Yesterday marked the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. At least, Monday was the beginning for many, but the exact/proper date of its start is a topic I have no interest in discussing.
This is my first blog post, so I should describe my background a bit…
I am a citizen of the USA (I almost never call the country “America” because I am a bit of a pedant). I was born in the Midwest and have lived there all my life. I was raised in a Muslim household: one parent was practicing, the other far less so. They say it takes a village to raise a child, and I grew up with strong ties to the local Muslim community, which I still have.
On a personal level, I have previously made efforts to be regularly practicing of the religion I grew up with. These efforts have never lasted long, and I have given up trying. I now identify primarily as a humanist, and a skeptic. To me, religious duties are a practice of hedging my bets. And though I do not fancy myself the religious sort, I do believe that my religious background was a mostly-positive influence on my life in many ways, one of which I will be discussing at length here.
Ramadan is a month of fasting from sunrise to sunset – an important religious duty for Muslims. If I am going to keep any few religious obligations, this is one of the musts. And, in all honesty, I happen to genuinely enjoy fasting during Ramadan, even though I generally do not care for this stuff. In speaking to non-Muslims about this practice, they often respond with amazement – more types of it than one! To outsiders, I imagine that fasting over a long period of hours every day for 30 days straight seems torturous. In my experience, however, the month of fasting is fulfilling and meaningful in a way that – in place of experiencing it first-hand – cannot aptly be communicated.
But I will try.
In truth, the value and benefits of this entire religious tenant is lost on many of its followers, never mind those on the outside looking in.
Ramadan is about much more than abstaining from food. Between sunrise to sunset, a Muslim is to abstain from consuming any and all liquids, and from drugs of any kind (prescription, over-the-counter, or recreational). Cigarettes are generally agreed upon as being out-of-bounds during the period of fasting. That said, you are not expected to put your life at risk to fast. If you have valid medical reasons or a sudden emergency to eat/medicate, you are excused from fasting. If you are able to make fasts again later, you are expected to do so to make up for missed fasts.
Muslims are also to abstain from sex during fasting hours. Your mouth and stomach are not the only things fasting. Your ears are to fast from listening to profanity, your eyes are to fast from graphic content, your lips are to fast from lying or swearing. To deliberately lie or swear is the same as to deliberately eat during fasting hours: your fast is broken, and this is a serious offense that is difficult to make-up.
One might notice that Ramadan does not start on the same date every year. Muslims follow the lunar calendar, due in no small part to their religious duty of fasting. This varies the length of daily fasts (the times get shorter in winters, longer in summers), so groups of Muslims on one part of the globe are not stuck with super-long fasting days while others have only very short ones.
When you begin fasting for the month of Ramadan, it is not uncommon to forget that you are fasting, and catch yourself unthinkingly taking any food within reach with the intent to eat. This alone is an eye-opening experience. A lot of eating is done without any real thought given to the act of eating. So it is, too, with other habits, such as using profanities; we are desensitized to many things in our daily lives. By fasting, one also exercises their power of restraint. If fasting is fully understood and appreciated by the one partaking in it, their restraint is strengthened greatly and the effect lasts well beyond the month of Ramadan.
By the way, you are forgiven for any fast-breaking action you may commit due to forgetting that you are fasting – just continue on like it never happened! You will not forget often, however, because the hunger is a constant reminder to remain aware of your actions.
That being said, the state of constant hunger will generally serve as a reminder not only that you are fasting from food, but abstaining from vices and bad behavior of all types. Over a month’s time, if practiced right, these practices becomes habit and carry over into the following months. This is why, in many ways, Ramadan is seen as a time of spiritually “re-charging” – you consciously monitor your habits, desisting the bad ones and promoting the good, such that you altogether strengthen your soul and continue this beyond the month’s completion.
In all, Ramadan can be seen as a time to purify the soul and recharge one’s willpower. Regardless what you believe, these benefits are objectively pretty valuable to any individual. I would recommend it to others, but fasting seems significantly more difficult to those who are entirely new to the practice. Those of us who have grown up observing Ramadan typically practice fasting in some capacity at a young age, and commit to it fully in young adulthood. I hesitate to say that we “get used to” fasting, but the act of fasting is not as big of a shock to our bodies or minds after having had the practice and prior experience. In the end, however, fasting is not meant to be easy. Ramadan is supposed to challenge us, and these trials make us stronger.
Ramadan is also a time for charity and togetherness. You are thought to be rewarded more generously for your positive, charitable actions during the month of Ramadan. As a result, Muslims tend to make greater donations to the needy during this month. One also cannot help but emphasize with the hungry at some level when they partake in fasting every day. Constant hunger is the reality for many people around the world, and that is easy to forget for the ones more fortunate. In that sense, Ramadan serves to remind us of our fellow human-beings in need. These gestures should continue well beyond Ramadan, of course, but once again, the idea behind this month is to get ourselves attuned to our religious and spiritual sides and carry that energy forward. Also imagine, if you will, how much food is being saved by the millions who are fasting, and how many could be fed with this imagined surplus.
Finally, Ramadan is a time of thankfulness. After long hours of fasting, the first bite of food at sunset (determined as the scheduled time for our fourth daily prayer) is a moment that, to me, is incredibly euphoric. One is not only happy and grateful to satisfy their hunger (though that alone is a great feeling), but you also feel proud of yourself for successfully sustaining your fast. That feeling is compounded with every consecutive fast completed.
Altogether, Ramadan is about much more than starvation. It is as much a mental exercise as a physical one. It is not for me to say if all of this is the word of a God, or a really clever work of man, but I believe that this manner of fasting is a meaningful exercise for any/all to partake in, provided they fully understand the meaning behind it (which, sadly, I feel the many that currently practice fasting fail to do).
And so concludes the first post to my WordPress blog! I have quite a few ideas in mind for subsequent blog posts, and they are mainly political topics. In truth, I do not expect to pen too many more posts about religion, as it is simply not a very important subject to me. It is, however, something I am sensitive to, as many people close to me are part of the Islamic faith. I hope to clear up some misunderstanding therein, nothing more.
That is a bit of an uphill battle, but such is the spirit of Ramadan.