Celebrating Eid As An Atheist: How I Learned To Find Joy in My Community & Culture

Photo by Caroline Tompkins
The table is heaving with food. It’s already a huge table, custom-built to fit my massive family of 16 around it for weekly family dinners and special occasions. But on Eid, we truly use its breadth to the fullest capacity. 
Mum and my sisters have been preparing for weeks, making all the Indian sweets and delicacies we only really eat during Ramadan and on Eid. This morning, Mum has also prepared semai, a sweet dish of vermicelli noodles cooked in a broth of spiced milk, with almonds and sultanas. It’s our tradition to enjoy this on Eid. 
Although these traditional foods have stayed the same since my childhood, Eid itself is very different today from what it was when I was growing up. For a start, when I arrive at the house for our family breakfast, I am not coming straight from the mosque like my parents and sisters are. 
Instead, my partner Chris and I time our arrival for when prayers will have finished and my family will be returning to my parents’ house. I haven’t attended the mosque or prayed since I was 18. 
Similarly, my brother and his family will arrive separately, as they don’t practise Islam either. My partner and my sister-in-law are also white Australians, for whom the traditions of Ramadan and Eid have been inherited through their partnerships with us. 
Other things haven’t changed though — my nieces and nephew, as the children of the family, are showered with gifts and money from all of us adults (although the amount of money has drastically increased from the $2 we used to get to almost $50 from each adult now!). 
We enjoy our friends from the Muslim community, and also our work colleagues or close contacts who aren’t Muslim, joining us to celebrate throughout the day. Later, my parents and sisters will also go and visit these same people at their homes, as part of the tradition of hospitality and generosity that marks this special occasion. 

But that year, as religious observance intensified for the holy month, I felt the dissonance inside me growing heavier and heavier.

Our family Eid celebrations have settled into this rhythm that allows for our different religious and cultural identities over the past decade, but it wasn’t always like this. In fact, it was during Ramadan when I was 18 that I first confessed to my parents that I didn’t feel like a Muslim, and that I didn’t believe in Allah like I used to. 
It was intensely difficult to reach this conclusion, and even harder to tell my parents. But that year, as religious observance intensified for the holy month, I felt the dissonance inside me growing heavier and heavier. 
My parents pushed me to fast, as was expected of all adults who are fit and able. But I just couldn’t bring myself to adhere to the rules, finding myself questioning what it was all for. While my family attended the festivities of Iftar events and prepared for Eid, I joined in with reluctance, trying to fake the enthusiasm I once felt naturally. 
As a child, I loved our religion. I visited Mecca (the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad) when I was 11, and I felt an overwhelming connection with Islam that carried me through my early teens. I even wore a hijab for a while, and saw myself doing so permanently when I was older. 
But once I started reading the Quran in English (having always read it in Arabic previously), I found myself struggling to reconcile my personal beliefs around gender equality and inclusion, with the religious doctrine that I was absorbing. 
That Ramadan, the feelings became overwhelming, and I eventually confessed my confusion to my father. He took it well, told me everyone questions their faith at different points, and that it would take time but he was confident I would return to Islam.
Over the years that followed, I participated in Ramadan and Eid to varying degrees. Some years, I would go to the Mosque for Eid prayers and just sit in the back while everyone prayed, eager to enjoy the atmosphere. Other years, I only attended the celebrations at home. 
When I introduced my partner (who is white and also an atheist) to my family, their biggest concern was that he wasn’t Muslim. Even though I didn’t practise myself, my parents really struggled to move past the religious expectation that Muslims be with other Muslims. In their eyes, I was still bound to these rules, and it took a long time for us to reach a point of compromise. 

Eid is about community and family at its heart, and my family’s multi-faith, multicultural Eid encompasses those principles perfectly.

For a few years during these struggles, I wasn’t able to participate in Eid at all, as our relationship was too strained. Those years were incredibly hard, and I felt so isolated knowing that the celebrations that had formed such a rich part of my growing up were occurring without me. 
But the thing about families is that we grow and evolve over time. As my family adjusted to my life with my partner, and to my non-religious identity, their expectations shifted. Now, Eid is a time when all of us — regardless of our faith and cultural background — honour our family traditions and grow them to include the full breadth of our identities. 
My partner will be at the table, enjoying the special meal and festivities. We’ll hand out gifts to the kids, and eat the semai Mum has prepared. Each of us will be wearing new clothes — another tradition for Eid, which we still carry out as adults. 
It is a beautiful day, made even sweeter by the knowledge of what it has taken for us to get here. Eid is about community and family at its heart, and my family’s multi-faith, multicultural Eid encompasses those principles perfectly. 

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