The same can be said of human beings. The true mettle of a person is revealed when he or she is placed under stress. That is why all the Prophets (peace be upon them) were so extraordinary and exemplary. They maintained their composure in the midst of enormous stress, whether it was Abraham facing death at the hands of his people, or Noah facing ridicule for following God's commands and building the Ark, or Moses facing extinction at the edges of the Red Sea.
Let us not forget Jesus' response. According to the Gospels, when he was being tortured by the Romans, he said, "Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do." And let us also not forget what the Prophet Muhammad told his detractors as he stood before them victorious in Mecca after its conquest: "I speak to you in the same words as Joseph spoke to his brothers. This day there is no reproof against you; Go your way, for you are free."
In essence, this is what of the month of Ramadan is all about. By asking Muslims to fast for 30 days, God places humans under some stress to see how he or she will respond. Refraining from food and drink (from sunup to sundown) can be stressful for a lot of believers. The first few days of Ramadan are typically tough for me as I walk around the hospital in a near stupor from caffeine withdrawal. Although I can handle the fast of Ramadan, I typically do not fast many days outside of Ramadan because it is so difficult for me.
And what's going to happen when Ramadan occurs in the summer (since Muslims follow a lunar calendar, the Islamic months move back 10 days every year), when the sun sets at 8:30 pm? I shudder to think.
But that's what fasting is all about: To see what the believer does when he or she deprives themselves of the essentials of life for the sake of God. Will he or she maintain their composure, or become a nasty and irritable human being? Will he or she sneak a quick drink when no one is looking, or continue to fast in the midst of a tiring day and tremendous thirst (as long as he or she is not placed in physical danger from the fast)?
And the fast is much more than being hungry and thirsty, as evidenced by this statement of the Prophet Muhammad, reported in the hadith collection of Bukhari: "Whoever does not give up forged speech and evil actions [while fasting], God is not in need of his leaving his food and drink." So if you don’t strive to change bad habits, your fast will not be accepted.
Maintaining your composure in the midst of fasting is a potent exercise in discipline, and Ramadan teaches spiritual as well as physical discipline. Many lessons can be learned from a sincere fast, and the hope is these lessons will carry through the rest of the year. Our beloved nation, in fact, can learn a lot from the concept of the Ramadan fast.
Take the attacks of September 11. It was a tremendously stressful time for the U.S. Never before had our country witnessed such terror and destruction. The county had an aura of invincibility before then, and seeing thousands of people killed by 19 men armed with little more than box cutters was terribly unsettling to our psyche. The 9/11 attacks was the most tremendous blow to our country, a harsh test of who we truly are as a people. So did we pass? I don't think so.
America has detained its own citizens without charge and trial as "enemy combatants." It has spied on its own citizens without a warrant, a clear violation of the law and the Constitution. It has kept hundreds of "enemy combatants" imprisoned for years on end without charge. Our country sanctioned interrogation techniques that are tantamount to torture.
American intelligence officers kidnapped non-citizens and later "rendered" them to foreign countries, where it is likely they will be tortured. Our government has also sought to limit the scope of the Geneva Convention and to use secret evidence against suspects, all the while preventing them from ever challenging their detention in a court of law. Our government has done all of this just to protect American from another terrible stressor like September 11. Were these the right things to do? No.
Herein lies the lesson America can learn from the spiritual practices of Ramadan. This is the time that the U.S. government can learn from the myriad examples of the Prophets. The 9/11 attacks was a test of America's values: When pushed to the edge, will America remain America?
Just as Jesus did not pray for the destruction of those who rejected him, America should refuse to abandon those things that make this country the great nation that it is: Strict adherence to the rule of law, respect for international law, and respect for the culture and religion of others.
It is not too late. America can still change course and come back to the straight path. The damage done to our image and reputation can be repaired. The alliances that have been severely strained can be renewed and re-strengthened. The ill will that we have earned for our actions can be removed. We who love America must do all that we can to help our country abandon the path our leadership has us on.
Our country needs to fast with the intentions that many Muslims have during Ramadan, not only for its own good, but for the good of the entire world.