Prior to becoming a physician, I studied to become a bioelectrical engineer. And one of engineering's most fundamental concepts is that the true strength of a structure is known when that structure is placed under stress. For example, if a bridge snaps during a relatively light windstorm, then it obviously is not fundamentally sound.


 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.