The Muslim fasting month of Ramadan began recently. The observation of not eating or drinking from sunrise to sunset is especially challenging when Ramadan falls during the hot summer months. As the mercury rises, so does the length of fast. This year, each of the 30 days of fasting is about 16 hours in duration, and the recent heat wave made the task no easier.
For those who wonder why Ramadan migrates throughout the year: It is because the 1,400-year-old tradition is based on a lunar calendar, which is offset from the Gregorian calendar by about 11 days per year.
Apart from its inconsistent timing, some may be puzzled by the intensity of this ritual of self denial. Comparing celebrations like Christmas, Diwali, and Hanukkah, some might even think, “Wow, when they were picking straws for holidays, those guys sure ended up with the short stick!”
Interestingly enough, though, for those Muslims who do participate in the fast, it is a month that is embraced with a fondness that leaves participants in heartfelt tears upon its completion.
In our daily lives, most of us seldom appreciate hunger or insatiable thirst. Within minutes of feeling the pangs of hunger or dryness of our mouths, we somehow find our way to the food court of our local warehouse store, where for six quarters we chomp away on a jumbo hot dog and wash it down with an ice cold soda.
Fasting puts self denial above one’s desire to meet one’s most basic instinct for sustenance. It allows the participant to share the experience of those plagued by famine or drought. Ramadan allows personal insights into the daily tribulation of “have nots” around the world.
That being said, fasting is far more than the overcoming of one’s edacity for food and drink. Moreover, it is a month-long battle with the lower self: a daily personal interrogation of what one thinks, speaks, views, and hears.
The outer vestments of fasting are parched lips and weakened bodies. But hidden beneath these unassuming and threadbare garments is a titanic clash between one’s will and one’s own personal vices. The adversary in this epic struggle varies from person to person: For some, the object is eliminating selfishness or ingratitude. Others take aim at malice, pettiness, arrogance, gluttony, vanity, wastefulness, carnal thoughts, and all other personal failings an individual may have kept hidden away from public awareness.
During this month, anger is subdued and replaced with forbearance and self restraint. Harshness is substituted with gentleness, and niggardliness with selfless generosity. The aim of this metamorphosis is to ultimately retain benevolent and Godly qualities throughout the year.
Like a recently released minivan that now comes equipped with an integrated vacuum for self cleaning, we all come with the capacity to remove unsightly habits and behavioral refuse from within ourselves. Just as sand, gum wrappers, and old receipts are bound to accumulate over time in a family car, poor etiquettes and personal failings have their way of building up within the self. For Muslims, Ramadan is essentially a spiritually inspired opportunity for an internal spring cleaning.
The esoteric and spiritual aspects of Ramadan are also a reason that practicing Muslims relish this month. Muslims who usually face the Divine once a day start to pray five times a day. Those who typically elect to skip supererogatory prayers find themselves in the mosque in supplication to the God of Abraham as a nightly routine. If taken to heart, for the true adherent of Islam, Ramadan can be nothing short of transformative. That said, the Prophet Muhammad (sws) said that “there are those who fast the entire month of Ramadan, and the only thing they gain from it is hunger and thirst.”
This brings to mind one aspect that continues to perplex many of us in the Muslim community, when we reflect on the beauty and benefits of fasting. And that universal head scratcher is how the phenomenon of violent advocacy or behavior can exist, even microscopically, in the Muslim population. When a faith community has been blessed with a month-long ritual so focused on recalibrating souls toward “peace on earth and goodwill toward all men,” how is it possible that violent extremism can continue to persist?
By point of fact, violent religious extremism is an exceedingly small, but salient reality that, each Ramadan, many Muslims pray will be extinguished from our globe. The process of eliciting change outside of ourselves begins with putting the inner self on trial.
This approach of improving the world through improving oneself is a core feature of the fasting month. Critiquing the self and serving all others brings with it hope for both personal and community betterment. Each Ramadan, the saying of Mohandas Gandhi rings true as 1.65 billion adherents of the Islamic faith attempt to “be the change they wish to see in this world.”
Irrespective of denomination, I invite everyone to spend even a single day contemplating their individual failings. And, if in good health, to consider fasting from sunrise to sunset. The experience will undoubtedly reveal one’s capacity for self denial, and perhaps even lead to greater personal, family, and community happiness, contentment, and wellness.
Dr. Rushdi Cader is an emergency physician at Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center, founder of the nation’s first Muslim Free Clinic in South Central Los Angeles, and medical director of the San Luis Obispo Regional SWAT Team. Send comments to the executive editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.