05 July 2014

The Empty Space Makes the Wheel

"Ramadan is a limited time of spiritually powerful days"

It's Ramadan again, and because it's an "even" year, I'm fasting again. At least for part of it. This year, I am not sure why, but it seems more important that I fast, and I fast well. (Well, except for that time that I accidentally ate a pre-packaged meal with pork in it for suhoor because I was so tired...)

I often face many questions - mostly from people who don't know a lot about Islam, but also from a lot of Muslims - asking me not only what the Muslim fast is about, but more so, why do I fast if I'm not Muslim? Fasting a full Ramadan seems to be this big accomplishment for someone of European descent, but not so much considering the millions of Muslims who fast every year. Why do I do it? To answer that question, go back to why do Muslims fast.

The logistical answer is that Ramadan - the 9th month of the Islamic lunar calendar - was the month in which God revealed the miracle of the Quran to Mohammed. So Muslims fast in the month that is considered so full of blessings, you can almost physically feel them in the air. By switching Day and Night, by removing the mundane and the profane to make room for the spiritual, Muslims believe - at least the ones educated enough to get this deep into theology - that:

As the Taoist saying affirms, it is the empty space of the wheel which makes the wheel. It is only a certain degree of restraint from the material objects of the senses that makes even the life of the senses balanced, not to speak of making possible an opening in the human soul for the spiritual life.

Ramadan is also quite a special time for me personally because the first night I ever spend in the country was Laylat Al-Qadr (The Night of Power) or as I like to call it, "The Mighty Night." This is 27th night of Ramadan in which, according to Moroccan theologians, it is possible that God, through Jibreel (aka Gabriel), originally revealed the first suras (verses) of the Quran to the Prophet Mohammed. I came into the country on that auspicious day from study abroad in Spain, and everything was slow during the day, but came alive at night. That was also my first time in a developing country and walking through the market that night - surrounded by the stereotypical scene of shouting merchants, smoke from meat for sale on barbecues, and crowds of Moroccans taking advantage of the lovely late October night - I knew my life would never be the same.

So why do I fast? Getting back to answering this question, I've developed a pattern of fasting for a significant number of days every other year. I've done 2 full Ramadans, in 2008 and 2012, and I hope to continue this tradition for the rest of my life. Below is my reasoning for fasting as I remember it each of the 4 times I have fasted.

2008: This was the first year, and in learning what Ramadan was really about, I decided I wanted to participate in what everyone around me was doing. I did not only want to sympathize, but, after fasting only Laylat Al-Qadr the year before, I wanted to empathize, and to truly understand what my friends and host families were going through. I spent most of that Ramadan sitting around my house, staying up all night, sleeping until 1pm or even 2pm, and going to L'ftoor (Iftar or Break-Fast) at various houses around my community. It was quite tough that year, mostly because I had no air-conditioning, and the fact that I couldn't drink water made it that much more difficult.

2010: This year I was back in the US, and it was the August between my time in Morocco with NSLI-Y and Morocco Exchange. I fasted this year mostly because I missed Morocco and my time as a volunteer that much - even though I was in Marrakech for parts of it - and because I wanted to see if I could do it in the US. There were a lot of lonely l'ftors that year, but I did manage to have some good ones with my Arabic mentor at the time, and with some volunteer friends who were living in Chicago.

2012: This was one of the best years of fasting for me because again I was in a Muslim country, this time Oman, and this was really the first time I did it while "working" and amongst a group of friend who were doing it together with me. I loved the experience of waking up for sahoor and remembering the peace and quiet and watching the men go to the mosque and hearing the adan (the call to prayer) float in through the open windows on the humid breeze of the Gulf. This was the first time it really meant so much, spiritually. Not only is Oman a country with a very strong religious tradition, but I also spent the second half of the month in Morocco, staying up all night, listening to the Quran being recited in the next room. This was the year I learned that devout Muslims read or recite a 30th of the Quran every night of the 30-day month, and listening to it being recited really showed me how much it is liturgical and mean to be heard rather than read.

2014: This year, I probably will not fast the whole time, but I wanted to fast because I want to reconnect with a part of me that I have set aside recently: the spiritual part, the part where I sit and commune with God. I'm also fasting because it will be easier at work, knowing our IT manager is fasting too. And the fact that my roommate is out and about also, doing his first fast, makes me feel like I have a tiny little family in this white bread town. On the second night, we hosted a few people for l'ftor, and I was oddly proud to be able to serve l'ftor to a Moroccan and when he was finished, hand him the prayer rug I own and have never used and have him accept it without question. I felt like my hospitality was put to the test and I passed, quite high on a scale of 1 to Arabian Peninsula. I'm also still feeling the loss of Youssef (which I have yet to write a blog entry about, but I am planning one) and the posts his siblings make on FB make it all the more poignant this year. I suppose I am looking for a way to hear/feel anything from him, and so being closer to God makes it seem like perhaps He might pass my message along to Youssef, even though in the end, I have the sneaking suspicion that all my thoughts and prayers are going out into nothingness.

And so that is my Ramadan history. A special time, based on the experiences in my life that have coincided with it, and this year will be special as well, because I'm going to be in Lebanon with one of my best friends in the whole world. New Arab country, new experiences, old friends. Again, a limited time of spiritually powerful days.


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