Remembering Ramadan

The crescent moon signals the start and end of Ramadan

It’s 8:00 PM and I haven’t eaten for 18 hours. The clock ticks down the seconds as my stomach produces unnaturally angry noises, and finally, as the sun sets below the horizon, I snatch a date from my plate and, whispering an Arabic prayer, pop it into my mouth. Allahumma inni laka sumtu wa bika aamantu wa alayka tawakkaltu wa ala rizq-ika-aftartu. A lengthy draught of water soon follows down my parched throat. I’m eating feverishly because I know I’ll be up the next morning at 3 AM for breakfast, and then I’ll go hungry for 18 more hours. Repeat this schedule for 30 days. Welcome to Ramadan.

I’m used to the questions, the gaping eyes, the dropped jaws. People ask me in complete shock every year when Ramadan rolls around: “YOU DON’T EAT FOR AN ENTIRE MONTH?? HOW DO YOU LIVE?” To be fair, Ramadan still isn’t quite at the public consciousness level of Hanukkah, let alone Lent or Christmas, despite the high profile of Islam in general. Since Islam’s public presence is largely limited to conversations of NSA snooping on terrorism suspects and repetitive news segments on the latest violence in the Middle East, more obscure aspects of Islam, such as Ramadan, are often ignored, despite (or perhaps because of) their innate goodness and purity. And however I might feel about the religion itself, I’ll attest to Ramadan’s continuously beneficial effect on me.

First and foremost, Ramadan imparted to me the value of sabr, Arabic for “patience”. By learning to reject our basest desires and ignore the discomfort of hunger, observers of Ramadan are supposed to gain insight on the lives of those less fortunate. For a privileged Amherst student, this lesson becomes more critical to my understanding of the world each year. I, who have always had a roof over my head and plenty to eat in the fridge… How am I going to know how it feels to go without food and water without deliberately withholding it from myself? How else can I learn to sympathize with those less fortunate than I, and find the motivation to help them?

I don’t believe, though, that observing Ramadan is an entirely personal quest undertaken by individuals in search of some self-actualizing life lessons; in reality I’ve found fasting to be a surprisingly communal activity. The mosque in my small, upstate hometown of Watertown, NY, comes alive just once a year for Ramadan, the only time I’d see a portion of the members of the tiny Muslim community of Watertown. As the only Muslim kid in my neighborhood and high school, this meant that during Ramadan, I became a social butterfly, and cocooned myself at its end to wait for next year. As tortuous as it might sound, my month of fasting has been the highlight of each year.

The last two years’ Ramadans, though, have been especially trying for me, for a couple of reasons. The first is that of Islam’s use of the lunar calendar, which is typically 10 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar (the lunar calendar has some uncertainties due to the necessity of actually sighting the crescent moon). This results in Ramadan moving 10 days earlier with each succeeding year. As a result, Ramadan 2013 stretched across the hot months of July and August, when the days (and therefore the fasts) are especially long and taxing.

Secondly, sometimes I question what the greater implications of Ramadan are: the dogma of the faith is unceasingly attached to the act of fasting, and Ramadan cannot exist without a religious structure giving it meaning, right? Does observing Ramadan make me a supporter of other actions that are done in the name of Islam? This gives me pause; I would like to think that fasting is entirely unrelated to, say, the violence that is so widespread in Muslim nations, but both fall under the same theological umbrella. And yet it is shocking to me how something as beautiful and beneficial as Ramadan can be associated with sectarian violence and human rights abuses through the religion that ties them all together. My family is from Pakistan, a nation renowned for its population’s hatred of the US and general issues with violence. To me, Islam is almost inseparable from these problems that plague my homeland, as it is inseparable from the culture of the nation.

As I start this year at Amherst, I know that my family and friends won’t be here to check up on me, to see if I’m really fasting devoutly, to ensure that I am fulfilling all my religious obligations. I know that Ramadan will provide an even bigger test of my faith and resolve than it has in the past. Maybe going hungry can continue to be a solely beneficial learning experience for me, though the fact that liberal-leaning schools like Amherst are often not exactly welcoming to publicly religious practices is daunting. In my first year here, religion probably won’t be in the foreground of my mind, but it’s something I’ll keep on a backburner, always there to return to when I need to examine myself. The pain and discomfort of hunger, like that of critical self-reflection, is one that always sticks.