I have no earthly reason to be fasting. My colleagues regard me with bemusement, my grandmother thinks I am on the verge of converting and my partner continually threatens to move out until I am done (not seriously, of course). But I am a happy atheist, content in my relationship with the divine, that being that I have none. I am not fasting in solidarity with anything, to raise money for anything or because I am considering Islam as my next spiritual home. So why do it? Why go through 30 days of feeling hungry most of the time and sick from trying to eat for about 4 hours a day? Because in January 2015 I started a yearlong project to observe every holy day in the six largest religions in the UK (Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism).
In January I made a commitment to myself that I would learn about religions that, by and large, I knew nothing about by celebrating, meditating, praying and fasting with them. The holy days in themselves are merely a portal, a convenient way into each religion, tapping into the special and outstanding parts of the religious year. Although it is quite possible to observe the days mechanically, without engagement, I wanted to immerse myself, if only for a short period, in the faiths themselves. I don’t expect to get more than a brief glimpse into each world in this fashion, but it felt more authentic than any other way I could think of, short of actually converting!
Every time I mentioned the project to anyone, they would say incredulously “but surely you are not also doing Ramadan?” and I would think “I believe that Ramadan counts as a festival, yes” and I would feel mildly sarcastic about the whole thing. The next question would be “but you’re not fasting??” Yes, I would, indeed, be fasting, as I am of sound mind and body and had little excuse not to. “But you still get to drink water, right?” Wrong. “You’re crazy”. It was funny where my friends and family drew the line. They could just about accept the fasting part, but the idea that it is a Hard Fast just lost them entirely. How could I explain that I was just one of millions of people around the world who would be having this experience? How could I begin to show that my fast is a doddle compared to people in Pakistan who are fasting in 45 degree heat, or people in Iceland, who are fasting for upwards of 22 hours a day? I realised that many of my secular friends would never have fasted for a single day in their lives. This idea blew me away, given that, by the end of this year, I will have spent almost 100 days under some kind of dietary restriction.
To try to give people an insight as to what it was like to be on this journey, I blogged about my experiences. I am blogging fairly frequently during Ramadan, mostly when something changes in how I feel or if I read something particularly fascinating. This is a personal journey and I cannot claim to speak for anyone else observing the Holy Month. At one point my line manager said to me “It’s so great that you are doing this project while working here. We are learning so much!” and, as gratified as I was that she liked what I was doing, I reminded her that, in order to understand Islam, she had better speak to a Muslim, not a Jewish atheist.
I make no claims to understand anything beyond the surface of the meaning of Ramadan, or of the whole of Islam for that matter. But, for what it’s worth, here is what I have learned:
1. It gets better. Fasting is hard throughout the period, but it’s never quite as bad as the first two days. I was miserable and cold and, unexpectedly, very depressed. After that, you get into a routine and, if you are not careful, you can even start to get bored.
2. It’s not about the fast. People who ask “are you fasting for Ramadan?” are asking the wrong question. It is about the prayer, the giving and the understanding that this is a holy month, given by Allah (swt) for us to breathe deep, think deep and let go of what is holding us back. It is about community, feeding one another and the knowledge that, everywhere in the world, Muslims are doing the same. The much better question is “What are you doing for Ramadan?” It could be feeding other people their Iftar meal. It could be giving zakat to the needy. It could be simply being a positive force in the universe in whatever form that takes.
3. I really should have read the Qu’ran earlier. I had advice earlier in the year that I should not try to read it until I had explore Islam and felt I understood it. I feel now that this was not good advice. Better advice came from the Sikh Guru Har Rai, who was off the view that we should read and chant even when we don’t understand, as understanding would come in time. Reading the Qu’ran, as I am now, I see that, even though I come at it from a Judeo-Christian perspective, there is much I can glean. I would like to continue my study and, perhaps, even get to some of the Hadiths, well after Ramadan is over.
4. Ramadan is about community. Actually, I feel that this is more or less universal. All faiths are about community, to a certain extent. In many faiths, the coming together in worship is almost as important as the worship itself. On the days when I was breaking my fast on my own, late at night, I was very lonely. On the days when I broke my fast with others, trying not to overeat, sharing fasting nightmares and discussing the spiritual issues of the day, I felt much better and much better equipped to continue the fast the following day. In Ramadan, as in many things, it is only as good as the company you are keeping.
So would I ever fast again for Ramadan? Not on your nelly. I love food too much and I am much more productive and focused when I know that my next meal is around the corner. As much as I have a new found appreciation for the art of fasting, I don’t feel as though it is as good for me spiritually as other forms of worship. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t experience Ramadan in other ways. Maybe next year I will feed people at Iftar. Maybe I will give some money. Or maybe I will just smile at my Muslim cousins as we pass on the street and wish them a “Ramadan Mubarak”.
SJ Jacobs is a newbie in the interfaith world. They keep a blog at everydayholydays.wordpress.com charting their journey in observing all the festivals in all the major religions in 2015. They apologise for any offence caused by anything, always. It comes from ignorance, not malice. You can follow them on @alltheholydays on Twitter.