Every day for the past two weeks, Samantha Kessenich has risen, bleary-eyed, at 3 o’clock in the morning. She says her morning prayers, eats a protein-rich breakfast of yogurt or eggs and toast with almond butter, and reads the Holy Quran. But she skips her normally-beloved coffee so she can nap for an hour or two before continuing with her busy day as a student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Waking in the middle of the night is not Kessenich’s normal routine -- that’s been upended since Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting, began in the middle of June. Kessenich, who didn't practice any faith before she became a Muslim last summer, is observing Ramadan for the first time and is working to make the most of the month as a time for increased reflection and spirituality.
“I was so excited for Ramadan to start. I’d read all about it but couldn’t wait to actually practice it,” said Kessenich, 23, who was not religious before she converted to Islam. “I really see it as a time to become closer to God.”
During Ramadan, Muslims around the world fast during daylight hours, starting at dawn. For Kessenich, that’s around 3:30 a.m., which is why she gets such an early start. After eating the morning meal, known as suhoor, Muslims abstain from all food and drink -- even water -- until they break the fast at sunset. They also focus on extra prayers and recitation of the Quran, the Muslim holy book they believe was revealed during Ramadan.
Long Days And Loneliness
For new converts to Islam, the first Ramadan as a Muslim is both exciting and challenging. And those who are experiencing their first Ramadan this year have it especially tough, when the fasting day can be 16 to 20 hours long, depending on where they live in the world. (Each year Ramadan begins about 10 days earlier than it did the year before, in accordance with the lunar calendar. This year, it runs from June 17 to July 17. ) Couple the long days with the loneliness some converts feel as they navigate a new religion, often without the support of their friends and family, and the month becomes a true test of faith.
“Most Muslims see Ramadan as a chance to up the ante when it comes to your spirituality, a high-octane kind of month,” said Achraf Issam, who serves as a liaison for new converts in the youth association of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA, a national Muslim organization. He is also Kessenich’s fiancé, having met her four months after she accepted Islam. He connected her to a local mosque earlier this year.
“He’s been a great support,” said Kessenich, who plans to wed Issam later this year. “He’s been very helpful in this journey.”
Issam also runs a national chat group for new Muslim converts around the country through Telegram Messenger, a messaging app, to help facilitate a sense of community and support. Members discuss everything from the practicalities of the best breakfast foods to sustain energy throughout the day to the spiritual benefits of increased prayer.
“For new Muslims, having a sense of community is very important. You’re making a big change that’s often foreign to everyone around you. Especially during Ramadan, a strong bond with others is vital because it’s easy to feel isolated,” said Issam.
Fasting In Isolation
Chris Duffy, a 21-year-old new Muslim convert from Albany, New York, has experienced some of that isolation. For him, not eating or drinking during the day is easy -- it’s the social pressure from non-Muslim friends and family that can be difficult.
Duffy became a Muslim in 2014, but the rest of his family is either Christian or does not practice any religion. When he converted, one of his relatives told him she couldn’t understand why he’d want to distance himself from his family in that way. During Ramadan, that separation becomes even more obvious.
“It’s hard for me to constantly be separating myself from my family,” said Duffy. “I went to my uncle’s house for a cookout on Father’s Day, where they had everything -- mac and cheese, potatoes, chicken, the works. And when your family says here, have some food, it’s hard to constantly explain to them why you can’t. The temptation to break the fast just to fit in is always there.”
Of course, plenty of new converts find the physical rigors of Ramadan challenging, as well. Alondra Cadena, a new Muslim from Houston, is having a hard time adjusting without food or drink, especially in the sweltering heat.
“This is my first Ramadan, and I’m trying to fast, but my body is not used to it yet,” said 19-year-old Cadena, who works as a cashier at CVS while also going to school. “So I started by fasting for half a day at first, just to prepare myself.”
But Duffy says he actually finds fasting invigorating. “I've noticed I have way more energy now. It's not easy in the beginning, but your body adjusts and then you feel energized. It helps you focus on what's essential," he said.
Craving Food, Needing Water
For Jonathan Torres, of Waterbury, Connecticut, it’s not having water that makes the day difficult to get through. Before becoming a Muslim earlier this year, Torres had fasted in the past as a Christian and as he explored aspects of Buddhism. But he never had to abstain from water, and that’s been a challenge. “The whole concept of no water has been tough. I mean, I want food right now, but I need water,” he said.
Ethan Gottschalk, 30, works as a nursing and patient-care assistant in Cleveland and says that a grueling work schedule can add a layer of difficulty to fasting.
“I fast during the day and I make a solid effort, but it’s very difficult at times,” said Gotschalk, who converted to Islam last summer and is still adjusting to his new role. “It’s still in the very early days for me. Sometimes I need that little cup of water or crackers.”
But, he says, Ramadan also helps him with self-control. “Right now, it’s a hot, humid summer day and I’m craving a glass of lemonade. Those creature comforts are the biggest challenge. But that’s how fasting also creates discipline,” he said. “When I’m in this mode, it motivates me to get my Quran, to pray more, to focus on my time with Allah. I can see how Ramadan is designed to bring you closer to God and realize your full purpose on earth.”
Gottschalk also looks forward to the social aspect of Ramadan. He belongs to the Islamic Center of Cleveland, where he often goes to pray and break fast on the weekends. “There’s a lot more action during Ramadan. Every night they have an iftar dinner to break the fast, and it’s a great way to meet people, get into discussions. It’s a peaceful, festive time,” he said. The food is a bonus -- they serve a combination of South Asian and Middle Eastern cuisine, which is a treat for Gottschalk after a long day of fasting.
For Kessenich, the physical trials of Ramadan are forcing her to reflect inward.
“When you’re hungry and lacking caffeine, you are more irritable. Your nerves are more on edge,” she said. “So I do find myself asking if I am being patient when I’m fasting. Because Ramadan isn’t just about abstaining from food; it’s about charity, kind acts, forgiveness and being steadfast. So that’s what I’m trying to do -- be more steadfast in every situation I can.”