For the first time, I was doing something that wasn’t primarily for myself, or for my parents.
Religious fasting traditions — from the Ramadan to Ekadasi (Hindu) to Yom Kippur (Judaism) and Lent — are meant to unburden believers from day-to-day compulsions, drawing them closer to their conscience.
Ramadan is always a very amazing month. Each of us goes through our own personal moments of ecstasy when we complete the days of fasting. Fasting (“sawm” in Arabic), like prayers, represents a private relationship each one of us has with God. During Ramadan, Muslims have one meal before sunrise, called sahur — the pre-dawn meal — together, and share another meal with friends and family after sunset, called iftar — the fast-breaking meal. Ramadan is a month-long spiritual odyssey that is meant to rejuvenate us, both physically and morally. It enables us to detach from worldly pleasures to invest our time in intense prayer, charity and spiritual discipline and focus on our deeds, thoughts and actions.
Fasting during Ramadan is obligatory for all able-bodied Muslims from when they reach puberty. Only those who are exempt from fasting are those who are unwell, elderly, and those suffering from mental illness, or those who are travelling. Menstruating and pregnant women are also exempt. So are breastfeeding mothers.
However, the exemption has a caveat. Those who skip the fast will have to make up for the lost days after Ramadan. Others donate what they would normally spend on food to a charity (fidiya, or “expiation”).
The experience has been life-changing for me
The fragility of human life
Every Ramadan, we are blessed with many opportunities to undergo illuminating and enriching experiences that provide valuable lessons in understanding life and ourselves better. The fast is a reminder of the fragility of the human life and is meant to foster a relationship with God.
Over the years, the experience has been life-changing for me. I learnt to be disciplined; started feeling empathetic towards the poor, as Ramadan taught me how it feels to be less fortunate. Every year, we gain something substantial, as the entire spiritual gymnastic nurtures our soul, leaving us like an engine overhauled, or a computer reformatted.
I remember the early years of the fasting when my mother would tell us her childhood stories about Ramadan; how the table at the sunset would be full of delicacies; how she and her siblings would hold handfuls of food in front of their mouths, waiting for the cue from my grandfather to eat. At the end of the month of fasting, he would sacrifice a lamb, in the name of God, and feed it to the poor.
Each fasting day during the Ramadan is a trial for the body and our spiritual resolve
My early Ramadan days
The first time I fasted was when I was attending my school away from home. Marching up to the man in charge of the cafeteria, I fully expected to be rebuffed when I asked for food to take back to my dorm for a pre-dawn breakfast. But he just looked me in the eyes and asked what I would like to eat. Had I not been so stunned by his acceptance, I might have asked for a table full of treats.
Later that night, nibbling on a meat sandwich, I realised, ”I’m fasting for Ramadan!” For the first time, I was doing something that wasn’t primarily for myself, or for my parents, or for good grades. By fasting, I was doing something for God, that which would bring me closer to the creator and sustainer of all existence.
Later in college, on Saturday nights, other Muslim students and I would take the college van to a pancake house at 4 am. I told my non-Muslim friends, who always accompanied me to dinner in the dining hall at sunset, how the entire holy month of Ramadan was about feeling spiritually charged and elevated, despite hunger and deprivation.
We slice up exotic fruits to refresh ourselves and our families after fasting. But, not all have this privilege
Resources that we take for granted
The fasting ritual is an eagerly awaited interlude to utilise the abstinence from food, drink and other indulgences as an opportunity to concentrate on prayer, meditation and worship. This, in turn, encourages greater reflection on one’s life and appreciation for the resources we sometimes take for granted.
It teaches us about patience, self-restraint, spirituality, humility and submissiveness to God. The act of fasting for spiritual prowess makes us conscious, not just of our food habits, but of our thoughts, behaviour and interactions throughout the day. Ramadan helps us hone our patience because, by refraining from consumption throughout the day, we learn the benefit of refraining from gratifying each of our desires in the moment.
Each fasting day during the Ramadan is a trial on the body and our spiritual resolve. Removing the regular comforts from our daily routine is intended to focus the mind on spirituality, prayer and charity. By fasting, we cut ourselves off the temptations and distractions of our busy, hectic, materialistic lives and try attaining “taqwa”, or “piety” or “God-consciousness”. With a decaffeinated, empty stomach, and a thirst that is difficult to tolerate, this act of fasting connects us to someone else.
