Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Ramadan 101: Fasting is Caring

To all, Muslims or not: Happy Ramadan! Ramadan Kareem! As I write, it is the first night of Ramadan here in Saudi, as we have seen the new moon here in our desert skies. At sunrise, I, amongst many other Muslims, will begin the first day of fasting.

Image of new moon: http://www.starrynighteducation.com/stargazer/images/1557OldMoon-NewMoon.jpg

My lovely friend and fellow singer Anna (who is an extremely talented creative writer, I must say) asked me to write about Ramadan, the holy month of Islam. I thought carefully about it for about 3 seconds and then decided that it would be a great idea.

To give you a rundown of the basics, Ramadan is the 9th month of the Islamic calendar and is considered to be the holiest month, as it contains Layla-tul-Qadr; the night where the Prophet Muhammad first received verses of the Qur'an by the angel Gabriel (or Jibreel as he is known in Arabic). As the Qur'an is considered by Muslims to be the word of God, this month is extremely important. It is essentially the start of Islam as we know it. It's when Muhammad's life totally changed, and his lovely wife, Khadeja (obviously lovely for her own character as well as due to her being my namesake) was there by his side, believing in his unbelievable calling until the end of her days.

For many people, Ramadan is the time of year where repentance is necessary, as well as deep thought of Allah (God). My Mom always told me that this was the month where I should ask Allah for forgiveness and for Heaven. Since I was little, I have heard that it is the month where your prayers are worth much more, you are rewarded several times more than you would be for good deeds, and you are purified during the act of fasting.

Fasting in Ramadan means that you eat nothing between the hours after sunrise until sunset. Sunset marks one of the 5 daily prayers that Muslims are obligated to pray, and it is at the call of prayer (or athan) that Muslims break their fast, traditionally with a date. Even when you are allowed to eat again, you are not supposed to stuff your face with whatever food is near; no, you are supposed to practice restraint and thanks first and foremost. It is after completing the sunset prayer (called maghrib) that people usually have a dinner or feast called the iftaar.

Until sunrise of the next day, people are permitted to eat whatever they like. Right before sunrise, people who are preparing to fast eat a meal known as suhur, or sehri (which is what it is called in Mauritius). At sunrise, those who have the intention of fasting need to stop eating and perform one of the other 5 prayers of the day, the sunrise prayer known as fajr. It is at that time when we are no longer allowed to eat or drink.

Some people are exempt from fasting: pregnant and nursing women, extremely sick (physically or mentally) people of any gender, the elderly, small children who have not yet reached puberty, and women who are menstruating. People who do not have "lasting conditions" (this includes pregnancy as well as children) are required to make up those days whenever they are capable by fasting outside the month. They can also provide meals for the needy. I have never provided the meals so I have to be honest: I am not entirely sure how it works. From what I have gathered, you are meant to provide meals for every day missed; enough meals to last a poor person a whole day. I think that makes sense, but I wonder how much food is enough...

For those who have never fasted, you may ask: is this hard? Well, in my opinion, yes! It's not easy for me, the girl who is pigging out right now on chocolate covered espresso beans and who normally drinks a zillion bottles of water a day, to not eat for hours of the day, especially the daylight hours. I adore food, and constantly munch on it all the time. However, I have to say that Ramadan makes you appreciate food a lot more. It is difficult to keep your mind off of it, but what ends up happening is that you spend all of your energy cooking for when you can finally eat!

Sure, this may have been made before Ramadan, but these oatmeal cookies I made, as well as the homemade Saudi Champagne, were simply practice!

Something else that makes fasting easier is thinking about why you are doing it, for those who are a little more spiritual. It seems like something that can't be good for you, but for many Muslims it's a chance to do some good in God's eyes as well as better yourself as a person. A lot of people are pleased to do this because it is what they believe God wants, and they are happy to do something for God. In my eyes, fasting is a way of concentrating on other things besides my terrible gluttony. I can't eat, so I will diversify the use of my energy, and not just to cook like I said above. I actually tend to read a lot more while I am fasting as well as write to take my mind off of things. Fasting also make you think more about the plight of people who really cannot eat for many hours of the day; it forces us to sympathise with those who are less fortunate. It is easier to think about the social realities of the poor and hungry.

