The holy month of Ramadan ends Tuesday, concluding a month of sunrise to sunset fasting by Muslims around the world. Over the past three years, I’ve participated in the fast for one day in a quest to better understand Islam and the people who adhere to the world’s second largest religion.
Growing up with no religious affiliation, I began identifying as a Buddhist, the philosophy of my maternal grandmother, when I was in my early teens. The world became a much different place during my high school years in the early 2000’s, creating a constant desire to gain knowledge about religions and cultures. Ever since, I have been fascinated by the religions of the world and how they are woven into the fabric of people’s lives and global politics. Misconceptions about Islam and its 1.7 billion followers have led the masses down a path of fear and prejudice. As I began writing this article, I learned that two Muslim men were shot in an apparent hate crime in Minnesota.
Each year, I select a reason for fasting. In 2014, it was to bring attention to the deadly toll Israeli military bombings of residential buildings, hospitals, and schools were taking on Palestinian children in the West Bank. Following the slaughter of dozens of members of the Latino and LGBTQ+ community in Orlando, this year’s fast was dedicated to LGBTQ+ Muslims around the world. I hoped to create a platform for this community who should not be forgotten in the ensuing anger and despair within my circle of friends and contacts. One can learn more about being Muslim and gay by watching the documentary A Sinner in Mecca, chronicling filmmaker Parvez Sharma’s Hajj pilgrimage, his marriage in New York, and the life of a gay Muslim man. His controversial film, A Jihad For Love, argued that Islam and homosexuality could co-exist leading to widespread condemnation from conservative Islamic leaders.
Many foes of the LGTBQ+ rights movement went on camera to show their “support” for the community while using this tragedy to turn the LGBTQ+ community against Muslims both here and abroad. Major media failed to address factors that could have led the shooter to commit such an atrocity, and only a few made an effort to understand the mindset of the murderer and the multitude of factors that could have led him to massacre 49 people. The Daily Beast was one of a handful of major media outlets I came across that investigated this man’s upbringing and the history of violence in his family that likely contributed to the violence that unfolded that terrifying Sunday night. For corporate media conglomerates, assuming Islam is the culprit was the easy way out. Americans and Westerners have been bombarded with anti-Muslim rhetoric for decades. Flowing out of the mouths of politicians, religious leaders, journalists, and on camera television personalities, millions of people never needed to research anything about the religion or the places where Muslims live because everything they desired to know was told to them by someone else. Many have strong opinions of Islam and Muslims but cannot correctly name some of the most common clothing worn by Muslims, nor could many identify the leader who orchestrated the September 11th attacks or find Iraq on a map.
In an effort to learn more about the teachings of the Qu’ran, the traditions and practices of Islam, and better connect with my Muslim friends, this fast represented an opportunity to study Ramadan and share the experience of fasting and the lessons one can take away from participating. Ramadan commemorates the holiest month of the year in Islam when the Qur’an was revealed to the prophet Muhammad. Observing Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam. The first is the pillar of faith, fulfilled by acknowledging there is only one God and Muhammad is his messenger. The second is prayer, where Muslims commit to prayer five times a day, facing the direction of Mecca (in modern day Saudi Arabia). The third pillar of Islam is charity. By giving money, in proportion to one’s wealth, Muslims are contributing to the elimination of inequality and demonstrating that all things belong to God. Those that are financially unable to fulfill this requirement are exempt from making monetary contributions to society and can complete the third pillar by contributing to their community in other ways. Participating in Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca is the final pillar for Muslims to complete. Millions are unable to afford the trip or are prevented from doing so due to physical disability, advanced age, or illness. Therefore, it is not a practice all Muslims will be able to complete in their lifetimes.
During the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, Ramadan begins upon the sighting of the young crescent moon (also called the new moon). For Muslims on the West Coast of the United States, the fast begins around 4:20 in the morning and concludes at approximately eight o’clock in the evening. Depending on where Muslims live, the length of the fast can be vastly different. Many in northern parts of the world, the time between Suhoor, the beginning of the fast, and Iftar, the breaking of the fast, can lead to spans of twenty hours between eating or drinking. Some regions are so problematic with the length of daylight hours, that they have been instructed to follow the fasting hours of Mecca.
While one is abstaining from food and drink, they are also expected to abstain from smoking, sex, speaking ill of others, and committing acts of violence. The violence that has occurred in Turkey, Bangladesh, Yemen, Pakistan, and Orlando during the month of Ramadan has been condemned by Muslims for being inherently un-Islamic. As Muslim leaders in the United States announced in the wake of the Orlando shooting, the taking of human life is equivalent to killing all of humanity according to the teachings of the Qu’ran.
While abstaining from food and drink was manageable, trying not to lose my notoriously short temper was a spectacular failure. Ramadan is a time to learn about oneself as much as it is about dedication to faith. It becomes a period of growth for many, including myself. A very patient friend guided me through these past few years and my bizarre questions about fasting and when exceptions are made. Like when the heat index in an Iranian city hit 165 degrees (the second highest in recorded history), I spent five minutes peppering him with questions about whether religious edicts, or fatwas, were issued to allow people to drink water so they didn’t die. He calmly explained that there is always room for forgiveness from Allah for breaking the teachings of the Qu’ran, especially in extenuating circumstances. He explained that some people take advantage of it so they can justify the consumption of alcohol or other forbidden food and drink.
The most difficult part of the fast for me was getting up at four in the morning to eat Suhoor and drink enough coffee to get me through the day without having a complete meltdown. I had eggs and yogurt with chia seeds to help minimize the hunger pains that would come later. The imminent caffeine withdrawal was a pervasive thought throughout the day. My temper was seriously tested when the dull pain developed in my brain later in the afternoon. There were fewer reminders not to mindlessly have a glass of water than in past years. A sign that my mind and body are becoming more comfortable with the fast. Being around young children for hours without coffee was a challenge unlike anything I have experienced in recent memory. But it was also a test in patience and empathy courtesy of my friend’s kids. As the day wore on, my thirst became something I couldn’t ignore. Like a child eager to get out of the classroom for the day, I counted down the hours until I could cleanse my dehydrating body with cold water. The taste of tap water never felt so good until one has gone sixteen hours without it. For the sake of my dinner companions, I did succumb to nighttime caffeine consumption and drank an iced coffee at a local Thai restaurant where we had congregated for Iftar. As my friend said the evening prayer, known as Maghrib, I thought about the day’s events and the lessons that arose throughout the fast. As he and I have discussed for years, we recognize that so many people experience this hardship on a daily basis. Having enough to eat, clean and plentiful water, are things we should be grateful for everyday. Ramadan emphasizes that gratitude.
Like any religion or philosophy, Islam has its problematic aspects. For a progressive feminist like myself, I don’t ignore that Muslim women in many countries throughout the world are severely oppressed groups of people. The fear of Islam, driven by ignorance, is partially what drove me to write this piece. That there are bad people of all faiths, and bad people of no faith. But the religion is often not the catalyst for violence, that politics, power, and greed are huge contributors to what is happening in the world today. By understanding, communicating, and being in a constant state of learning, we can better understand the world we live in, why things happen where they do, and lead humanity toward a more peaceful existence.
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