The first time I learned about Ramadan I thought to myself, “Wow, that’s incredibly admirable, but I would never ever do that!” I was at an event at SOAS University and as I listened to Muslim scholars describe their experiences fasting for 30 days non-stop I was amazed. As I wrote about the experience in my journal that night, I had an inner prompting to attempt fasting the whole month. I tried to ignore the feeling but it got stronger. It was the night before Ramadan so I looked up prayer times and woke up the very next day at 3:30 a.m. to begin my first Ramadan fast.
The first three days were the hardest, as those experienced with fasting probably know. I was wrestling with myself – my soul begging my body not to give up. I followed the times exactly the entire month, not skipping a single day even when travelling or playing sports. It was perhaps the most spiritual, insightful, self-reflective, strengthening, and productive month of my life. That was 4 years ago. I have not been as successful at fasting since, but it was such a life changing experience that I have tried to creating a positive Ramadan experience through fasting again (or trying to) and volunteering with Ramadan Tent Project.
When I meet fellow non-Muslims who also fast I am always fascinated by what motivates them. For me, it is to understand the experience. To test it out and see if it will make a difference in my life. I think it truly does because of my dedication not only to fasting, but to ignoring distractions and focusing on spiritual aspects of life.
Cassandra, a Methodist who is heavily involved in interfaith community work, explained to me what motivated her to try fasting during the month of Ramadan. After her first experience trying to fast for 24 hours in her Christian tradition for Good Friday, while working in a chocolate store all day (which she described as, “probably not a good idea!”) she also fasted for Ramadan. It was after she helped organize an interfaith iftar, where she, “…encouraged people to fast for the day and get the idea of what its like, but also to raise awareness about hunger in our communities.”
In her own words, Cassandra explained that, “I had a really hard time getting up early in the morning, like at 3am or whatever time you’re supposed to be up! The whole getting up in the middle of the night to pray and go back to sleep is really just kind of foreign to me, so I think I just have to prepare myself to do that, just say ok, you’re just going to get up, drink a bunch of water, do some prayer, do some meditation, and then go back to sleep for 2 or 3 hours.”
“It is not just me doing it at 3:00 am. There are millions of other Muslims doing this at 3:00 am around the world, at different ‘3:00 am’s’. What I learned is probably that the sense of community that can come from actually choosing to do something uniformly, even if it looks a little bit different with each person, is very powerful. I come from a very loose Protestant tradition, though we try to be free and open, and affirming of lots of differences, we sometimes forget how the uniformity of some pieces actually brings people together, so everybody doing one thing at the same time is a really powerful community builder. I think that just became more clear to me in that time. I don’t know many Christians fast regularly, so to be able to join my Muslims friends in something that is greatly practiced by their community, helps me better understand the tradition within Christianity of doing that same practice. Being in solidarity with Lauren and with the other Muslims that I know is definitely part of it. This is a community of people I can practice this practice with who practice this same kind of tradition.”
Lauren, a convert to Islam said, “I had never really even saw or considered the concept of fasting until Ramadan was approaching and I had already been Muslim for 6 months. I knew that when I converted, fasting was a big deal and was expected and something I would be doing, but I didn’t really pay it much mind. Ramadan kind of snuck up on me. I didn’t do any practicing, I didn’t do any trial runs, so the first time I fasted was the first day of Ramadan my first year of being Muslim.”
“Every time I do it, it always kind of feels like the first time, in terms of the first couple of days, your body gets used to it and it’s a shock for your system. My biggest ‘take aways’, my first time, rather than feeling terribly spiritual, on a personal level didn’t even really happen until several years after being Muslim. I’m just now starting to explore the deeper meaning of connecting with God. I remember the first year, and even now, fasting reminds me what I’m capable of, because its kind of like…. if I can fast from things that are normal, and I can control myself, I have the capacity to have so much more control over myself and life. The way you’re hungry, you’re tired, you’ve been up all night, its hot outside; all if I can hold my temper and respond softly during this period of time, then its something I’m capable of doing always. When I think about religion, the primary goal is to worship God, but secondary is how can I perfect my character and live like a good human being. I think the practice of fasting prepares your heart to be in a state of worship but it also prepares your body and mind and all those thing it takes to exemplify being a person of God or of faith, and I think fasting brings that forward for me a lot.”