I also find it easier to focus on spiritual matters. I don't know what it is about fasting, or about Ramadan, but it becomes a lot easier for me to think about the good side of Islam that I like to keep track of; all the values that are truly apparent in all major religions, like the idea of being good to one another. I think it's the nature of Ramadan to make people want to be kinder and better, and in general to allow more spirituality and heart into their lives. Think of it as the Christmas spirit that you see in movies, but instead of it being for one day or week, it's really for a whole 30 days or so. People are giving food to each other, doing favours for one another, and generally taking it a lot easier on each other, because some people believe acting violently or hateful in the month of Ramadan is a lot worse, and can even make your day of fasting not count.

Ramadan in Saudi is a lot different than in Mauritius. I don't really know what to say about Ramadan in the US because, well, I only experienced it at college and where I went wasn't exactly full of Muslims. In Saudi, people who stay at home (i.e. me and some other women) tend to sleep the day away and stay up all night. This means that you spend only a few waking hours fasting. In a way, that totally defeats the purpose of fasting if you want to take it seriously. However, it is also a coping mechanism during the summer because WOW it is getting hot here. It's 42 degrees Celsius...at night. In the dark. Can you imagine? No wonder people want to sleep the hottest hours of the day away!

However, some people who stay at home are not so lucky. They need to wake up relatively early in order to do that cooking I mentioned earlier! Some of the best iftaar dishes take long hours of preparation and care. For example, making stuffed grape leaves takes a long time and effort to stuff and wrap and boil, especially if you do it all on your own (which isn't usually the case in most homes I know of). It takes a lot of effort, but boy, is it worth it to know you created a beautiful looking (and smelling!) dish even when you couldn't do any taste testing! If it is a group effort, it's even better.

In Mauritius, people who stay home have the same "job" - making sure that the food is iftaar. However, people also take the time to travel around the island visiting relatives they haven't seen in a while. Indeed, Ramadan becomes the month of socialising and reforming old bonds for a lot of people. Visitors do not come empty-handed, either - they usually come bearing food that they have prepared during the day so that their hosts have extra food for their iftaar. Also, people tend to have their iftaar at the homes of different relatives every night, really making sunset something of a religious meeting time.

Speaking of meetings and social events, I have to talk about actual iftaar parties. Some people will go to great lengths to create the best iftaars their guests have ever seen, with fancy decorations and food ordered, cooked, and served in a more celebratory atmosphere. Some people, after the maghrib prayer is over, will turn on the TV, blast the music, and make the feast a feast! There could be dancing, singing, party games, the works. There are people opposed to this because they feel it is unIslamic, or that it takes away from hours of contemplation. The people who have these iftaar parties argue that there should be no problem with celebrating the month of Ramadan the way they enjoy celebrating the most - with a bash people will more than likely remember for a while.

I don't know if iftaar parties are right or wrong. To be honest, I'm not much of a party person myself so I'd rather just eat with my friends and family, then get back to whatever it is I want to be doing, like playing a video game of reading a book. I kind of like the idea that people who like each other are spending time together though, and who knows, some families really need that time together to reconnect. Doesn't playing Super Mario Bros. Wii with the whole family sound like fun*?

I have to be honest, I look forward to Ramadan with the family and my Muslim friends, online or offline. The most important thing to me is that it brings the Muslim community together. No matter what our differences in religion, we're all fasting together and cooking together and eating together when we can. I think that is mostly ignored by some people who seem to think that Ramadan is all about acting more religious than you really are.

The true spirit of Ramadan really is like what Christmas is supposed to be - goodwill towards our fellow man. Sure, we can discuss or ponder religious and spiritual questions, but Ramadan, and the nature of fasting itself, makes all of us fight toward a higher goal or perfecting ourselves. It isn't just ourselves as individuals, either - it's about us as a group of people; us as Muslims, dealing with the difficulty of fasting together and eventually reaching the point where we can break the fast and enjoy food again together. Then, as an extension, it becomes about us as members of humanity as a whole; for we remember those who suffer in lives that are harder than we would ever imagine. We don't just become good people for the sake of other Muslims. I believe that we'd be forgetting Islam if that is what we ended up doing.

*No, no it doesn't. Not to me!