At end of Ramadan, Muslim leader explains fasting
Like most people, I begin the morning barely having time for breakfast, as I run out the door with a bagel in my mouth.
On the way to the office, I may grab a peppermint mocha latte at Starbucks. Then, lunch rolls around, and I either skip it for lack of time, or have that the Chipotle bean and rice bowl for lunch to sustain me for the rest of the day. Finally, at the end of the day, I come home fatigued, hungry and try to have dinner with the kids and family and listen to how their day went.
This is pretty much the Monday-through-Friday ritual of most working Americans.
But for the past few weeks, my schedule, along with millions of other Americans', has been suddenly upended. You see, before we knew it, the month of Ramadan rolled around, and now our lives have taken a different physical and spiritual trajectory.
The month of Ramadan is the month of fasting where Muslims all over the world, including here in America, abstain from food, water, and intimate relations from dawn to dusk. This is our period of Lent. But instead of abstaining from certain foods like meat or dairy, we completely abandon food and water during the daylight hours.
Like most of the world's great religions, Islam expects its adherents to abandon the material world for some limited period of time in order to experience faith in the mysteries of God to its fullest. In fact, St. Augustine reminds us "fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, and subjects one's flesh to the spirit." Fasting allows us mere mortals to appreciate the dependence on God and to develop the focus on what it means to be a faithful servant of God. By weakening the physical body through less intake of all that junk food and unnecessary carbs and sugars we ordinarily digest, we strengthen the soul through ardent prayer, reflection and scriptural readings and recitation which are a requisite to being God-conscious.
Scriptural readings and recitation are an integral part of the Ramadan experience. About 1,450 years ago, the Prophet Muhammad first encountered God through the delivery of revelation known as the Quran. The oral revelation of the Quran continued for 23 years, ultimately being codified into a written and canonized text near the year 650 C.E. The text of the Quran is deemed to be God's word and thereby accepted by all Muslims through apostolic consensus. Indeed, the mere recitation of the Quran in Arabic provides tremendous spiritual benefits and metaphysical blessings. Consequently, Muslims often recite the Quran more during Ramadan than at any other time of the year. This explains why the Quran is recited in its entirety during the evening congregational prayers.
Aside from the tremendous spiritual benefits inherent during the holy month, Muslims avail themselves of increased social and charitable opportunities. Muslims give more in charity to the poor and needy and other worthwhile causes than at any other time of the year. In fact, the annual tithe, called zakat, is collected during this month from one's personal savings. People attend the mosque more, and share the breaking of the fast known as iftaar with friends, neighbors and relatives. In fact, many mosques open their doors for annual iftaar dinners with their interfaith colleagues from the Christian, Jewish and other faith communities.
On a personal level, Ramadan allows me to spend more time with my family as we partake in the two traditional meals and worship services. Ordinarily our family wakes up about 3 a.m. for the pre-dawn meal. In fact, my teenage son revels in making his fluffy chocolate chip pancakes for the family, while I make my special cheese and tomato omelet. We then perform our prayers and go to sleep only to wake up a few hours later to start our day. Then, at sunset, we break our fast with sweet and chewy dates. Our favorites are the medjool variety. We quench our thirst with water and a delicious sweet drink called ruh hafza, a pinkish rose-water drink unique to the South Asian subcontinent. Across the community, one can find specialty recipes from North Africa, Turkey, the Middle East, and the Malay Peninsula being prepared for the anticipated daily iftaar meals.
I am often asked at what age Muslims start fasting in Ramadan. While fasting becomes mandatory for Muslim teenagers, each family has its own practice. But it is common for children as young as 9 or 10 to practice fasting for half-days or a few days during the month. Developing patience during this month is a favored goal. Indeed, the Prophet Muhammad stated "Ramadan is the month of developing patience."
Earlier I mentioned that Ramadan is like Lent. While that is true, it is also like Christmas, especially for children. For this is the time of gift giving among friends and family. The 29th or 30th day of fasting is followed by the joyous festival known as Eid al-Fitr. The day of Eid al-Fitr begins with morning congregational prayers and then proclamations of "Eid Mubarak" ("Happy Eid"). Then, the day is spent visiting family and friends and eating till our hearts and stomachs are content. Children look forward to visiting toy stores or eagerly await the newest Lego set or the latest "Star Wars" video game.
Aside from the social and charitable features of Ramadan, for me, it is a time to cleanse the soul, and enhance personal traits such as patience, generosity, and fortitude. No doubt fasting is a challenge for everyone, especially during the longest days of the summer. But despite this struggle, there is a feeling of nostalgia when Ramadan comes to an end and as we return to our normal schedule of consuming caloric lattes, diabetes-inducing soft drinks, and belly-spurring fried foods. Eid Mubarak, everyone! Can't wait 'til next year.