I was at school in Kano; depressed, lonely and stressed, my second Ramadan away from home. I had woken up way too close to the end of Sahur time, and found myself standing in my kitchen, glancing around, confused as to what to eat. I had fasted before without eating the pre-dawn meal, it was not a pleasant experience. In the time it would take me to cook noodles or warm food from the fridge, the adhaan would sound, signaling the end of Sahur. And so I proceeded to cook the fastest noodles possible.
While I waited for it to cook, I got some dates and a bottle of water from the fridge, in case the adhaan should sound before my noodles got done. That way, I would at least have dates in my stomach for the fast. I was still standing by my fridge as I ate them when the knock came on my door. 4:36am, said the clock on the wall. Why would anyone be at my door at such a time? I asked who was there, and my next-door neighbor answered that it was him. He needed matches, he said. He had woken up late, just like me, I assumed. But what could he possibly cook with less than ten minutes left? I wondered. I considered sharing my noodles with him if it got done early enough, but we weren’t that close. I grabbed my matchbox and opened the door. He was standing there with a giant pot of shisha.
“Please borrow me your matches,” he said again, vigorously wiping the remnant sleep from his eyes. I just stared. “Quickly, before the adhaan sounds,” he added, desperate. He wanted to get a few puffs in before the fast of the day began.
When I tell this story to friends, I leave out the part where, as I stood by my fridge before my neighbor knocked, I had a razor blade in my hand and was contemplating the morality of cutting my skin before the fast officially began, wondering if the timing would make it less of a sin.
I’ve often remembered his desperation and laughed in the years since, admiring his doggedness at improvising ways to avoid smoking during the daytime, and a little bit sad, that he had to go through that. But that day, I didn’t laugh. I cried, instead. Because in the desperation in his eyes, I saw myself reflected. I don’t smoke, but I do cut myself when I’m sad. Sometimes, even when I’m not sad. I am often unable to resist the urge to cut my skin open and watch the blood burst out. Sometimes the urge comes at me with a force that feels physically overpowering.
It is true that you are not supposed to be smoking even outside of Ramadan. But it is also true that neither are you supposed to be self-harming. And yet, here we both were.
It was funny that even knowing how pathetic this desperation made me feel, it wasn’t until the encounter with my neighbor that I truly came face to face with how it looked, physically.
Afterwards, I realized that the sinking feeling that enveloped me with respect to self-harming in Ramadan was not the guilt of sinning. It was the shame of helplessness and of lack of self control. It drove me crazy, humbled me. Ramadan is a holy month, the purest time for Muslims. How was it that I was finding it hard to give up such a little thing for the duration of the month? Having to navigate that web of emotions alone was a huge task. I came to learn that other Muslims share my difficulties.
My friend, Sumayya*, 19, battles with masturbation as an addiction. She has struggled with it since she was six. Masturbation breaks one’s fast, and to break one’s fast in Ramadan without a serious health challenge is regarded as a grave sin. What she feels is shame. “Because I can control my food consumption, media intake, mouth, but not that.”
She tries to stay away from potential triggers. “Including lessening time spent on social media,” she says. She cannot remember the longest stretch of time she’s gone without it during Ramadan, but she would guess it to be two weeks.
Sani*, 21, struggles with drug addiction. The first time I told him the story about my neighbor, he did not find it amusing, but he seemed pleased by my not being judgmental. He went quiet for a long time. I did not know at the time that he battled with smoking. Years later when we finally got round to discussing it, he told me that the story about my neighbor sounded very much like his. Most days for him, he broke his fast with weed, and started it with weed. “Staying away from it during the daytime was excruciatingly painful,” he tells me. The fact that he had to even struggle was another source of shame, he said. Especially because he could not talk about it with people, because most people — scholars alike —use a tone of mockery when addressing the issue. Tiktok videos make satire out of it, as well.
I have come to realize with time that the point of Ramadan is the struggle. We are told to abstain from food and water from the start of dawn to sunset; to keep away from all forms of activities capable of giving sexual pleasure; to stay away from sin, as much as possible, even though sin doesn’t vitiate the fast — it just wears down the worth and value of your fast. All of these require some sort of struggle— against hunger, against arousal, against self indiscipline.
For me, the struggle lay in not harming myself. For Sumayya, the struggle lay in not touching herself. For Sani, it lay in not smoking.
When school closed that year and I traveled back home to my family, I decided I would use the remaining days of Ramadan to get myself to stop cutting, by going for Iʿtikāf.
Iʿtikāf meant total seclusion in the mosque for a certain number of days, to escape the chaotic business of life, to worship God without distractions and build one’s spirituality. Most people don’t bring their mobile phones: just a bunch of clothes, toiletries, your Tasbeeh, Qur’an, and other religious texts. It was the perfect place for me at that time in my life. I informed my family of my decision to move into the central mosque in town, to complete the last seven days of the Ramadan there—in other words, to observe Iʿtikāf. They thought it was a great idea. They would bring my Iftar to me every day, since I couldn’t cook or go out to buy food. And even though Iʿtikāf meant sleeping without proper bedding and eating stale leftover food from Iftar for Sahur, all of that seemed such a small sacrifice in exchange for being self-harm clean.
At home, I was surrounded by sharp objects and always in the kitchen. It was difficult to cook while surrounded by knives, graters and other sharp-edged utensils without drawing them against my skin. I needed to be away from home: to worship God unbridled, to pray for some things I wanted so desperately, to get myself to stop harming myself. There are no razor blades nor knives, or even any sharp objects in the mosque. And no matter how desperate I got, I would not be able to leave the mosque to buy a blade, until the day Ramadan ended.
My plan worked. And because I discovered a deeper, and more personal meaning of spirituality during Iʿtikāf, it was easy to immerse myself in it without thinking of self-destructive things. After that Ramadan, I did not cut myself for a whole year. It’s my longest stretch yet, and I remain very proud of it.
*Names changed to protect the identity of the people.