By Marwa Abdelghani
Is Ramadan more than just a month of depriving yourself of food and drink?
Ramadan looks to most people as a month that is exhausting and unbelievably torturous. I can sometimes see why some Muslims complain all day and can’t wait until the sun finally sets. But over the past couple of years, I have come to realize something about Ramadan that is beyond food and water.
Here are 10 things I’ve realized about Ramadan after observing it for many years:
- Ramadan is not about starvation.
During the daytime hours that we fast, we go about our normal lives working and going to school — we just refrain from food, drink, sex, and provocative behavior such as cursing, backbiting, and rudeness.
Stopping yourself from falling into those practices affords the peace of mind that allows you to think clearly and rationally without being clouded by overwhelming emotions. It allows you to be productive instead of spending time thinking about grievances in your life that can make you angry or depressed.
Ramadan is an opportunity to forgive, let go, and focus on what is most important.
- We fast from more than food and drink.
You are really fasting from any intense physical desires. You are fasting from anger, sadness, and frustration. Of course, you cannot control what makes you upset, but you can control the way you react to your situations, and that is what the month of Ramadan trains you to do.
Our hearts are fasting from grieving. Our minds take control, rather than our emotions.
- You shouldn’t feel bad for us.
“Oh my God, you can’t eat for the next 15 hours? Wow, I’m so sorry!” No. Don’t feel sorry. Although fasting can make me sleepy and tired, the return on investment is absolutely thrilling. The feeling of having refrained from activities that usually just feed my ego is very empowering.
Fasting is not just a disconnection between the human body and food. It’s about building a connection between you and God. Between you and your spirit. You are preventing your mind from becoming a slave to your physical body and its desires — that’s powerful.
- Muslims don’t really fast for 30 days straight.
We actually only fast from dawn until sunset. What many Muslims refer to as the “break” between fasting from one day to the next is what I like to call the time of actual reflection. Going on without food and water for 30 consecutive days will drain you of energy. But the nighttime, which is such a perfect moment, is when you rejuvenate and gain back the stamina to think and look within yourself. This is what I believe this “break” is meant for.
- There is a spiritual element to Ramadan fasting.
Instead of thinking all day about the exact second the sun will set and counting down the minutes until you hear the call to prayer for sunset coming from your cell phone, you encourage yourself to believe that this is not about eating. By concentrating on only food and water, you are disconnecting your physical desires from your mind — allowing it to only think of the superficial.
Rather, fasting is a discipline that forces you to forget about food and to remember who you are, why you are here, and what you are doing to be the best possible form of yourself.
- Ramadan doesn’t end after 30 days.
Ramadan is a chance for us to look deeply within ourselves and allow this kind of self-reflection to be carried out into the rest of our lives. It comes once a year as a reminder and as a resource from God, but the opportunities during Ramadan are meant to train you to attain the attributes of self-restraint and self-control that will last a lifetime.
Fasting is also one of the five pillars of Islam. A pillar is something that binds you to God, no matter how distant you may feel from the Most High. A pillar never breaks. It never goes away. It will stay with you forever.
- Ramadan is about moderation.
When Muslims fast for that long, 16-hour day, it is very tempting to see the sun go down and rush to fill our plates with as much food as we can fit onto it. This is what we do on a normal basis outside of Ramadan. The reality is, our bodies don’t even need this much food to survive.
One of the most powerful things about fasting is our ability to withstand long periods of time without food and water, just like many impoverished people go through on a daily basis. If they can do it, so can we. Limiting our food intake is the way to train our bodies to consume only what is necessary.
Feeding our egos with so much of the material world will never give us the opportunity to seek out only what we need, but keeps us thinking we should have whatever we want.
- Fasting is good for your health.
According to a 2007 study conducted by the University of California at Berkeley, alternate-day fasting may decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer, lower diabetes, protect against some effects of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, and improve cognitive function. The cognitive function improvement is what I find the most interesting.
According to Dr. Andrew Well of The Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, fasting is related to the theory of natural selection. “When food is scarce, natural selection would favor those whose memories (‘Where have we found food before?’) and cognition (‘How can we get it again?’) became sharper.”
- Ramadan is the holiest month of the year.
Ramadan is the month that the Qur’an was revealed to the beloved Prophet Muhammad, may the peace and blessings of God be upon him. The fact that an entire religion that more than 1.7 billion people follow was revealed at this time is something worth celebrating. The word ramadan translates to scorching heat or dryness. The Qur’an, not coincidentally, was revealed at a time when the community’s connection to God was dead. It was nonexistent. The Qur’an revived the spirits of the people.
- Not everyone has to fast.
There are many exceptions to fasting. If you are ill, pregnant, or still a child who does not yet understand much about the world, you are not required to fast. Although fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam, God is merciful. Islam teaches that the principle is more important than the action.
Fasting is a choice, like all other aspects of being a Muslim, and the decision to commit during Ramadan comes with the desire to conquer yourself. As Buddha once said, “The strongest man is not one that conquers another man, but one that conquers himself.”