Our environment is more than trees, water, land, and air. It is a sense of peace, an understanding of our place in our society. It sustains our satisfaction in life and our interest in caring for the life around us. Recognizing the sustaining forces that make up our environment sometimes requires a time of deep introspection.
Few practices in the human repertoire can guide us to deep introspection like the profound practice of fasting in the holy month of Ramadan. For one full month in every year, fasting is required for Muslims all over the world. The day-long fasting process in Ramadan has the ability to modify behaviors and shape life patterns in ways that improve our entire environment. Focusing on an empty stomach inspires incredibly rich perception of the internal forces sustaining us and our environment.
Fasting as Defined in Islam
“Fasting” is defined in Islam as abstaining from foods, drinks, sexual intercourse, gossip, arguments, physical violence, and all toxic or addicting substances, from before the break of dawn until sunset, every day during the entire month of Ramadan. Islam follows a lunar calendar, with the result that Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic year, revolves around the solar calendar, every year arriving 11 days earlier than the previous year.
My first year of fasting was in the shortest days of winter. Now, fifteen years later, Ramadan has arrived in the longest days of summer. As the lunar months keep rotating around the year, so Muslims all over the world face some months of relatively easier fasting, and some months of strenuous striving to keep their fast.
“Fasting is one half of patience.” — The Prophet Muhammad
Unless converting to Islam at a later age, Muslims begin fasting at the age of puberty. Patience is the first test, arriving with the self-pitying pains of self-deprivation. We learn to endure them patiently, handling hunger because we have no other choice. The early recognition of this cycle by an adolescent Muslim is priceless, an internal guidance system that ideally recycles beneficially every year for a lifetime. With the arrival of Ramadan comes a compelling shift towards equality and social compassion.
We learn on the first day what it feels like to be hungry, but as the days go by, we learn what it really means to live without food. A little self-deprivation inspires great compassion in us for the truly hungry people of the world.
Disintegrating the Barrier between Rich and Poor
The social barrier between rich and poor disintegrates when the rich are suffering hunger pains no different from their poorer neighbors. For an entire month the fasting Muslim is reduced to two meals a day. Perhaps the food on the table will be different for each, but the experience is equally trying.
The dark hour before dawn is not exceptionally conducive to preparing and eating big meals. Likewise, traversing a long hot day with an empty stomach and thick, sticky tongue leaves us breaking our fast with more thirst than hunger. Three cups of cold water and a couple of dates suddenly become amazingly satisfying.
Fasting clearly encourages us to feed the hungry and help the poor, especially in the month of Ramadan, when even if the person, due to medical or other reasons, is unable to fast, the substitute for fasting is to feed a poor person for each day of fasting missed:
“…And upon those who are able (to fast, but only with hardship), a ransom (as substitute) of feeding a poor person (each day). And whoever volunteers extra — it is better for him. But to fast is best for you, if you only knew.” [Quran 2:184]
God Loves to Strengthen the Weak
Hungry people lose pride fast when they find themselves weak. But God loves to strengthen us when we turn to Him for help. When we find ourselves coping better with the weakness of hunger, we truly feel the loving mercy of God. In these ways, fasting restores the relationship between us and God, strengthening our sense of gratitude. Fasting guides us to authenticity by pulling the rug out from under our false pride and hypocrisies. We used to say we cared about poor, hungry people, but now, after fasting a few long, hot days, we really mean it!
Fasting teaches us moral discipline. We could easily sneak a drink or a bite of something when no one is watching. But the striving for blessings available to us in Ramadan comes from the sincere desire to please God. We feel His nearness so strongly when we are weak with hunger, it is as though a higher state of consciousness is strengthening us, instead of food. God says:
“He abandons his (sexual) desire, food and drink for Me.”
“Fasting is for Me, and I will reward for it accordingly.” [-Allah, as quoted by the Prophet Muhammad (SAW)]
Fasting Recalibrates Our Conscience
With this daily perception of God’s nearness, the balance between right and wrong recalibrates our conscience. Right decisions become easier, even when it means we may have to suffer hardship or inconvenience. Our personalities and characters adapt to this stronger sense of right and wrong. This is the best time for personal correction. The courage that comes with overcoming hardship often inspires us to break bad habits that we were unable to deal with previously.
Ramadan is a time of correcting bad behaviors, because fasting for us means abstaining from them as well as food. Abstaining from food is useless if we do not also reduce bad behaviors.
“If a person does not keep away from falsehood and false conduct, Allah has no need of his fast.”[-The Prophet Muhammad (SAW)]
“Fast and you shall attain good health.” — The Prophet Muhammad (SAW)
Good health is not just physical, although the physical benefits of fasting are well documented. Giving the digestive system a rest has a purgative effect on the body, cleansing our system of toxins. After sleeping, we wake refreshed, undertaking our work with renewed ability, and the digestive system benefits in this same manner.
While Muslims don’t fast specifically for dietary benefit, our spiritual benefit is improved with healthy brain functions as a result of caloric restriction to maintain good physical health. Fasting adds so much healthful benefit, it is difficult to underestimate all the advantages.
Fasting Institutes a New Economy
Suddenly we see how much food we never really needed. Needs become clearly separated from wants, and shines a whole new light on our food budget. Restaurants aren’t typically open in the dark hour before dawn either, so cooking at home becomes more regular in Ramadan.
Sleep typically becomes disrupted, and we find ourselves pushing strongly on our self-discipline to get things done at strange hours of the night or day. Days become more constructive when the hours aren’t being gobbled up by food-centered activities. Whole new ways of life suddenly manifest themselves in the month-long practice of fasting.
Time sets new patterns during Ramadan, too. Before the first note of the sunset call to prayer, everyone in the house suddenly materializes at the dinner table. Work schedules, ball games, music lessons, all activities suddenly become subservient to the time of sunset. Entire families find themselves enjoying dinner together for an entire month. When the sun goes down on a house full of Muslims breaking their fast, big families really shine with delight and gratitude.
God’s Favorite Instrument of Peace is the Family
Of course, closer interaction with family members and neighbors can sometimes be stressful. This is another blessing of Ramadan, preparing us for difficulties so that when they occur we have the means to avoid them. The family is God’s favorite instrument of peace. If we didn’t learn to get along with our family members, perhaps there would be no peace on earth anywhere.
Screaming for food works for infants, but it doesn’t go over well at the dinner table, so bad behaviors get curbed among loving family members starting from a fairly young age. Ramadan reinforces this sense of family diplomacy, annually requiring fasters to maintain good manners, even in the face of stressful conditions:
“If someone tries to pick a quarrel with a Muslim who is fasting, he is to control himself and reply, ‘I am fasting’.”[-The Prophet Muhammad (SAW)]
Ramadan’s Reflection in the Pool of Our Earthly Environment
Family, friends, and neighbors all commonly increase their interactions, sharing in the spirit of bonding that Ramadan inspires. Community bonds are strengthened in this great time of sharing. From the first reflection of the new moon in the sparkling pool of our earthly environment, ripples extend from the soul of each person fasting in Ramadan.
From the well of our deep personal introspection, good behaviors bubble up to the surface and ripple outward, overlapping with the gentle ripples of others. Our livelihoods, our neighborhoods, in fact our entire environment, benefits from this beautiful practice, because peace and goodwill achieve a higher meaning and strive for higher goals when sustained by the spiritual discipline of annual fasting.