The suffering of these unlucky ones reminds us to be grateful for our fortunes
The woman who’s forced to fast every day
Our fasting draws us to the story of a woman in Somalia who has been walking for miles to reach and fetch firewood and water; successive droughts have ravaged her land, her body, and her children. Think of the uprooted who have become refugees traveling through Eastern Africa, walking for miles on foot in brutal temperatures with hot and dust-filled wind blowing in their faces.
She’ll thank God, if they all make it alive to the feeding centre. The baby she is carrying no longer gets milk from her breast; she feels him shrinking in her arms as she walks. Her other children are trailing her. The mother keeps repeatedly telling them that they must put their trust in God and keep moving. One can understand her thirst as she utters the words of prayer with every precious drop of water she goes without to give to her children for their survival.
Our act of fasting brings empathy for her that is greater than any ordinary day. I remember her when my head would go dizzy with thirst after running out on a simple errand in triple-digit heat. I can step back into my air-conditioned refuge; she can’t. I won’t complain of my exhaustion from too little sleep because I know she won’t find a sheltering place to rest in the harsh landscape. I’m hungry, but I can break my fast in a celebratory mood when the day is finished; I’ll take a cooling sip of clean, filtered water and literally feel it splash down in my empty gut at sundown. As I feel my body reviving, I remember the Somali woman’s fast has been going on since well before the Ramadan, and it will continue past. It is her way of life for years on end. For her “fasting” is not a choice, for her hunger is part of daily life.
A month of peace, forgiveness and reconciliation
As we slice up exotic fruits to refresh our families after fasting, we keep seeing this poor woman. How can we set a table with melons, dates, rice, other lavish goodies and dollops of dainty creams when she has none? How can we keep stocking up on provisions featuring a variety of exquisite tasty food, such as sweetmeats, spices, savouries and sugary drinks, with which to break our daily fasts, without thinking of the woman’s broken heart when she has to tell her children she has nothing for them; the crops failed, the livestock died, and food prices have risen so high. She has no way to feed them. The suffering of these unlucky ones reminds us to be grateful for our fortunes.
For the first time, I was doing something that wasn’t primarily for myself
Why I don’t feel like this every day
At times, we don’t realise how hard and coarse our hearts have become. The absence of any regular practice of self-reflection and contemplation has made us insensitive to the suffering around us.
The pursuit of complacency has become our goal rather than the pursuit of contentment. We sacrifice things that would bring us everlasting comfort in pursuit of those things that simply give us the facade of comfort.
The emphasis on enduring the fast stimulates us to move beyond the physical aspects of it and reach out in the direction of a spiritual fast. A fast from complaining, a fast from thinking ill of others, a fast from coarse language and harsh speech, a fast which is focussed not on food or drink, but how the absence of those things leads towards the development of a strong heart and soul.
That’s the fast that we should strive for — one that moves beyond not feeding our bodies but feeding our souls. The essence of Ramadan is to become humble, simple and free from ill-will, anger, meanness and hatred.
It is a one-month refresher course from which we can emerge as the greatest version of ourselves. It is a month of peace, forgiveness and reconciliation.
The hand of God
Charity is a central tenet of Islam and a very important tradition during Ramadan. On several occasions, I have read that when we are handing something to someone in charity, it first passes through the hand of God before it reaches the recipient’s hands.
I always imagine that when I give, I become humble. Holding wealth is truly an immense blessing that comes with the great responsibility and untold reward when we pass it along. All good deeds done in Ramadan fetch manifold rewards in the afterlife. Thus, apart from being a personal religious voyage, the season of sharing and giving reconfigures one’s social bonds.
I pray that Ramadan gets into our hearts and minds and makes us embrace all shades of mankind without undermining their tradition and we treat every human on earth with dignity, respect and care acknowledging the diverse swath of races, ethnicities and civilisations.
The greatest lesson every Ramadan teaches me is indeed the wisdom expressed in the Qur’an, Al-Hujurat, and 49:13:
“O mankind! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another. The noblest of you, in sight of God, is the best in conduct. God Knows and is Aware of everything you do.”
Ramadan Kareem! Ramadan Mubarak!