One afternoon last July, my boss was fanning herself by the air conditioning, sipping some ice cold water to escape the sweltering Bolognese heat. She saw me perspiring and kindly offered me some water but, to her surprise, I declined. She gasped suddenly and retracted the bottle as quickly as her reflexes would allow. I could see Ramadan alarm bells going off as she remembered that I wouldn't be drinking until around 9pm that evening. She paused and squinted at me a little. Finally she said, ‘forgive me, but you’re crazy to do this!’ I chuckled, and replied in all honesty, ‘Well, yes, I suppose it is’
In that moment, I didn't try to defend Ramadan by saying that it’s not crazy. In all honesty, I can’t argue that it isn't. If fasting were a normal everyday occurrence, it would lose its whole purpose. One of the key features of Ramadan is the fact that you’re going against your natural urges to eat and drink. In the situation with my boss, the only logical human response would have been to drink water. But I didn’t. Why?
I hope that my explanation will also answer the questions that I asked myself as a teenager. I couldn't get my head around fasting in Islam when I was growing up. I couldn't understand why God (SWT) would want you to fast. As I couldn’t see a benefit in it for God, I just thought Muslims were punishing themselves, suffering for their faith like some kind of fasting flagellation. It baffled me.
So, why do Muslims fast?
One of the main purposes of Ramadan is to foster good habits such as being calm, patient and controlled in spite of the physical challenge of being without food and drink. Normally, if you’re peckish, you just grab something to eat or if you’re thirsty, you just turn on the tap. Ramadan however, is about learning to be patient. Although we learn this as we grow up, whether through waiting for dinner or to open birthday presents, its still something that many of us struggle with on a daily basis and needs to be worked on.
Christian minister Steve Simms touches upon the same topic in his interesting article: Entitlement vs Ethics, Cravings or Conscience, Passions or Principles. His role as a Salvation Army minister brings me onto the topic of my upbringing. I was raised in the Salvation Army and when I was around seven years old I made a promise which included the phrase:
This phrase is always at the back of my mind but it pops up more regularly during Ramadan, a time when Muslims aim to refrain from swearing, saying mean things to (and about) people and from questionable activities. In addition, Ramadan is the month when Muslims believe the Qur'an (the principle religious text in Islam) was first revealed and consequently, many Muslims endeavour to read it in its entirety during the Holy Month.
If the challenge were simply to go without food, it wouldn't make any sense. Instead, Ramadan is considered a God given opportunity to transform ourselves into better human beings. A month is a long time, certainly long enough to establish changes as habits which you can then strive to maintain throughout the rest of the year. This is one reason why the month of Ramadan is considered a blessing, even if you do have to contend with bad breath and occasional headaches. It's also why many Muslims get so excited about the arrival of Ramadan and miss it sorely when it’s gone. The month of Ramadan is intended to be a happy occasion, one which celebrates the revelation of the Qur'an to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).
'Oh ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was to those before you,
that you may (learn) self-restraint' (The Holy Qu'ran 2:183)
After reflecting on my boss’s use of the word ‘crazy’ to describe Ramadan, I was reminded of the way we so often call Olympic athletes ‘crazy’ even though we admire them for what they do. Athletes, whether they’re runners, rowers or gymnasts, are respected for being able to achieve something out of the ordinary. And even though I do it myself, it still amazes me that nearly a billion Muslims perform this feat every year, often in sweltering heat, while the rest of the world looks on in either bewilderment, curiosity or admiration or a mixture of all three.
Now, imagine if you will, the same Olympic rowers in the previous illustration waking up at the crack of dawn to go to practice down by the river. They don’t do it merely for the sake of getting up but rather, they’re doing it with a specific goal in mind – to become better athletes. In the same way, Muslims take on this 'crazy' month-long act with the aim of improving themselves one day at a time.
★ ★ ★
So, over to you!
For your own individual perspective, how do you view Ramadan?
If you do take part in Ramadan, is it something you look forward to or worry about?
Next Post: Wobble Belly Woes (Day 2)