City of Brass

City of Brass

Memories of a (friend’s) college Ramadan

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

This is a guest post by my dear college friend, Araven.

Aziz has been my friend for more years than surely either of us can believe. We were fortunate to land on the same floor in Sellery Hall as UW-Madison freshmen. In those days before the Internet, we amused ourselves with Star Trek, midnight games of capture-the-flag, and long talks about time travel and philosophy over pizza. In addition to giving me a reason to tour the UW Hospital’s emergency room after he tried to tackle the statue of Abe Lincoln during one of those capture-the-flag games, Aziz also offered my earliest introduction to Ramadan. Reading his posts here has brought back happy memories for me of college and those philosophy discussions.

Of course, at the time I had heard of religious fasts, but had never known anyone who engaged in them for more than a day or so. I grilled Aziz endlessly about the purpose of this looooong religious event, and why it was meaningful to him. I wanted to know what made the specific timing of eating or not-eating religiously significant. What concrete THING made it ok to eat food after sunset, but NOT ok to eat food an hour, half an hour, five minutes, or two microseconds before that? I wanted to know why there were rules that forbade fasting under some circumstances during this time when fasting was required otherwise. I wanted to know the history of these rules about travel and fasting. I wanted to know what Aziz believed would happen if he broke the rules, either fasting when the rules forbade it, or not fasting when it was required. I asked Aziz all about the history of Ramadan, and how it worked in his community, and how different communities or Muslims of other traditions differed in their observation of it. Aziz patiently answered almost all of my questions, with impressively few “I don’t know’s.” Again, this was before the Internet, he wasn’t finding any of this in Google. Aziz, who was no older than I was, a college freshman and similar to me in so many ways, knew and loved this whole tapestry of history and tradition well enough to address my often-impertinent questions patiently, thoroughly, and with a great sense of humor.

So even more than my astonishment at discovering that Aziz was a devoutly faithful Muslim who had never had sausage on pizza, I was fascinated by the idea of a Star-Trek and Issac-Asimov-loving Physics major being so devoted to this “weird” tradition. Not eating? Extra praying? It was 1992! Most other people I knew then were dismissive of their religions. Youthful rebellion, apathy, or just disinterest was the order of the day at that age. I just didn’t get how Aziz could be so “normal” in most ways, yet quietly, patiently, and absolutely determinedly faithful to the standards and practices of his community and faith. He was a fascinating anomaly.

I’d grown up believing that there was an impenetrable dichotomy between religious faith and rational or scientific thought that would preclude a person who engaged in one from having the other. Aziz was my introduction to the idea of scientific inquiry as religious practice. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has spoken widely in recent years about the need for religious seekers of truth to look at the work of science as it reveals more about this existence we share. Even the folks in Rome occasionally unbend when evidence becomes overwhelming. But Aziz reminded me that early Muslim cultures gave us amazing gifts of astronomical and mathematical observation and thought. Those early discussions of Ramadan that made me notice Aziz as a religious individual spurred many years of discussion on the roles of obedience and faith and free will and doubt and rationality.

So Ramadan in college for me was going with Aziz to the IHOP before dawn so the poor guy could have something to eat before fasting all day. It was debating with him about his bizarre insistence on being a brilliant budding-scientist who wouldn’t eat food during the day for a month unless he had to travel more than twelve miles or a dozen other things that made sense if you lived in a desert five hundred years ago but surely couldn’t apply to someone in MADISON WISCONSIN in the 1990’s. Whatever else has happened in the intervening decades, those times formed my image of what “a Muslim is like.”

It’s not my place to say that “this person is a Muslim” or “that person isn’t.” But my image of a “real Muslim” will never be from Fox News. My “takeaway” from those years of watching Aziz succeed with his Ramadan disciplines is an image of a modern geek adhering to meaningful tradition in the context of a “regular” life. To me that image will always be of a bright, generous, energetic person who is passionate about truth and knowledge, and seeks it in all spheres of his life, just as I try to do along a different path. It’s been wonderful over the years arguing with Aziz, but watching him observe Ramadan in college is a memory I am grateful to have. I wish him all the best in his goals this year!

Araven is a lifelong well-meaning religious liberal who has finally given up hoping that the universe will stop laughing at her ignorance and started laughing along with it.

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