The first blog I read about Ramadan this year was full of the usual self-righteous pontification that takes this occasion to remind people to do such and such at this or that level. Who is the target audience for such an approach, I wondered? It seemed to operate on the basic idea that Muslims will NOT do the right thing unless someone tells them to. Mostly, though I noticed the gloom and doom of it and I decided then to make my Ramadan focus on joy.
First a quick reminder about the basics: Throughout the 9th lunar month, Muslims are obliged to abstain from food, drink and sexual intercourse during the day. It goes on like this for 29-30 days. There are also points of difference about some details of the fast, like how we determine which day to start. Either we actually cite the new moon, go by advanced calculations of the new moon, or some combination of these two. This leads to healthy chaos at the beginning because no one knows when the first day will, be but must prepare in order to get in that pre-dawn meal, called suhur. I say, healthy chaos, not only because I’m a bit of an anarchist, but also because I like that no one has complete control about such an important decision.
Also of note this year, in the Northern hemisphere, Ramadan started just a few days after summer solstice, which means the day light goes for 16-20 hours—in the heat! Some people observe the length of the fast according to actual day light, others observe the length of the day in another sacred place, like in Makkah. Again, no single decision prevails over all others leaving room for diversity and personal conscience about which option.
There are some exemptions from the fast, with days made up at other times of the year for temporary interferences, like travel, sickness, menstruation. Fasting is not obligated upon those with long term concerns like diabetes. “Feeding the poor” is an alternative to fasting permitted by the Qur’an and practiced widely, again in different forms.
I know what that person was trying to do in that blog. Really, I do. You see, Ramadan is like an annual tune up of faith and devotion. More (of the 1.3 billion) Muslims observe fasting in Ramadan than any other prescribed Islamic ritual. There are also additional acts of devotion associated with the month: personally reading through the entire Qur’an, praying up to 20 units of prayer each night, usually in congregation, called tarawih, and putting your own ego in check over anger and other bad habits.
This year, I thought a lot about what I’d like to call “a culture of fasting”. For although this culture is diverse, it is clear that Muslims are conscious that their fellow Muslims will be fasting, even if they do not observe by choice or necessity. In this culture, even a non-faster wouldn’t invite another faster to lunch! Meanwhile to share the fast-breaking meal, iftar, with family, friends, neighbors, and strangers, even at public and commercial places, is one of the most anticipated pleasures of the observance.
I began my fast awaiting the birth of my grandson in a house with several other adults who were not fasting. So I felt the pang of not having this culture of fasting, except with my daughter who was too pregnant to fast. In my isolation, it didn’t take me long to lose my good sense of humor about making my way to the kitchen at 3 a.m. using a flash light. I missed not having control over my kitchen. It was worse than fasting while traveling, because then it is usually only for a day or two.
A week into the fast a new groove is reached. For me this means greater mental clarity, new insights even to some of the same intellectual concerns. Not being bogged down with much food must make a radical change in the body and the mind. For sure, fasting in Ramadan emphasizes the critical connection between body and ritual. It’s not just about how one feels in the heart, the entire body participates so that whatever is recognized, is intensified. The Qur’an says, the fast teaches self-constraint. A solid month-long readjustment in basic habits brings not only awareness, but appreciation.
In my quest for the joy this year, I met a person who made the best affirmation of gratitude I think I have heard in a long time. It showed me up for the complaining I had been doing about fasting away from my comfort center and with no culture of fasting around me. I saw how I had found fault with being alone, wandering around the house at 3 a.m. with a flashlight.
Then an interesting thing happened. A medical emergency in my family led me to a hospital in another city where I had no recourse except to sleep in my car. At 3 a.m. I got a bag of chips and a bottle of water at the 7-11 and began to chuckle: Had I previously been complaining about a flashlight in a dark house while fasting alone?!
Yes, Ramadan can teach us gratitude; but first we might need to learn humility.
I’m thankful for the lesson.
I am grateful, for a lifetime of work towards Muslim women’s freedom, agency and upliftment. I’m grateful for amazing friends in all parts of the world and the means to keep in touch with them. I am grateful for my family, especially my adult children; all kind, decent, and responsible with a spiritual dedication of their own. I’m grateful they are now parents with generosity and compassion.
This month we welcomed a new member to our family. I am grateful for the opportunity to see him come into the world. I wish him and my family, and you and yours a long and healthy life of prosperity, justice, peace and love abundant.
amina wadud is Professor Emerita of Islamic Studies, now traveling the world over seeking answers to the questions that move many of us through our lives. Author of Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective and Inside the Gender Jihad, she will blog on her life journey and anything that moves her about Islam, gender and justice, especially as these intersect with the rest of the universe.