Growing up in a Muslim family, I've always associated the month of Ramadan with days spent fasting and nights spent in worship. Ramadan is a month of mercy and forgiveness and the acceptance of prayers, so we spend it reading, reciting and understand the Quran and offering prayers. During Ramadan, while we try to increase our sincerity and effort in all of our five daily prayers, we also have special prayers called taraveeh, which we offer at night and often at a mosque, in congregation.
Taraveeh prayers are a special opportunity to devote our nights to the remembrance and worship of God. They can often be long, with large portions of the Quran recited each night, and we hope to remain focused and attentive during the prayers and listen to the Quran and be mindful during worship.
Especially in these last ten nights of Ramadan, we try harder to put more effort into our prayers. But sometimes, it's easy to feel like it's just not possible to focus during Taraveeh at the mosque. You're trying to listen to the recitation and understand as much of it as you can, but around your feet two little kids are fighting over a toy car. Another child on the other side of the mosque starts crying and once one child is crying, two or three others also start screaming. One woman forgot to turn her phone off so instead of the recitation you are listening to somebody's generic iPhone ringtone. And one little boy is playing games on his mom's phone and so you can hear all the wonderful sound effects.
So much for focusing in prayer. Arabic is not my first language nor my second and I can understand very little as it is and then all this noise and the kids running around the mosque and this lady who is standing very close to me and who bumps into me every few seconds - what is the point of this all?
For worship we like silence, because in silence we can reflect on God's words and reflect on ourselves. Children screaming, phones ringing, even an extra loud air-conditioning system seem to ruin our prospects of achieving spiritual tranquility and closeness to God.
Imagine a mosque that is perfectly quiet. All you hear is the recitation of the Quran. There are no distractions, no interruptions. The people standing in rows are all silent, no one is standing uncomfortably close to each other and no children are engaged in a shouting match.
But somehow, imagining such a mosque is not a comforting thought. Such a place, a place of absolute silence... such a place would no longer seem like a mosque to me. The only mosque that would have absolute silence would be one to which parents do not bring their children. The only mosque that has no misunderstandings, no people you might not get along with, nobody who stands too close or repeatedly forgets to turn their phone off, would be a mosque that is not unconditionally open to all people. And how can a place that is meant for the worship of God not welcome all people, of all ages, unconditionally?
These little things that happen in the mosque; that old lady who tells you to fix your hijab or the little girl who starts crying the moment the prayer starts or that person who seems to get about a million notifications on their phone right in the middle of prayer - these little things are what make the mosque a place for people and families and community.
Ramadan is about worship, but what is worship without community? After all, in Ramadan we are not only encouraged to increase and improve our prayer and our fasting, but also to avoid swearing or harsh words, to not quarrel with anyone, to be kinder and gentler, and to give to charity as much as possible. I associate Ramadan with longer prayers, but also with an increased consciousness of the words I use and how they affect other people, with the feeling of companionship with everyone fasting alongside me, with happy memories of meals beginning and ending the fast spent with family and friends, and with an all-around feeling of community. Ramadan isn't just a time period where you fast and worship; it is an environment, an atmosphere in which remembering God, being kind, avoiding fights and becoming the best version of yourself becomes actually achievable. And this environment cannot be built alone, because to build an environment, you need the support of the people around you. You need to be more open, more understanding, more willing to accept others as they are if you want to have a Ramadan that truly transforms you.
So in these last ten nights, hear the crying children at the mosque and smile. Children being welcome at the mosque is always a good thing. Tune out the sound of that phone going off - that person will insha'Allah (God-willing) remember to turn their phone off tomorrow. All these interruptions are not just interruptions; they are a sign that we are different people gathered here at this place of worship to come close to God. And in this month of Ramadan, worshiping God as a community is what matters most of all.