11 August 2010

Ramadan's Beginnings

Happy Ramadan, woo! (That’s Ramadan Kareem (generous) or رمضان كريم in Arabic).

I would think that, by virtue of the fact that you know me if you read this blog (although I always hope to reach a new pair of ears with my writing…) then you’ll know what Ramadan is, and that you may have heard that I am planning on fasting for this month. But, I won’t assume anything, and so if you want a short summary of what most Muslims believe Ramadan is, please go here. It’s a little bit out of date, because Ramadan begins this year August 11 or 12 (depending on the country), and will end around September 10, 11, 12. We don’t quite know when because Ramadan is actually the name of the 9th lunar month in the Muslim calendar, and you can only tell lunar months from looking at the moon. For more on this, check out this post on the moon sighting in California.

The most common conversation I’ve had with American non-Muslims when I tell them I’ll be fasting for Ramadan involves one question: “Why?” Most of these questions come from people who have never experienced a Ramadan for themselves, and so they don’t quite get why you would abstain from all food, drink, smoking, kissing, marital sex, etc. during the daylight hours. And they don’t quite realize what a personal question this is… But, protected as I am by the quasi-anonymity of this blog, I will try to answer it here, in no particular order.

A lot of why I’m fasting is because I have a need to make things in my life more challenging. My mind works a lot faster than a lot of people I’ve met in my life, and I get easily bored with my situation unless I’m challenged. So, because I’m back in the US for a month between my jobs in Morocco, which almost perfectly coincides with the month of Ramadan, I thought to myself, why not? I have no good reasons not to fast. But that, of course, is pretty theologically lazy.

Another reason I’m fasting is to be a kind of ambassador for Islam during this month, when a lot of conflict seems to be emerging related to Islam in America. I’m really saddened and frustrated every time I see some bigot on Fox News – or even the regular news – talk about burning the Quran or the violence of Islam or doubting if it’s even a religion. I know that those people don’t know anything about it, and have barely picked up a Quran or even met and talked to a Muslim, so they don’t bother me as much.

What bothers me is the seed of doubt they place in the minds of rational people I know. It takes a lot of time and a lot of reading to understand a religion, even your own, and most people just don’t have the time for that, so why wouldn’t they start to believe, on some subconscious level, what these people are saying? Even a lot of the feminists I know – of which I consider myself one – focus on the oppressive cultural practices in Muslim countries and call it Islam. So I want to be visible to talk about the religion and defend it. Maybe that’s arrogant of me, not being Muslim and all, but that’s the truth.

It’s funny to me that when I tell (Muslim) Moroccans I’m going to fast this year, they never ask why. My friend just said, “God will help you.”

My answer was, “Well, I mean, this is something I am doing, not something that God is doing.”

She replied, “No, I said God will HELP you, not do it for you.”

That certainly put me in my place, but I think it demonstrates two important facets of why I’m fasting: self-control and the search for a connection with God. I feel like the self-control part is pretty clear – giving all that up during daylight while existing in a country that doesn’t take a break for the month is going to be really difficult.

Connecting with God, however, is a personal quest I’ve been on (and off) for a while. Maybe it’s a "mid-20s in America" thing, but a lot of stuff has happened in my life to cause me to doubt. I still consider myself a Christians, but I guess I’m not a great one if we’re being honest. I mean, that whole “Jesus-son-of-God-messiah” thing? Yeah, it’s never been high on my list of spiritual priorities. I never want to say that I don’t believe in something, because that would indicate a certainty that I don’t have. So I’ve been searching.

Anyway, what appeals to me about Ramadan is very well summed up in this blog post:
The month of Ramadan is a time in which we hold our bodily compulsions and instincts under strict control, together with our thoughts and our mental states, our moods and desires. We submit ourselves (our nafs) and our accustomed patterns of life to a higher template, one that fosters a regimen of self-restraint within the body and mind and correspondingly seeks an intensification of the life of the spirit. The body is ordered to fast from what it needs, from what is normally allowed to it, from what it desires, from what it craves, from what it may seek on a whim, and from what it habitually seeks - from all that leads to an intensification of the activities of the nafs.

During the interval of daylight, halal (the allowed) transforms into haram (the forbidden) and whatever nourishes the physical body becomes haram. As for the nafs, it undertakes a psychic fast from anger, backbiting, gossip, harshness towards others, from reaching in any manner through any of the senses towards that which is disallowed. […]

And so the qur'anic command is issued - "...fast until the night...." (Qur'an 2:187) Fast from what the nafs needs and desires. Let the nafs know that there is a truer aspect of yourself, a center capable of overseeing and stabilizing all the intersecting mental systems of the mind and all the material/chemical/habitual/hormonal systems of the body. Proclaim to it that there is a guardian and owner and ruler over the nafs and over the physical form with which it is integrally co-mingled. Let it know that the form and the stirrings of need and desire within the nafs have to submit to this guardian in seeking their satisfaction. The wants, needs, and desires that spring from the material form must submit to the governance and tutelage of a higher form - to the spiritual form indicated by the hadith that states: "God created Adam in His own form...." (hadith)
So what this writer is saying, basically, is that, by denying the self (what he calls the nafs or نفس) of all these temporal, physical things, a fasting person can (a) show the self that there is a higher power in control – for a Muslim (or really, any monotheist) this power would be God – and (b) can, over the course of a month, train the body to exist on spiritual sustenance during the day, due to the lack of physical support it is receiving.

This is a fairly advanced theological concept that I don’t know if many illiterate Muslims who fast would be able to articulate. I do know, however, from observations and from personal experience, that many of them are able to feel this heightened spiritual state. In a majority Muslim environment, this spirituality infects the whole atmosphere, and no one can deny that the nights of Ramadan have a special energy to them.

There are a lot more things that I could say here, but I think that I have summarized my feelings about fasting pretty well. I’m no religious scholar, and I’m sure any kind of skeptic could poke 5000 holes in my arguments. All I can hope is that I’ve offered a glimpse for my readers into some of the complexities of Islam and religion in general.

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