Why My Ramadan Fast Is a Reminder to Not Be an Asshole
Last summer, my family and I travelled to post-revolution Libya to celebrate Ramadan. I expected, in my naiveté, an experience of Ramadan more authentic than the one I experienced routinely in the U.S.; I expected Ramadan to be more spiritually fulfilling in Libya than it was back home— somehow more satisfying. But I was disappointed to end the month unsatisfied in my search for religious gratification. Fasting in Libya had been too easy.
Libya shuts down during this month. Everyone but the cooks preparing large, decadent dinners to break fast on sleeps in past noon. Businesses shut down until after sunset and stay open until sunrise. You break your fast on carbs, red meat, and a variety of fried vegetables: fried potatoes stuffed with beef piled up in a pyramid, green peppers stuffed with rice and lamb, long baguettes of bread used to sop up oily, tomato-based stews. Everyone stays up late into the early hours of morning, populating the local shops to buy up gifts and clothes for the end-of-month celebration.
There was a collective and conscious effort to pass the time as leisurely as possible; to avoid as much struggle as possible in fasting. It felt like cheating, especially after years of spending lunchtime in Ramadan among my non-Muslim friends carefully avoiding any mention of my hunger, lest I make anyone uncomfortable.
Earlier this week the moon was crescent-shaped, a celestial harbinger of Ramadan, and I am back in the U.S. for this next round of fasting. For 30 days and 30 nights, Muslims all around the world will abstain from all physical consumption from dawn to dusk—food, drink, and, yes, sex. They will break fast collectively on milk and dates. And they will pray, together in their homes and mosques, specialized prayers every night to commemorate this holy month.
Because Ramadan occurs on a lunar calendar, next year it will be earlier in the year, beginning in June. In these summer months, fasting is exceptionally difficult. The longer day spans more than 15 hours. Hunger sets in much earlier in the day, around 10 or 11. If you’ve got a coffee habit, withdrawal will set in around 2 or 3. Fatigue will overwhelm you around 4. You are ready to cave around 5 or 6, but you’ve only got a couple more hours to go. You crave the strangest things, like potatoes and kale (you’ve never craved kale before—you hate kale).
The temptation to distract yourself with Buzzfeed listicles or a Breaking Bad binge-a-thon is great, especially when such distractions are so readily available. But Ramadan is not just a month of physical abstention. Islamic scholars advise eschewing the consumption of unnecessary media during this time as well. Fasting frees up several hours in your day, and these hours are ideally spent in spiritual contemplation. It’s an exercise in patience and a test of your self-discipline, of your self-control.
Throughout the day, you will find yourself dipping into deep wells of faith for patience and willpower. And your body will be dipping into reserves of fat for energy. The toxins in your body’s fat are dissolved. After a few days of fasting, your body sends endorphins to the blood to keep your energy up. Your coffee habit is tempered.
In Libya, the careful avoidance of this struggle—of this battle of wills—results in diminished returns. You’re tired all the time because you’ve slept through your mornings and you spend all your non-fasting hours stuffing yourself with greasy foods. The endorphins never kick in. You crave caffeine constantly. You are sluggish to prayer and unable to focus. You feel less like you’ve accomplished something and more like you’ve cheated yourself out of an experience.
And you have cheated. This year, Egyptian Muslims will be fasting once more in the middle of a bloody conflict between the army, the government, and the people. The Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar will be fasting under the threat of genocide. Muslims in Syria will be fasting in refugee camps. Prisoners in Guantanamo Bay will be force-fed their meals every night. More than 870 million people worldwide will simply not have enough to eat today.
Elective fasting, even under spiritual or religious pretense, seems self-indulgent under these circumstances. To pass the time on the internet or sleeping in my warm bed then seems especially lazy and spiritually disingenuous. The pangs in my stomach are only facile reproductions of what most people in hunger must endure on a daily basis, without choice. If you do not already have empathy for the people in these hopeless situations, fasting will not engender it in you. Empathy is not so easily fabricated. Hunger cannot be performed. That is not what the fast is intended to do.
The fast is a reminder. It’s a reminder to be a better person because I cannot afford to be an asshole. There is not enough goodwill in the world to forgive a middle-class, college-educated woman like myself of being selfish or unkind. It’s a reminder that I owe God for all the good things in my life and that I am expected to pay it forward. That I have a meal to break my fast on makes me exceptionally blessed. That I have the resources for self-improvement makes me exceedingly privileged. That I choose to go hungry for several hours of the day does not make me exceptional. But it can be transformative.
Photo via Flick (cc) user upyernoz.