Originally published in New Haven Register
I’m really looking forward to the midst of summer. But I won’t be sipping tea during the day or basking in the midday sun. Instead, I’ll be immersed — along with about a billion other Muslims — in Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting which began in the second week of July.
Ramadan is one of the 12 months of the Islamic calendar. Because this particular calendar follows a lunar cycle, Ramadan moves up about 10 days every year with respect to the Gregorian (or solar) calendar we commonly use today.
Let me first clear up a few myths about fasting during Ramadan. It is true that Muslims abstain from food and water. But the fast happens only during daylight hours, not during the entire month. As a physician, I can tell you there wouldn’t be too many who could survive the latter. Another fact check is that not everyone is permitted to fast. You can’t be a child. You can’t be pregnant or nursing. You can’t be ill. You can’t even be travelling. In general, fasting is a privilege for only the physically able. But the consolation is that if you can’t fast, you can provide food for someone else in need — and you both get the blessing of the fast.
The worshipper who gets the green light to fast is at the same time banned from binging. I recall being innocently asked by a close friend whether I would “pig out” at night during Ramadan. Amused, I assured my uninformed buddy that the Prophet Muhammad told us we could neither overeat nor consider pork on the menu.
So with the long summer heat, why look forward to Ramadan? For me, a big reason is that by fasting I get the chance to empathize with those who, out of poverty, routinely go hungry throughout the day or only have an occasional, incomplete meal. They reside not only in our global village, but also in our very neighborhoods in America. Did you know that a survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2011 showed that about 15 percent of American households were what’s called “food insecure,” which meant that their food intake was disrupted at various times during the year? Even more striking was that 1.8 million households reported that a family member did not eat for a whole day because of poverty. By feeling hunger, albeit for a short time, I realize the need to help the less fortunate among us. In fact, the Prophet Muhammad, who always gave generously, would intensify his alms-giving during Ramadan. What a great act to follow.
Ramadan is also a time of giving up physical food in place of spiritual food. The purpose of fasting is to come closer to God and to become a better moral person. Fasting helps a person develop greater self-control from the vices that every religion discourages. For example, the Prophet Muhammad said that if a person can’t give up the bad habit of lying, then God has no need for him or her to give up food or drink during Ramadan. The bottom line is that you can’t be a hungry liar in Ramadan.
It is curious that other religions also keep to some type of fast. Practicing Hindus are vegetarians, but it’s little known that many strict Hindus refrain from any food for one day each week and during religious festivals. Jews are required to fast for just over 24 hours on their holiest day of the year Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement. Jesus (whom Muslims revere as a Divine messenger) fasted for 40 days and 40 nights in search of God in the wilderness of the desert. Catholics commemorate the act in the form of Lent and temporarily abstain from a specified food. A common item to give up is chocolate — a personal favorite. The Muslim holy book the Quran builds solidarity among faiths by specifically mentioning that the Muslim fast is prescribed in a similar manner to the fast that God prescribed to other religions. After all, aren’t we all from the same God?
So it might turn out to be a longer summer for me because of Ramadan. But I believe that it will be a happier one. By fasting, I get the chance to relate with the poor who live in the constant threat of hunger. I might even develop a better inner self. I also look forward to inviting non-Muslim friends and neighbors to our home or local mosque to break the fast, so we can together share in a culture of fasting that spans multiple faiths. Even though I may avoid the warm summer heat during Ramadan, you might find me still sipping tea in the cooler evening, when the fast ends for the day.