When my Lithuanian classmate who sat next to me asked whether I wanted to have lunch one day, I explained to her I was fasting and that it was the month of Ramadan. She gave me a sarcastic smile and said, ‘Well, you crazy people can starve all you want!’
On the way back home, I started thinking of how ‘crazy’ or ‘weird’ fasting could seem to some people, especially those whose lifestyle and culture are not familiar with this practice.
Trying to scrutinize my knowledge and understanding further on this matter, I came to a painful realization that I was not at all prepared to face a world which harbors so much ignorance about fasting. Why had I been fasting all this while? I had no solid answers.
So I studied, read, pondered and reflected. And began confronting the truth.
Many Muslims do not really understand why they fast. If you pick any random Muslim on the street and ask, you might get one of these answers:
1- That’s what I’ve been told, from a very young age.
2- People around (other Muslims) fast, so why don’t I?
3- Hello, it’s one of the five pillars!
4- It’s Ramadan, that’s why!
5- Without fasting, there’s no Eid. Bummer.
6- Just fast and stop asking. If I don’t fast, everyone says I’m a bad Muslim.
Reason Number #1
Unfortunately, none of the above is true. These distorted ideas have been long propagated by some ignorant Muslim societies as a ‘short cut’ to avoid real discussions and easily deal with those who question. Delving deeper into the subject, I discovered that God had answered my question 1400 years ago. In Chapter 2 verse 183, God says,
“Oh you who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that you many learn piety and righteousness.”
So the purposes of fasting were piety (God-consciousness) and righteousness. In simpler words, the objectives of fasting are first; to draw our hearts closer to God and second; to instill virtue, goodness and morality in us.
How can fasting make us closer to God, or teach goodness? Can’t we be religious and good without fasting? People who don’t fast aren’t necessarily bad, are they?
The real definition and practice of fasting extend beyond simply abstaining ourselves from food and drinks. Fasting also means self-restraint, from everything and anything that may displease God or go against the principles of decency. When we fast, we don’t eat or drink except at the right time, we don’t speak except for good words, we don’t perform except for beneficial deeds and we do not allow our hearts to be occupied by anything except for God, righteousness and all that is constructive.
Physically, fasting makes us hungry. Hunger makes one weak and vulnerable. Being in this condition reminds us that as humans, we are never self-sufficient and that without continuous nourishment, we cannot survive.
So we are taught two things: that we are dependent beings with a constant need for a greater power, and how little gratitude we have shown all this while in the midst of enjoying the abundance of food. We eat and drink a lot, but rarely thank the Provider. Often we waste, carelessly spend and spoil ourselves without any sense of guilt or responsibility, despite being aware that millions out there suffer from unimaginable hunger and poverty.
Fasting and Science
Fasting has other advantages. Scientists have long promoted this practice as a way of keeping the body healthy and young. In fact, many doctors say that the less you eat the longer you live, and that occasional fasting has immense health benefits. It is also a known fact that many chronic diseases today are caused by over-eating and unhealthy dietary patterns.
But hey, I am not interested in science as a way of proving the importance of fasting. My previous encounters with similar issues have taught me a good lesson: Quran is a book of signs, not science. Living in a world ruled by scientific advancements does not make us obliged to always validate God’s rulings with science. If God’s commands are compatible with some scientific theories, I would rather take that as a sign of His infinite wisdom, and that the laws of nature surely have no choice but to be subservient to their Creator.
However, if they seem incompatible with each other, be mindful that science and all its theories are never absolute. They change from time to time. Scientists may declare today that drug A is the most effective treatment for a certain disease, only to find out ten years later that it actually causes the body more harm than good. Similarly, who can guarantee that all the quantum physics theories will remain as they are, fifty years from now?
World Hunger and Poverty
When we fast, we are able to grasp the reality of hunger through a firsthand experience. We feel the discomfort of a growling stomach and that desperate craving for something nice to pacify our tummies. We start imagining all kinds of delicious foods as sunset approaches. Does that remind us of someone, or something?
I flipped through few magazines and discovered some shocking facts:
- Roughly, 925 million people are afflicted by hunger, every day.
- The world produces enough food for 7 billion of its inhabitants, but hunger is still widespread.
- In 2010, it was estimated that 7.6 million children- 20,000 a day- died from hunger.
- Poverty is the principal cause of hunger.
- The number of hungry grew in Africa over the period, from 175 million to 239 million, with nearly 20 million added in the last few years.
- Developed regions also saw the number of hungry rise, from 13 million in 2004-2006 to 16 million in 2010-2012.
I closed my eyes and thought of all the innocent children who remain hungry day after day, having nothing left but their imagination of a possibly bright future, the gullible babies who are born underweight because the mothers have been undernourished, the toddlers who do not have enough to eat and succumb to simple, preventable diseases, men who starve in order to feed their wives and children and women who starve to make sure their babies are fed.
Reason Number #2
Had I not fasted, I would not have understood the difficulty and pain of hunger. People may know some facts and feel sorry for the needy, but genuine solidarity with the less fortunate can only be realized through experiencing the same harsh conditions that they grapple with, on a daily basis.
One will not truly understand what it means to be a Palestinian living under siege in Gaza, until he stays there and sees for himself the daily oppression taking place.
One cannot grasp the fear and horror of Syrian children living in trapped districts where bombshells are dropped every few hours, until he goes through similar events.
The same applies to hunger and poverty. Unless we carry part of the burden on our shoulders, we will never understand the grief and torment of starvation and we will not fully digest the meaning of empathy.
So that is how morality and virtue is instilled through fasting. From now on the sight of a beggar will not annoy me, for the month of Ramadan has given me a professional training on what hunger is all about, and how to treat the needy. This holy month has infused into my soul the spirit of compassion and empathy. I now see the have-nots as my beloved equals, not a financial or societal burden as taught in many text books.
Upon understanding this beautiful ritual of fasting and the reason it is prescribed, I feel at ease. It is true that knowledge and understanding gives you the confidence and eloquence to face the world, no matter how ruthless or skeptical it might be towards Ramadan and the concept of fasting. The next time someone labels me ‘crazy’ for showing unity with the needy and hungry, I am more than ready with the answer. But before that, I will proudly say, ‘Yes, I’m that crazy starving Muslim!’
First published: June 2015