(Author’s note: Ramadan begins today at sunset – Fasting begins tomorrow. The following column, here slightly modified, was originally published in 2013.)
Dark. Slightly after 3 a.m. Still air, heavy. As I awaken I hear, above the hum of the bedroom fan, faint familiar sounds, echoes, that seem to resonate across the cosmos as the faithful are beckoned to prayer:
“God is Great, God is Great …; Prayer is better than sleep.”
It’s the first day of the Islamic month of Ramadan. I’m up before Fajr, before dawn, to eat a small meal, perform my ablutions and prepare to say my prayers.
Imsak. Start the fast.
Hot. Humid. It’s going to be a long day: 17 hours before I again eat and drink. Fasting during Ramadan is one of the obligatory pillars of Islam, a month when all willing Muslims, if they are healthy and beyond puberty, daily abstain from drinking, eating, smoking and sex between dawn and sunset.
First light. Fast.
Permit me, please, to share these Ramadan reflections: While, politically speaking, it’s often challenging to be Muslim in America, I wouldn’t be anywhere else. The United States is one of the easiest countries to live in as a Muslim. Here, Muslims can freely lead Sharia-compliant lives. No one tells us whether, how or when to pray. No one tells a woman to be covered and submissive. No one enforces the fast.
No one intercedes between me and God.
That doesn’t make it easy. In America’s 24/7, social-media connected, consumer-based society, a break from materialism is difficult, and the journey back to reconnect with the center of our being – our fitra, our innate nature – can be challenging.
Ramadan is a time for the most intimate of dialogues – with oneself, with the Beloved.
Muslims are informed, “It was the month of Ramadan in which the Quran was (first) bestowed from on high as a guidance unto man” and its first verse was, “Read in the name of thy Sustainer, who has created man out of a germ-cell. Read, for thy Sustainer is the Most Bountiful One who has taught (man) the use of the pen, taught man what he did not know!”
Taught man what he did not know!
Each day, each year, each Ramadan, I learn more what I do not know, and while I recognize that God lies “between the human being and his heart,” I learn, too, that grace, forgiveness and love from my Beloved is limitless, and welcomes me back whenever I stray.
Ramadan is the time we are called to return.
The Islamic calendar is lunar. Each year Ramadan arrives 11 days sooner. In winter, fasting days are short. In summer, fasting can last over 17 hours.
Iftar, the sunset meal that daily breaks the fast, begins, in the tradition of prophet Muhammad, by eating dates. Families and friends gather together, Muslims and non-Muslim, and extra congregational prayers (Tarawih) are performed at night.
Ramadan ends with Eid al-Fitr, Holiday of Fast-Breaking, and is celebrated with community prayer and feasting and, as Easter and Passover are celebrated, with new clothes and gifts for children.
Ramadan is a time to fast, pray, reflect and renew. To heal relationships, to try to keep from getting agitated or angry toward others, to re-establish paths to goodness and hospitality.
Ramadan is God’s challenge to mankind: Be mindful of who you are, be mindful of God’s blessings, be compassionate. Embrace truth.
Daily, our thirst and hunger reminds us not only of the abundance, and sometimes excesses, of our lives but of the many for whom life each day is a struggle with poverty and hunger, of those for whom potable water is an unknown luxury, of those for whom disease and illiteracy is epidemic, of those who dwell in dark, desolate corners of our earth.
Throughout the world, especially throughout the Muslim world today, people are consumed by wars, exploitation, conflict, poverty and occupation. Globally, the world is being pillaged for profit, the gifts of the Beloved are daily abused and their beauty forsaken.
I’m in awe of those who sustain their fast under such circumstances. Indeed, how does one making $2 a day sustain a family? How does a community survive? How does one have strength to embrace Ramadan when each day seems a struggle in darkness?
How do we, who live in such privilege, allow that to continue?
As people of faith we put ourselves in the hands of the Beloved; our Beloved puts us, and this earth, in each other’s hands.
As Americans, Muslims, non-Muslims, believers, secularists, atheists, humanists, I believe we’re united in our desire to live within communities where truth, justice and peace prevail.
Ramadan reminds me I have no dignity unless all have dignity. Ramadan reminds me I deserve no respect until all have respect and that I will be hungry until all are fed.
Within the beauty of Ramadan, in the armor of light that is God’s embrace, I pray for the weak, the sick and the marginalized. I reach to embrace the dispossessed and exploited.
Muslims welcome Ramadan. This gift from God, this challenge to contemplate our commitment to our Beloved, to our brothers and sisters, to all humanity and to this earth is a blessing for which I am thankful.
“There’s a hidden sweetness
in the stomach’s emptiness…
“If the brain and the belly
are burning clean with fasting
every moment a new song
comes out of the fire.” – Rumi
With hope, love and prayers for peace,