This month, if you ask a Muslim what time the sun sets, chances are you'll get a very precise answer. It's the month of Ramadan, and Muslims around the world are fasting each day during daylight hours, abstaining from food, drink, sex, and smoking between dawn and dusk.
My wife, Nina, and her family are Egyptian-American and Muslim, and this year I am fasting along with her, for the entire month. I decided to attempt the monthlong fast to support my wife and to share the experience with her family, and I also hoped to learn from the challenge of it. However, I must admit a regular lapse from the strict standards of the fast: I am not quite courageous enough to forgo drinking water. In Islam, there are recognized exemptions from fasting for those who are ill, for travelers, for women who are menstruating or pregnant, and for those engaged in hard labor; one may also choose not to fast, but tradition suggests that you feed someone less fortunate on such a day. Since this is my first attempt to fast for the entire month of Ramadan, I am claiming a beginner's exemption for water drinking.
The first day I fasted, I was only slightly light-headed, and quite proud of myself for making it until sundown. The next day I was tired and cranky, and relieved that this Ramadan began in November when days are relatively short. In the weeks that followed, I have noticed how much I rely on food, not just for physical energy and mental clarity, but for emotional comfort, for a sense of security and stability. I have also found myself counting the days til the end of Ramadan on Dec. 5.
The pre-dawn meal can make the daytime fast less difficult. According to tradition, one must stop eating an hour or so before the sun actually rises in the morning, and so, on a few mornings, Nina and I have gotten up before 5 a.m. to eat while it is well before dawn. This morning meal of breakfast, known as Suhur, has helped me get through the day more easily when I've had the discipline to get up. When we've risen early enough, Nina and I have enjoyed a breakfast of apples, fava beans, and eggs. We have then returned to bed to sleep a little longer before waking and beginning our day of fasting. Whether I've wakened for Suhur or not, when the sun goes down and we break the fast, I am deeply appreciative of the food we eat. Later in the evenings, before bedtime on days I won't be getting up for Suhur, I have caught myself binge eating to carry me through the next day.
Last Sunday, we drove to Raleigh to break the fast and share Iftar, the meal at sunset, with Nina's parents, Aly and Soad, and her sister, Nevine. At the time of sunset, everyone gave thanks. Some spoke the opening line of the Qur'an--"In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful"--and added, "Thirst is gone, hunger is gone, all praises be to God." Then we each ate dates, a traditional first food to eat at the breaking of the fast. Soad had prepared baked fish, potatoes, salad, and red rice, and we eagerly swarmed the dinner table and filled our plates.
As we enjoyed the meal, I asked about the meaning of fasting in Islam.
"The main purpose of fasting," explained Aly, "is to experience the deprivations of the poor. Fasting develops sympathy and understanding for those who live in hunger."
"Fasting also gives us more control over our bodily needs, and teaches us discipline," Nevine explained.
"Yes," Aly agreed, "Fasting helps one develop self-control."
"Ramadan is the month that the Qur'an was first revealed to the prophet Muhammad," Nina said. "I see fasting as a form of purification, an effort to clear not just our bodies, but our minds, and develop a more spiritual consciousness, free from anger, hatred, and negativity."
"So you see," Aly concluded, "there are many benefits of fasting."
Fasting is one of the "five pillars" of Islam, along with the affirmation of faith (belief in one God, and that Muhammad is His prophet), regular prayer, almsgiving to the poor, and pilgrimage to Mecca. Fasting can occur any time of the year, but is especially significant during the month of Ramadan, as are other practices like prayer and the reading of the Qur'an.
One of the most important lessons I've learned from fasting concerns another of its benefits--the strengthening of the bonds of family and community. In Islamic culture, family, friends, and community support and encourage each other during fasting, and the breaking of the fast is an important time of sharing. The last day of Ramadan, known as Eid (pronounced eed), is a special day of prayers, worship, and community celebration. If you meet a Muslim on or near Dec. 5, wish them a happy end of Ramadan by saying, "Eid Mubarak!"
Until then, you can wish those who are fasting a kind and gentle fast by saying, "Ramadan Karim."