This is a guest post by Aamer H. Jamali.
Every year around this time, as I begin preparations for Ramadaan in my personal and professional lives, I am asked that perennial question: “Why do you fast?” I am asked this by colleagus, friends, peers, and even myself. Of course, fasting is only one of the many manifestations of the rituals of Ramadaan, but as the most dramatic, it often attracts the most attention. Having observed the Ramadaan fast for twenty five consecutive years, I have answered this question every year multiple times. Each year, however, I find my answer to be slightly different than the year before, perhaps a testament to my changing attitudes, maturity, and station in life.
Having asked and answered this question many times myself, I have also heard a myriad of different answers. On the one hand, there have been complicated discussions on how the fast serves as a nexus between body and soul, an intensely physical act of the body which is meant to affect the health of the soul. On the other hand, there is the simple “because it says so in the Quran”. There was even once an interesting analysis on the importance of periodic depletion of hepatic glycogen stores. However, none of these answers can encompass all aspects of the fast. Just like every facet of a diamond reflects a different color leading to its brilliance and beauty, so too does every facet of the fast play an important role in understanding its importance.
Over the years of asking and answering the question, certain themes have emerged which serve to illustrate the importance of the fast in terms and ideas which are universal and easily understood regardless of culture, education, or religious affiliation.
A real, true, feeling of accomplishment.
The month of Shaaban (the month before Ramadaan), usually passes in a fog. Ramadaan looms in the near future and is coming forever closer. Thirty days of fasting and prayer, during the Los Angeles summer at that– it seems impossible. When I describe it to my friends, it seems impossible even to me. When I lie in bed at night, it seems impossible. As I make my preparations, it seems impossible. And it may prove to be this year, but I doubt it. After all, I have been doing this for 25 years consecutively and it has not been impossible yet. Somehow, one day at a time, I make it through. When Eid comes, I reflect upon the last month and inevitably wonder how I could have done it–it immediately seems impossible again. A challenge of this magnitude, requiring this degree of discipline and sacrifice, and met consistently by most of the community makes other wordly challenges pale in comparison. What can really seem more difficult than the fasts of Ramadaan? With that feeling on Eid, there is a real confidence that I can accomplish whatever I set my mind to. That my success at a task is only limited by the priority I give it.
The priority I give it.
Those people who can fast easily try to tell me that fasting does not affect their daily lives. That they can go on and do anything they would do if they were not fasting. Some even try to convince me that they can accomplish more, because they feel lighter, or have more time. I hope that’s true for them… But it is surely not true for me. During my Ramadaan fast, I have to constantly make choices. I have a limited amount of energy and strength, and I have to continually evaluate my every action to make sure it is something worth my energy expenditure. Or, is it so important that it is worth missing a fast to accomplish? The fast of Ramadaan forces me to prioritize each and every one of my actions with respect to each other, and with respect to the fast itself.
One of my passions is training in the Martial Arts, a week without a training session and I feel a true sense that I am missing something. And yet, is it more important to me than my faith? On any regular day, riding the endorphin high of a great workout, I might wonder. But Ramadaan crystallizes the answer that was within me all along, as I realize that missing a day of fasting just so I can train is incomprehensible. Most of us in the Western world are faced with a very real decision during Ramadaan about how much time to take off from work/school. And the answer is different for each individual. But within that answer lies each individual’s personal priorities, laid bare for them to reflect upon… and isn’t that one of the major advantages of Ramadaan–reflection?
What is it about the hungry state that makes me more pensive? Perhaps, denied of the energy I normally possess, and forced to budget my strength continuously, I turn inwards. The power of reflection is a potent side effect of the Ramadaan fast, if not one of its main intended effects. With every hunger pang or dry swallow, I am reminded that I am Muslim. Not only that I am Muslim, but that I afford this part of my identity a very high priority in my life, whether I normally realize it or not. It seems that the fast serves to throw one’s internal spiritual landscape into sharp relief, to be examined with painful veracity.
Fasting makes me realize that I believe in a hereafter, in a world view greater than Earthly pleasures. Mankind rules this earth. Uses resources freely, hunts to extinction, and dominates his environment and all living things. That is a simple fact. But who will control such a creature? And how? By reminding him continually that we don’t need all of the resources that we use. We don’t need to eat quite as much as we do, or hunt until there is no more. That the hunger pangs we feel for 1/12th of our lives are felt by others for their whole lives. That the world is not our pleasure palace, to spend our days doing whatever feels good at the time and moving on. This constraint on our basic bodily function, self imposed, reminds us continually that it is not all about the “here” and the “now”. Just as the confidence imbued by Ramadaan carries throughout the year, so too does this basic humility.
What’s the purpose of the fast? Perhaps it is meant to be different for everyone, like a Rorschach ink test for the soul. And perhaps it is meant to change over time, as one’s outlook on their faith and their place in it changes. But what is definitely true is that the Ramadan fast holds the potential for spiritual growth for everyone, regardless of age, culture, or level of education. And it also helps deplete hepatic glycogen stores.
Aamer H. Jamali, MD, FACC is a cardiologist in Los Angeles.