بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمٰنِ الرَّحِيْمِ
I am someone who grew up loving the film Mary Poppins, like millions and millions of others. Of course Mary Poppins is based on a series of books, but they are different and stranger than the movie (which has its own strange bits but is still a mainstream Disney film). Mary Poppins, for me, is as Julie Andrews portrays her in the film. It is precisely because Islam is so real and important to me that I naturally tend to connect it in my mind and heart with other experiences which have been real and important to me, including films I grew up loving. An unplanned comment I made in a khutbah about how “Ramadan is like Mary Poppins” has led me to reflect more deeply on why I think that came to me and what itsays about how I have experienced this sacred pillar of Islam. I feel comfortable with my own intentions in writing this but I worry if anyone would find it disrespectful or insulting at all, so I
seek forgiveness if that happens. Also, although I saw the film many times as a child and it is clear in my memory, I did not go back and rewatch it before writing this, so the film I describe her is the film as it exists in my memory and the experience of Ramadan that I describe her is my own, what I have experienced in the 25 Ramadans I have fasted (starting from before I formally converted to Islam).
I wanted to briefly outline some ways in which the sacred and blessed fasting month of Ramadan for Muslims is like Mary Poppins. Perhaps it goes without saying that such an essay will contain spoilers of the plot of Mary Poppins as well as of the experience of observing Ramadan for those who are yet to experience either, but honestly I hope reading it would enhance rather than disturb one’s enjoyment of either, although perhaps it is also the case that if you have not experienced both it may be difficult to relate to what I claim.
Ramadan is a visitor that comes when we need it
At the beginning of the film Mary Poppins, we are witness to the goings on of the family at Seventeen Cherry Tree Lane. In some ways the family seems ideal — a father with a great job at a large, successful bank, a mother who is active in the community and running the household, servants who seem to enjoy their work, and two children, a boy and a girl. There is the general strangeness that pervades the story in terms of the neighborhood, but the only real sign that something is deeply amiss is the unhappiness and total exasperation of the nanny. When we first encounter the family, the children are missing and the police are involved. It is clear that the nanny and the children have been in constant conflict and that the parents are largely oblivious and disconnected from their children and each other. Like the Banks family, we go through our daily lives. On the outside some of us seem to be doing very well, while the challenges of others’ are more on the surface. Yet, at a deeper level, all of us are in need of a change of routine, a blessed opening of possibility. All of us are in need of a visitor to come and change everything, specifically to change our own selves.
Ramadan is prescribed by God not by ourselves
When the need for a new nanny is realized, Mr. Banks the father (who like many of us thinks he is much more together and important than he actually is) tries to fulfill his responsibility to advertise for a new nanny. He has his vision of what he thinks is proper and what his family needs. Unsurprisingly, his children have a drastically different vision of what they think they need in a nanny. While it is the children’s heartfelt note that inexplicably brings Mary Poppins to the Banks home, as time goes on we learn that Mary Poppins is neither what the father or the children think they want, but rather is exactly what they both need. We may never have known the particular mixture of fasting, praying, eating, giving that Ramadan prescribes is what we needed to change the things we do and do not recognize are lacking in our lives, but Ramadan is not prescribed by us, it is prescribed by our Creator to bring us closer to Him.
Ramadan is beautiful and gentle and firm, this what changes us — and the world
In the Qur’an, after Allah describes that fasting is obligatory upon us for a month, He then says “Allah desires ease for you, he doesn’t desire hardship.” Allah does not want hardship for us, but He realizes that we are going to need to push ourselves in order to grow and that firmness can come out of mercy and love. This only works however if it is accompanied by a beauty which inspires us. Mary Poppins is of course a beautiful spirit (with “rosy cheeks and everything”) who is “practically perfect in every way.” She is incredibly charismatic and although she wants to make it clear that she “never explains anything” at the same time she assures us that “I am kind, but extremely firm.” It is the particular type of beauty we find in Mary Poppins that brings hope into the world and inspires us to change ourselves and the communities in which we live. She will make us clean our room and learn our lessons, but in the end we will love her for it.
In Ramadan we do things we never knew we could
If we were asked before we experienced Ramadan, when we might have tried fasting once on a relatively short day and found it difficult, whether we could fast a month straight of nearly 17 hour days, while standing to pray in the nights, maintaining our work schedule, spending significant amounts on numerous worthy causes, while maintaining a cheerful attitude with a range of people we don’t always spend time with…we would surely not think it is possible. Yet, many of us have found we can do that with the help of faith, hope, and the special conditions of Ramadan. The Banks family would never have imagined they could do the special things they did with Mary Poppins, whether it was hopping into chalk drawings, dancing on the rooftops of London, or telling off their boss when he deserved it, but with Mary Poppins around accomplishing what they would have thought impossible became a regular occurrence.
