There’s hidden sweetness in the stomach’s emptiness. We are lutes, no more, no less. If the soundbox is stuffed full of anything, no music. If the brain and belly are burning clean with fasting, every moment a new song comes out of the fire. —Jalaluddin Rumi on fasting in Ramadan.
The blessed month of Ramadan is here again. Hundreds of millions of Muslims will fast for a month. They will abstain from eating or drinking from dawn to dusk. They will stand for hours in prayers each night to remember their Lord and express their gratitude to Him, seek His forgiveness and aspire to come closer to Him. The month of Ramadan is easily the world’s largest and longest spiritual festival. Muslims strive hard in this month to re-sew the torn fabric of human spirituality even as political and material impulses asunder it.
Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam. The Quran instructs that its purpose is to teach Muslims self-restraint. The ritual involves systematic abstinence of things normal to body, mind and spirit. From dawn to dusk the limits are clear: no eating, no drinking, no sex, no fighting, no backbiting, no lying, no anger, no arrogance, no pride, no despair. In this month the sovereignty of the spirit over the body and the mind is reasserted to restore the divine order of things.
The point of the exercise for adult Muslims, who are healthy and able, is to develop a regimen of self-restraint and to inculcate a capacity to, borrowing a term from Plato, control one’s appetites. The hope is that this mandatory regimen will become a habit and Muslims will spend the rest of the year in a state of high spiritual alert.
The easy part of the month of Ramadan is the physical part. After a week the body and the mind adjust and one rarely feels hungry or thirsty for most of the day. The last couple of hours are always tough, especially in the U.S., where the days are long and the fasts last from 15 to 16 hours.
Ramadan is also the month in which most of the Muslim holy book — The Quran — was revealed. To celebrate the revelation of the Quran, Muslims devote special prayers and try to find time to reread it and to recommit to its teaching and its commandments. After fasting all day, many men and women spend two to three hours every night reciting the chapters of the Quran in either congregational or individual prayers.
Muslims believe that Ramadan is a blessed month and the rewards for any good action is multiplied, so much of the annual obligatory and optional charity giving happens in Ramadan. This is a good time to do fundraising if Muslim donors are your target. Islam mandates obligatory giving of 2.5 percent of accumulated or surplus wealth, called Zakat, and many Muslims give it in the month of Ramadan.
The more difficult parts are the ones that demand spiritual discipline. The struggle to control one’s Id, to master one’s anger and pride, to learn humility and to recognize the insignificance of the self in comparison to the awesome majesty of God, are qualities very difficult to muster. Sufis, Islamic mystics, practice self-renunciation as a means to escape the exile from God that life really is, but rarely succeed. It is not easy to become one with God in one month.
The entire purpose of the month, indeed of Islam itself, is to bridge the existential gap between the created and the creator. As long as the created asserts her individual being, she remains distanced from the true Reality of being. The ultimate goal is to annihilate (Fana’a) one’s own self in order to be united with the ultimate and the universal Self. The great SufiIbn Arabi captured this longing for unity with the divine more beautifully than anyone. He wrote in his “The Secrets of Fasting”:
My self, had it not been for you, I would not have been? As if I were Him, were it not for you! Were it not for you!
Indeed the sense of longing for a taste of the Divine is never felt more acutely than it is in the month of Ramadan. In Ramadan, we control our appetite for the created things with the fond hope that desire for the Creator will finally be satiated.
Those who fast with genuine dedication, those who struggle to conquer the self, those who fight to control their bodies, those who give charity and those who exercise humility; they do experience a feeling of cleansing, of purification, which is difficult to describe, but profoundly palpable.
At the end of the month, for some, there is a feeling of lightness as if the weight of impurities that one had been carrying and accumulating all yearlong has been lifted. For others, there is a heaviness in the heart and one prays for one more chance to maybe get it right the next time.
Dr. M. A. Muqtedar Khan is Professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Delaware.