I have always wanted to do an advice column, and because people have emailed me so many questions it seemed like now is the time. Please use the comments form to send me questions about Islam and comparative religion, the Muslims, the Jews, western culture, personal advice. I invite everything and anything. I have no PhD; all I have are marriage certificates. My credentials are that I have been married to a Sunni Muslim, a Shia Muslim, and a Cohen whose family has been in this country (America) for three hundred years. I know all the secrets of the Muslims and all the secrets of the Jews. Some people say I’m a witch. Anything you need to know that I don’t know already I can find out because my current husband – Alhamdulillah I finally found “The One” – is the foremost expert of Yiddish and Hebrew linguistics in the Harvard community. I can find out anything you want to know about world history, and the history of religions and cultures, and tell you how Jewish communal organizations are set up and what they do. If anyone wants to know what we talked about at dinner last night, feel free to ask. That’s what I’m here for.
Here are a couple questions from an Islamic convert.
Q: How can someone in midlife adjust to all the requirements of Islam without burning out? (wudu, praying 5 times a day, times always changing, midlife body/ mind trying to endure the grueling fasting…)
A: I asked my eight year old son how he keeps doing the wudu and praying five times a day without getting tired. I asked him, “Do you do it even when I don’t tell you to?” and he said “Yeah.” So I asked him what makes him do it. “Allah?” he answered. “Just knowing that I have to. It doesn’t take that long. I don’t enjoy it but I don’t hate it either. It doesn’t take very long.”
Don’t stress out about the time. If you can’t get up before dawn, just pray fajr as soon as you wake up. Then keep track of the sun. After the sun has passed its zenith and is at about a 45 degree angle you can feel safe that it is Dhuhr. If you are busy, you can combine the Dhuhr and Asr prayer (meaning do four rakats and end the prayer, then do four more rakats) any time between afternoon and dusk. If the sun hit the horizon and the sky is changing color and you realized you forgot to do the afternoon prayers, according to one hadith you should not pray at that time because that is when sun-worshippers pray. Just wait until the sky changes to darker blue (not black) and make up the missed prayers along with Maghrib. If you didn’t get a chance to pray yet and the sky has now become dark, you can combine Maghrib and Isha and it’s not really considered late. This is a very useful thing to do in the summer if you are too tired to stay awake until Isha officially comes in. The Prophet (pbuh) said if you need to eat dinner then go and eat dinner and pray afterwards. You have all the way until dawn to pray Isha before it’s considered late. Don’t do any of the extra sunnah rakats if it stresses you out. Those are for people who want to get into a meditative state by repeating the prayers and kind of groove on it a while. If you can’t do the prayers yet, just do what part of Islam comes easy.
Allah said fasting is our prescription. That means it’s for our benefit. Allah doesn’t need us to fast. When we are finding it difficult to fast, it can clue us in on how we might be over-doing it in one way or another with our regular lifestyle. If you are getting sick, you don’t have to fast. If you are traveling more than a couple hours (I’d have to look up the exact distance) you don’t have to fast. If you miss a fast, you have to buy a hungry person breakfast and dinner for every fast you missed or donate the equivalent to charity. In America a missed fast costs $10 to expiate. You can choose the charity or just give it to a needy person you know.
There are things that we can do to make fasting more bearable. The worst hardships while fasting are:
CAFFEINE HEADACHE: Wake up before dawn, at least an hour before fajr and drink a pot of coffee. While you are still zinging from the coffee, do all the work that you have to do for the day that requires concentration in the beginning part of the day. Later on, take a nap if you can or do light tasks like errands or phone calls to keep yourself busy in the afternoon until the sun goes down.
DEHYDRATION (HEADACHE, CONSTIPATION): Wake up before dawn and drink four large glasses of water until you feel like a balloon. Eat fruit and legumes (foul, hommos, refried beans) for breakfast and when you break your fast. Keep in mind that if you go back to sleep, and then try to wake up, your tongue will feel very dry and you will suffer more thirst. Try to stay awake from pre-dawn until morning and take a nap in the afternoon if you are able to arrange your schedule.
FATIGUE: Getting up before dawn is hard, so if you can’t drag yourself out of bed, at least sit up in bed and drink a tall glass of water and try to force yourself to eat something, even a few bites. If you wake up later in the morning with a parched throat and you can’t stand it, you can take a shower to relieve some of the symptoms. Inhaling water mist inadvertantly during a shower or during wudu does not break the fast as long as you are not going out of your way to get water up your nose.
HYPOGLYCEMIA: Again, the trick is you have to wake up super-early and fill yourself with high cholesterol things like cream cheese and eggs as well as the legumes and the fruit. Have a trucker style breakfast and you won’t get hypoglycemic until late afternoon, at which point you should just take a nap.
Q: I feel like my old friends are drifting away or I’m drifting away from them. It’s hard without a support system and living in a foreign country is a radical solution. The culture gap is very big – lots of frustrations, language problem, feeling of isolation.
A: The spiritual journey is a hard journey and westerners who choose Islam face a double bind. Those who come to see the beauty in Islam despite all the prejudice in their culture against it, are usually loners, nonconformists, poets, or critical thinkers. People who are looking for more in life besides just filling their stomach. Muslim culture on the other hand is incredibly social and food-centered as well as conformist by nature. All that socializing is a lot of work, and even if you learn how to throw together a six course dinner for 27, you still could feel isolated because of cultural differences. If you have a “past,” and at midlife you certainly have one, being truly honest with anyone can sometimes alienate people rather than make friends, and sticking to small talk gets old fast. The solution: Do what’s easy for you. Only hang around people you enjoy hanging around, people who make you laugh. Make Islam a part of your life but don’t try too hard to fit in with people if you find it stressful. It is even more painful to feel like a foreigner in your own country, after you lose contact with old friends and family and find yourself surrounded by people who don’t understand you.
That is why I suggest to female converts to Islam to postpone putting on hijab until after marriage (if then). The stresses that go along with hijab include losing your job, getting disowned or at least humiliated by all your friends and family. While this would indicate they weren’t your real friends anyway, it can be dangerous to lose all social support without some alternate support system of people. Wearing hijab also creates the problem of being bombarded by marriage proposals. Just do whatever job or hobbies you’d be doing if you hadn’t converted to Islam and just do it with a deeper understanding in your heart. Don’t give away your dog or sell your violin and your CD collection. You can’t deprive yourself of everything you have ever known and loved and then expect complete strangers to fill the void. If you had a beer, no one wants to know. Go to the mosque and pray but don’t go there looking for your emotional needs to be filled. Don’t try too hard to do everything right. Be okay with yourself sins and all. Trying too hard and feeling guilty for your inadequacies are the biggest obstacles to being accepted in the Islamic community. Stay away from the nit-picking Rabbinical Muslims who are always trying to “fix” you or “fix you up” with a spouse. Talk to the ones you can smoke and swear around, if that is what you do. Keep your relationship with Allah between you and Allah and don’t wait for the day that Islamic culture can accomodate you. Stretch Islamic culture to include you and your culture.