Ramadan brings joy into our lives
It is most famously in the scene where the children go to the chalk drawing in the County Fair that one sees the enormous joy Mary Poppins brings into their lives, as the song says “It’s a jolly holiday with Mary, no wonder that it’s Mary that we love.” This is of course also seen in making a task like cleaning the nursery fun, or spending an afternoon laughing themselves up to the ceiling. Although it is filled with fasting and other forms of worship, Ramadan is a time of joy for most Muslims. Most of us have some of our fondest memories in this month and we look forward to it. Routines are changed, families spend more time together, people visit each other more often. While excessive feasting in the evening is not recommended, even a small meal after fasting brings a person pleasure and tranquility. The Prophet (saw) told us that the fasting person has two joys; one when breaking the fast and one when he or she meets God. The month is filled with joy for many and culminates of course in Eid, where one relishes in the accomplishments of a month of getting closer to God and to each other.
Ramadan teaches us what to say when we don’t know what to say
In Mary Poppins, the phrase that she teaches Mr. Banks to say when there is nothing else to say is nonsensical (supercalifraglisitic…) but he testifies when he is at his low point that it really does make one feel better. In Ramadan, the act of fasting consistently often causes one to speak less, especially while fasting. At the same time, we are encouraged to keep words of remembrance and supplication on our tongues. We seek to increase our Qur’an recitation and avoid negative forms of talk. We become people who have beautiful things on our tongues, and we see and feel the change it brings to our environments, and to our souls.
Ramadan shows us the value of generosity and truly seeing others
The emotional climax of Mary Poppins occurs with the song “Feed the Birds.” In advance of the children’s big trip to visit the bank where their father works, Mary is encouraging them to honor their father and his wishes (which Mary of course planted in his mind… Mary is an expert in the prophetic practice of bringing people together, even against their resistance) even though they are anxious and feel distant from him. At the same time, Mary tells the kids about the women on the steps of the Cathedral who collects spare change to feed the birds. By the end of the movie, we realize that Mary Poppins has not only brought the family together but she has taught these privileged children to really see and interact with various people on the margins of London society that they would otherwise often ignore. In addition to the woman on the steps of the Cathedral, there are of course the chimney sweeps. During Ramadan the Prophet (saw) was generous and giving even more than he was the rest of the year. In Ramadan, the best of traditions are those that bring us together with people we might not otherwise really “see.” We share the profound experiences of fasting and breaking fast and standing in prayer with each other and we become connected in deep ways. We don’t save anyone else, but we realize the prophetic lesson of our own weakness and shared humanity and that when we go to the margins to be with people, we are all saved, the blessings of such encounters are like the “luck” attributed to shaking the hand of a chimney sweep.
Ramadan breaks us by taking away what we think we need to show us what is truly important
I have said that the emotional climax of Mary Poppins is “Feed the Birds,” but of course remarkably in a film where through much of its running time we have had the perspective of Jane and Michael and we see their father kinda like they do, distant and self-important, but also bumbling and seemingly not knowing how to relate to them, suddenly near the end, the father becomes without warning the sympathetic hero of the story. This happens only after he hits his lowest point, both in relation to his children and in ruining what was all important to him, his career at the bank. For all the joy and wonder that is present in Ramadan, it is designed in some ways to break us. To take away what we think we need most, food and water and sleep, relations with our spouses, and even our wealth. Ramadan is a time of tears as well as smiles. Yet in those moments of brokenness, which strip away our pride and feelings of self-sufficiency, we realize what is our true strength and assistance…our Lord and those people who bring us closer to Him and our best selves. Just as when Mr. Banks realizes that his family is the most important thing in his life and the job that he has is not what he really needs, he is freed from the weight of stress and anxiety he has been under (and of course the whole job thing has an unexpected ending).
Ramadan will only stay until the wind changes (the lunar month is over)
Mary Poppins is only meant to come to visit for a time. Although the children are sad to see her go, she still has to leave, as she always had told them she would. Remarkably, at the moment she is actually leaving, she encourages to go be with their father. The incredible change and insight their father has undergone, leaves them overwhelmed with an unexpected happiness and the whole family in a much better place. So much so that they seem more concerned with that than with Mary leaving. For us, when the month draws to a conclusion with the arrival of the new moon, we are commanded by God as an act of worship to celebrate the accomplishments of the month. We are going to miss this guest of Ramadan that we have come to love so much, but we are to focus on what we have gained. We are encouraged to recognize and embrace the ways in which the month has changed us and brought us closer to the selves we wish to be, and to be grateful for such a profound and unexpected experience. We can do that by living our lives in a better way, even outside of Ramadan (without our Mary Poppins). Ramadan, just like Mary Poppins, can remain in our memories like a dream of a beautiful hope of how we could be that inspires us to live beautifully.