The Long Fasts of Ramadan

As Ramadan enters the summer months and the fasts get longer, the real sacrifices begin. Can we remain steadfast?

This article first appeared on Beliefnet in 2007.

As the years have passed, I have been dreading their return more and more. I still remember those days as if they were yesterday--hot, humid, and sweltering. The sun beating down my head, neck, and chest relentlessly, and the very air I breathed suffocated me mercilessly. And there was no relief until the sun set completely; the last few minutes of sunlight held no reprieve. Such was Ramadan in July and August, and those days are coming once again.

Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, is a lunar month (as are all Islamic months), and as such, it rotates backwards around the solar calendar (which the modern world follows) in 11 day increments. In about 35 years, Ramadan will have occurred in every month of the solar calendar. When I was about 9 years old, Ramadan was in the summer, and we would have to fast from 3:30 AM (dawn) until 8:30 PM (sunset).

Although I didn't have to, I started fasting at that young age in order to participate in the spirit and activities of the month. And it was tough. No food, no drink (not even water) until 8:30 PM. I remember waiting out the last 60-90 minutes until sunset on the couch exhausted (after a long day's play) watching food shows (never really understood why I did that) to pass the time.

Ever since then, Ramadan had been moving backwards into the cooler months with shorter days. The best part of fasting in America was when Ramadan moved into daylight savings time: Poof! The fast was an hour shorter. And the "golden age" of Ramadan was when it was in December, when dawn was 6:00 a.m. and sunset was around 4:20 p.m. The physical part of the fast was a piece of cake, and I would not have to wait very long to have a real piece of cake.

That was about four years ago, and now the physical easiness of it is all over. This year, Ramadan is slated to begin September 13, and sunset will be around 7:30 p.m. at the beginning of the month. What's worse, we will be fasting in the heat, humidity, and won’t be enjoying the benefits of daylight savings time for the next 10-15 years. And sunset will grow a little later each day of Ramadan in coming 10-15 years.

But let’s not lose ourselves in the physical act of abstaining from food and drink. The month of fasting is about many things: discipline, deprivation, spirit over matter, and piety. It is through the willful deprivation of what is normally allowed that the soul is strengthened and piety is increased. Each time I reach for a cup of coffee or a cold soft drink--and realize that I can't have one--I am reminded why I am doing this: For the love of God.

Fasting teaches me patience and to appreciate all that I have, and to realize what many around the world don’t have. And ultimately, my faith in and love for God is increased (that is the hope, anyway). But it is all the tougher when the thermometer tops 95 degrees and the air is so humid you can slice it with a knife. Striving for heightened spirituality and the cleansing of the soul is more difficult when fasting occurs in the summer months.
And the days of summer are so long. Normally, this is a great thing: More daylight means more time to spend outdoors with the family, more time to play golf before after work, more days of going to and coming home from work in sunlight rather than darkness. Yet I must admit, the glorious days of summer are all the better when I can enjoy a crisp, cold 42 oz diet Coke from McDonald's for a mere 89 cents. Take that (and my coffee) away, and the day (with its heat and humidity) becomes all the more brutal and difficult.

And when it is time to eat, it seems that only a few moments pass, and it is time to stop eating again. (There are only 7 hours between sunset and dawn in the summer, and one must sleep as well). I almost want to eat and drink constantly so I can enjoy the very few hours that I can eat.

It makes me think about how difficult it must have been for the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) and the early Muslim community in Medina, who had to fast in the desert of Arabia. Even in the winter (and I have been to Medina in February), the heat of the day can be unbearable. That is the real Ramadan, and we are now getting a taste of what it must have been like all the time for the Prophet and his companions. Fasting in the summer is the ultimate test of patience and sacrifice, and it is difficult no matter which way one slices it. I pray that the reward of fasting in summer is greater, seeing that it is so much more difficult.

Of course, if someone becomes ill while fasting in the heat, he is allowed to break the fast. And if one is traveling, he or she is allowed to break the fast. And if someone can't fast for health reasons, he or she is allowed to forgo the fast and feed the poor instead. Still, these exceptions do not apply to most of us, and thus we will have to tighten our belts and fast through the dog days of summer (and drink plenty of water before 3:30 a.m.).

Anticipating the summer fasts makes me long for those wonderful days of Ramadan during the winter: Even though I hated the cold, it was nice to be able to break the fast at 4:30 in the afternoon. Moreover, our holy month would frequently overlap with the holy holidays of Jews and Christians, and it was a great opportunity to highlight the similarities and parallels of the three Abrahamic faiths. Alas, there are no such overlaps in the summer, and we Muslims will be "going it alone" for quite some time.

But, come to think of it, there will still be an opportunity to share our faith when Ramadan is in August. I’m sure many people will wonder with amazement why I--and millions upon millions of fellow Muslims--are purposefully depriving ourselves of food and drink during such the hot days. "It's the month of Ramadan," I will tell them, and then I will happily explain what the month is all about, and why we are doing what we are doing. That opportunity to share my faith with my non-Muslim neighbors will be very precious to me.

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