Ramadan is like spring cleaning to me: an annual ritual that results in the cleansing of the body, the airing out of the mind, and the beautification of the soul. It provides the opportunity for reorganization and fine tuning of the soul that is needed periodically to remind us of our roles and responsibilities and to commit to a fresh start in our faith. Even though it’s been more than 30 years since my first Ramadan, I still gain new insights and lessons each year.

In a purely physical sense, fasting provides an opportunity to quit or at least interrupt unhealthy habits. Caffeine, sugar and nicotine cannot be consumed throughout the day as is the habit of many people. When fasting ends at sunset, the body craves plenty of liquids and a nutritious and balanced meal. By the end of Ramadan I usually have accomplished a healthy weight loss and improved eating habits. However, compared to the spiritual benefits of Ramadan, this is insignificant.

My first fasts of Ramadan were more an exercise in obedience than anything else. Being a new experience and in the summer months as well, fasting was a hardship that I endured because it was required by my new faith. The Quran, which was first revealed in the month of Ramadan, instructs, “O you who believe! Fasting is ordained for you as it was ordained for those before you that you might attain piety.” (2:183) As required for every adult Muslim, I abstained from all physical satisfaction during the hours of fasting: food, drink, smoking and sexual intimacy from the break of dawn until sunset every day of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar.

My first Ramadan at age 19 was difficult as I did not have the benefit of early training as my own children now do. It was a new experience to me and I was not used to denying myself anything, especially food and water, nor was I raised with fasting being a social norm or expectation. However, I firmly believed in the authenticity of the Quran as God’s word and the role of Muhammad as God’s messenger. I reasoned that if I believed in this, then I must also accept everything prescribed and prohibited for the Muslim by these two sources. I didn’t necessarily understand the reason for everything, but like a child obeying his wise and loving parents, I did not question God’s authority. So fasting to me was an act of obedience, making it also an act of worship, since I acknowledged an order or will more important than my own. If accepting that God’s will is more important than my own is the first step towards piety, then I achieved that much.

For my obedience, I am promised forgiveness and rewards in the Hereafter. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, “Whoever fasts in the month of Ramadan with full consciousness of his faith and a sense of accountability will have all his previous sins forgiven.” It is also said that God rewards every good act from ten to 700 times but He is especially generous regarding the fast. God says, “The reward of the fast is different; it is observed for Me alone, therefore I shall Myself give its reward, for the faster restrains himself from food and other desires only for My sake.” To me this is real faith: adopting a lifestyle that most certainly entails some sort of sacrifice because of a belief in something for which there is no physical proof or agreed certainty. Faith is believing in something more than the here and now, even though it has never been recorded as a physical reality.

Although forgiveness and rewards were certainly enough incentive for me, as I became an experienced faster I began to understand some of the more immediate benefits that a month of physical restraint can bring. When one abstains from satisfying the most basic needs and powerful urges of life all day, each day for an entire month, both in public and in private, one develops a level of patience and self-discipline that cannot be achieved easily in any other way. Many, many times, I have told myself, “If I can fast an entire month in summer, I can do this too.” Indeed, many of our challenges in life are easy compared with the hardship of fasting in summertime, so they, too, can be met with resolve, patience and faith.

I later learned that fasting requires abstinence not only from physical pleasures but also from non-constructive or harmful actions, words and thoughts. The latter is harder to achieve than the former, but without it, the fast is absolutely useless. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) warned that “God has no need for the hunger and thirst of the person who does not restrain from vain talk and evil conduct while fasting,” and “Some gain nothing from the fast but hunger and thirst, and nothing from the night prayers except wakefulness.”

Physically, the faster suffers mainly from hunger and thirst in the first part of the month. Once the body is accustomed to the change, only thirst remains a problem, especially on the hot summer days. Ramadan is unique in that it provides an opportunity for every Muslim, regardless of his economic status, to have a first-hand experience of how it feels to be hungry and thirsty for hours on end. One can only become more empathetic and compassionate towards the poor and disadvantaged, and more thankful for the blessings we enjoy every day. No matter how simple the breakfast meal is at the end of a long day, I feel so fortunate to have to something to eat. As I begin my meal, I pray, “O Lord, for You I have fasted and with your provision I break my fast.”

Some common side effects of fasting are headaches, lethargy and insomnia, although some people report increased levels of clarity and energy during fasting. After years of practice, I experience little discomfort. Actually, fasting in the physical sense is quite easy if you are certain that you will have a meal at the end of the day. There are other challenges for the one who fasts correctly, and they are the mental and emotional restraint from anything sinful. While we can easily ignore hunger, it is more difficult to refrain from meaningless talk and activity, and to ignore anger and frustration when our patience runs thin or when offended by someone. In Ramadan, the Muslim redoubles his efforts to avoid raising his voice or indulging in gossip or idleness, and repents when he slips into error.

