during night prayers. She has also found community in the Detroit area with other women who converted to the faith.
“My heart felt so raw and open,” she said.
Rushlow has spent the month reading the Quran, journaling and building the habit to pray the five daily obligatory prayers.
“It felt like such a gift receiving Islam. It’s an honor … I will not eat happily out of obedience and out of submission,” she said. “It warms my heart so much to be able to participate.”
First Ramadan in a new city as a queer Muslim
For the past five years, Sharmin Hossain has been missing out on the Ramadan spirit.
The 29-year-old was in a relationship and lived in New York City with a partner who didn’t observe the holy month. She also didn’t tend to her other spiritual practices.
“I just did not have anybody to break fast with,” she said. “I remember how alone I was.”
For Hossain, this Ramadan has marked a new phase in her life. She’s single for the first time in five years, and she’s using the time to go to Friday prayers more, “which is a big deal for me,” Hossain said, adding that she goes offline for two hours to attend the weekly sermon and prayer.
She’s also marking the holy month in a new city after moving to Philadelphia a few months ago.
“The first few days were actually surprisingly some of the most beautiful days because all my friends would break fast with me every day,” Hossain said.
One of her close friends who isn’t Muslim has also been working out and breaking fast with her.
“The communal part of it is something I didn’t know was really missing from my experiences and why previous Ramadans were so much harder just getting through the day,” she said.
This year, Philadelphia’s slower pace has also allowed for more community gatherings.
“It just feels very close and tender,” she told CNN. “This was definitely a more special Ramadan being single and being able to intentionally fast differently and go out to prayers by myself.”
As a queer Muslim, she said she’s often on the receiving end of people’s surprised reactions when they learn she practices the faith.
After her divorced parents learned of her queer identity about five years ago, she became estranged from her mother. But her father has been accepting and supportive of who she is.
“When I’m in a mosque, I’m not thinking, ‘Oh, I’m a queer Muslim. May Allah forgive me and accept my prayers,'” she said. “I go into the mosque knowing that I’m a divine creature of the most Divine, and Allah knows that I worship Him and Him only, and I’m here to do that and not a sinner because I exist as a queer Muslim.”
First full Ramadan away from family
Living alone for the first time brings its own set of challenges, and with Ramadan coming at a time when Mohsin Mirza was taking on a new job thousands of miles from family and friends, it added to the emotionally and mentally challenging experience.
“I definitely miss the community environment. There are people whose faces you don’t see except for a few months of the year, and this is one of those months,” said Mirza, 28, who recently moved to Washington, DC, from California’s Bay Area.
“There’s more homesickness now than there would be in another month,” he noted. “So there’s a certain detachment.”
Mirza belongs to the Shia sect of Islam, which comprises of about 10-13% of the world’s Muslim population, according to a 2011 Pew Research Center report. Most Muslims follow the Sunni sect of the faith.
Ramadan is one of those times when Mirza feels a heightened sense of being a minority within a minority in the US because there are slight differences in how people in both sects choose to practice. Shia Muslims break their fast a little later than Sunni Muslims and commemorate certain days during the holy month in specific ways.
While Mirza said he feels Ramadan brings the entire Muslim community together, he felt the distinctions more this year when he went to iftar events and was surrounded with Sunnis who rushed to break their fast before him.
“It makes you feel a little different and puts you on the spot,” he said. “There’s always a hint of awkwardness. … It can be the source of some discomfort.”
At another event, times to break the fast were announced for both Shias and Sunnis.
“It’s a kind of small example of respect and inclusion that helps those of us who are a minority within the broader Muslim community feel like institutions that have been set up for the Muslim community are for us as well,” he said.
Mirza also described experiencing some difficulty accessing a mosque for Shia Muslims in the DC area without a car. He has attended prayer at his local mosque, but he prefers to visit a Shia mosque when possible.
Overall, Mirza said the experience has affirmed his view that the Muslim community worldwide is more similar than different.
“In so many spaces, our communities are integrated and working together,” he said. “When those differences come up, they’re an opportunity to have discussions about why, and that can lead to mutual respect and understanding.”
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