Dr. Rania Awaad shares her personal experiences and reflections on how to navigate a meaningful Ramadan in our current social climate.

Dr. Rania Awaad is a psychiatrist who integrates her medical knowledge with her classical Islamic training in her work within the Muslim community. She is a Clinical Associate Professor at Stanford University in the Department of Psychiatry, the Associate Chief for the Division of Public Mental Health and Population Sciences, the Co-Chief for the Diversity and Cultural Mental Health Section, and the Director of the Stanford Muslim Mental Health and Psychology Lab. Dr. Awaad is also the Executive Director of Maristan.org and organization that advances holistic mental and spiritual wellness, as well as the Director of the Rahmah Foundation, a local non-profit organization focused on educating Muslim women and girls in their faith. Through her diverse roles, Dr. Rania bridges the gap between mental health and Islamic principles to create meaningful impacts on the Muslim community.

“Those [different roles in the community] are important because a lot of the work I do related to mental health is in direct connection with Islamic grounding, so making sure that everything we do is integrated with Islamic principles and understanding is crucial.”

Creating a Community in a Virtual World

The first Ramadan under COVID lockdown in 2020 was one that was notably different from the many before it, and thus, closely studied by organizations within the community. The initial shock of adjusting to guidelines that restricted the communal aspects of Ramadan, such as going to the masjid for Taraweeh and community iftars shifted many people’s practices in the holy month. However, the Stanford Muslim Mental Health Lab, in collaboration with Yaqeen Institute, found in a survey of 9,000 Muslims, many had a positive experience with the unusual environment for the month of Ramadan.

“We actually found that about 70 percent of Muslims surveyed reported that Ramadan 2020 was better than previous Ramadans.”

These positive experiences have been attributed to the new-found opportunity to explore the essence of Ramadan in introspection and focusing on ibada to connect with God on a deeper level. Without the usual social commitments, many Muslims had the opportunity to engage in worship during these times of great loss, hardship, and isolation.

“Many women said that this Ramadan was so much nicer for them because one, everybody was at home and many families prayed Taraweeh together, and they didn’t experience that before. Two, a lot of the programming for the masajid–and this is true of men and women, but particularly women– a lot of the programming …became virtual and therefore accessible… Suddenly women had access to various scholars without having to access the Mosque or leave home. Many women also were able to learn from female scholars for the first time. Both experiences were very convenient and empowering.”

Dr. Rania also attributes the positive feedback regarding the first Ramadan in quarantine to the new opportunity for women to gain access to many valuable resources in a virtual world. She highlights that the Rahmah Foundation is creating a space for women through virtual events, addressing an existing issue within the community regarding the confinement women have in some physical spaces of worship. This online community is a step in the right direction as women are given a new collection of online resources, which we can hopefully bring into the future as masajid re-open.

#ItikaafAtHome

As we continue to embrace a Ramadan-at-home while abiding by current safety and health guidelines, Dr. Rania Awaad expresses the value of worship at home in the form of contemplative meditation to create a meaningful Ramadan experience. One form of worship that Dr. Awaad promotes on her social media platforms is “#ItikaafAtHome”.

“One of the most meaningful things for me and something I’ve been promoting non-stop, especially on social media, is this concept of a hashtag “I’tikaf at home,” which is a spiritual seclusion…  Not only is the concept of meditation part of our deen, but it was part of the Prophet’s (SAW) practice, and part of his i’tikaf. For me, the quarantine was a time where you were basically forced into isolation, so why not make the best of it and use it for spiritual isolation and growth?”

In a time of great social turmoil, Dr. Rania also conveys the importance of practicing gratitude during Ramadan as a form of worship and contemplation. Through contemplative meditation, which can be integrated in I’tikaf and worship, many people can reap the benefit of shifting their frame of thinking during these unprecedented times.

“Empathy is putting yourself in the shoes of another person. That teaches you gratitude because when you put yourself in the shoes of somebody who is hungry or somebody who doesn’t have a lot, you minimize a lot of distractions, which is what we’re meant to do in Ramadan.  

For additional information on I’tikaf:

Dealing with the Current Social Climate

In addition to practicing gratitude through actionable spiritual exercise, Dr. Rania reiterates the importance of reaching out for mental health resources within what many refer to as the “Pandemic of Mental Health/Isolation,” People can make an effort to stay connected with communities virtually and find ways to cope in general and on a religious level.

“Part of what to do going forward is to engage in healthy coping mechanisms, whether they be spiritual or general, stay away from negative coping, and get help for those things not improving on their own.”

Lastly, Dr. Rania Awaad shares, “I think everybody during this pandemic needs a therapist.” Now is an especially important time to reach out and utilize mental health resources as many people continue to face the lingering impacts of the pandemic. With the help of these resources, hopefully those seeking help, as well as those who might not realize they need help, can ensure that in addition to spiritual and physical wellness, our community is cognizant and advocating for mental health as well.

Mental Health Resources:

Written by Yasmeen Abed based on an interview with Dr. Rania Awaad.

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(4/30/2021)