It is said that by knowing yourself you can know your Lord. Ramadan is an opportunity to learn more about both. When I try my best to avoid every kind of sinfulness, I become painfully aware of my seemingly incorrigible weaknesses. Even with total concentration and the best of intentions, it is impossible to have perfect conduct and pure thoughts. Acknowledgement of that fact reminds me of a necessary humility and increases my reverence for God who is not only perfect but also compassionate, appreciative and forgiving.

In addition to developing patience and emotional restraint, fasting improves self-discipline and sincerity. When fasting, one has several opportunities throughout the day to satisfy his needs while at the same time maintaining an appearance of adherence o the faith. But when I resist the temptation throughout the day to break my fast, my God-consciousness increases. The fast heightens my awareness of God’s presence and my own need for guidance as I constantly try to discipline my careless nature. I must prove my sincerity with no other authority to check my behavior. I must find the will to obey and the discipline to carry through with my convictions. In this sense, fasting for a month is training for year-long sincerity and discipline.

Once my physical and emotional self was brought under control and well-disciplined for the annual fast I began to experience the real benefits of Ramadan. This is the airing of the mind. When the Muslim is less bothered by the distraction of eating, drinking and casual socializing in his daily schedule, there is more time for worship and fruitful work. I feel Ramadan is a time for spiritual renewal, study and meditation, prayer and increased charity, and not an excuse for over-indulgence in the delicacies of evening feasts and the distractions of excessive social visits. The aim of fasting is not to encourage some sort of asceticism or to develop in the Muslim the habit of swinging between the two extremes of self-denial and over-indulgence. Rather, fasting ideally promotes physical moderation and discipline on the one hand, and spiritual focus and growth on the other. In Ramadan and year round, we should be able to focus on spiritual growth while partaking of both physical and social pleasures.

As I grow older, fasting has taught me about flexibility and resilience. Just when I start thinking that I need a particular diet, schedule and routine to be most productive, Ramadan comes along to challenge me, and I find that I can change my entire day, losing all my routines, and still be productive if not more productive. Although there are obviously exemptions for those for whom fasting is unadvisable for medical reasons, occasionally, I get sick in Ramadan and have, until now, been able to continue to fast. I am always amazed at my resilience. The strength of the human body and spirit is extraordinary when we have faith, sincerity and determination.

Another benefit of Ramadan is the sense of belonging that one achieves. Ramadan is a phenomenon of a worldwide spirit of unity and brotherhood that no other religious or secular concept has achieved. The whole Muslim society, numbering about 2 billion around the world today, joins together in the same duty in the same manner for the same period of time for the same motives to the same end. Ramadan has a spirit that transcends boundaries and national identity. It is an observance of physical restraint for the sake of spiritual growth. Fasting was also prescribed for the followers of prophets before Muhammad as is stated in the Quran (2:183): “O you who believe! Fasting is ordained for you as it was ordained for those before you, that you might attain piety.” My sense of belonging and purpose increases when I contemplate the course of fasting among the faithful throughout the history of the world.

While the most obvious feature of Ramadan is the fast, there are several extraordinary forms of worship and charity that are recommended as well. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) used to recite the whole Quran during the month of Ramadan, and many Muslims try to achieve the same. At 600 pages, the Quran can be completed if one commits himself to read 20 pages a day. Many people offer additional prayers every evening at home or in the mosque, especially during the last ten nights of Ramadan, when Muslims anticipate the “night of glory” which is the anniversary of the first Quranic revelation, said to be worth a thousand months in merit (Quran 97:1-5). Some people seclude themselves in the mosque for part or all of the last ten days and nights of Ramadan to devote themselves completely to prayer, study and meditation. Others perform pilgrimage to Mecca, the site of the first revelation and the first house of worship on earth — the Kaaba.

Muslims are also extra-charitable during the month in many ways, especially by offering food to relatives, friends and the needy. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said that “whoever feeds a fasting person has the same reward as him, yet without the reward of the fasting person being diminished.” Many Muslims sponsor daily meals for the poor in their communities or beyond their borders, which promotes positive relations and helps close the gap between the rich and poor.

Charity is required from every Muslim in Ramadan, the minimum being to give the worth of a day’s food to the poor near the end of Ramadan; this is called “alms for the feast” and ensures that everyone has the means to celebrate Eid, or the three-day feast that marks the end of Ramadan. It is a special time of congratulations, socialization and charity. In all the celebration, however, I have often sensed an underlying sadness. But in light of the physical, emotional, social and spiritual benefits of Ramadan that I have experienced over the years, I understand why people look forward to a month of fasting and why they are so sad to see it end. The real celebration is not when the fast is complete; it begins on the first day and lasts throughout the month.

Ramadan is a month to celebrate God’s guidance and generous provision. It is a month rich with kindness, compassion, tolerance and brotherhood. it is a month that, by depriving the body, enriches the soul.

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