Ramadhan, the ninth month of lunar calendar, is a time of joy, generosity, compassion, and breaking bread with others.
At the heart of Islamic belief stands the reality of God, the One, who is at once transcendent and immanent, greater than all we can conceive or imagine yet closer to us than our own consciousness. From the realization that this world is a message from God, a desire flows forth to establish a link between human spirit and God. Religious practices such as fasting, supplications, prayers in its myriad forms, and charity serve precisely to this purpose of relating human spirit and its creator. As such, fasting, although in different forms, exists in almost all religious traditions. Jews practice fasting on Yom Kipur, it is an integral part of Hinduism, Buddhists monks and nuns frequently practice it, many Christian denominations practice it and so on.
Fasting in Ramadhan involves abstaining from food, drink and sexual activity from dawn to dusk. However, true fasting involves more than this. Abstaining from eating and drinking is not an end in itself, but rather it is a means. By disciplining our body, fasting paves the way for a self-transformation, spiritual cleansing, and realization of a higher ethical standard. Good deeds, kindness, and helping others become fruits of this transformation. Fasting is an act of not only the stomach, but the whole body. Eyes refrain from looking at anything that is blameworthy; tongue refrain from lying, backbiting, abusive speech, and hypocrisy, hate speech, and so on. If fasting is understood and actualized properly, Ramadhan becomes a time to practice self-control, kindness, self-discipline to be a better person, to improve our relationship with others.
During this month we break the routine of our lives. From this follows a sincere thankfulness and appreciation of many things we take for granted. After long hours of thirst, when we break our fasts with a sip of water, when it slowly flows down our throats, when we feel it in almost every part of our bodies, and when we shiver with joy, at that very moment, we realize that there is nothing mundane in this world, there is anything banal. Everything is unique, everything is special, everything is miraculous; especially the things we take for granted. Sometimes the colors the world withers in our views because of the boredom of the routine. With fasting the world regains its colors back.
People are more generous, more cordial, and more ready than other times of the year to do good and charitable work. Why? Fasting helps one to fell the pain of the less fortunate. It gives you a chance to empathize. During long hours of thirst and hunger one realizes how it feels not to be able find something to eat or drink, how it feels to be inflicted by famine or disasters. It helps us to cultivate empathy with the suffering of others and, thus, to restore compassion to the center of all morality and religion. Compassion leads to charity. In charity we transcend our ego, our selfishness, we dethrone ourselves from the center of the world and put another there.
Fasting helps develop a very important skill: patience. During long hours of fasting, by refraining from eating, drinking, and sexual activity, one practices patience and learns to wait for an end and to strive perseveringly towards a goal. Thus, fasting is an opportunity to transcend over-indulgence and to reconsider our bad consumption habits. As experts indicate, one of the disastrous consequences of our current consumption habits is environmental crisis. It is therefore urgent to develop habits of careful consumption and a balanced relation with the bio-physical environment. Fasting clearly helps to realize this goal.
Any religious practice is twofold. It has an outward and an inward aspect. To use Rumi’s analogy, a religious practice resembles a fruit with its kernel and shell. Shell and kernel makes the totality of a fruit and their togetherness yields the desired result. Still, one does not want to get stuck forever in shell. One desires to go beyond shell to taste kernel and sap. Now, abstaining from eating and drinking is a physical act; this is the outward aspect of fasting. It paves the way for the attainment of the realization of a spiritual goal attached to it; this is the inward aspect of fasting. The spirituality of fasting involves a deeper understanding of human condition. In fasting, we realize how needy, how weak, how fragile, how finite we are. We are finite and we yearn for the Infinite. Departing from physical thirst and hunger we intimately witness our spiritual and existential thirst and hunger for infinity. Herein, we attain a deeper consciousness of the Divine. Herein, we start smelling the alluring perfume of the Divine. Herein, we escape from our finitude to the bosom of the Infinite and quench our spiritual thirst and hunger.
* Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies at Claremont School of Theology