My apartment is located in between three of the area's most frequented bars. At 3 a.m. on a Sunday, I can hear the remainder of Saturday night's revelers as they pass my window; singing, chatting and shouting under the street lights. I've never been much of a party girl, yet I can relate more easily to the 3 a.m. scene outside my window than the one I find myself facing inside. It is 3 a.m. and I'm alone at my kitchen table, eating porridge in the dark. My mini-Ramadan began with a lonely breakfast accompanied by the drunken songs of strangers on the street below.
As Ramadan drew to a close this weekend, many Muslims around the world reflected on the month that passed. I am not a Muslim and won't be actively celebrating Eid this week. Yet I have been reflecting on my own experiences this month. I too have learned a great deal.
I had never really fasted before. I grew up as a Roman Catholic and as a child I'd unwilling give-up crisps or biscuits as a token gesture during Lent. Today I self-identify as a Liberal Quaker and there is no specified imperative compelling me to fast as part of my community's religious experience. As an interfaith activist I have encountered friends from a number of different faiths quietly, humbly abstaining from food and drink. Watching my friends fasting, often whilst they are working and during the long summer days, I have felt a sense of wonder and to be honest, confusion. I found it hard to imagine that going without food could bring me closer to God. Surely it would only make me distracted, grumpy and hungry. This Ramadan, I decided that an experience of fasting was long-overdue. Maybe it was possible for me, a food-loving, non-Muslim, to learn something by taking part in this important Islamic month. But thirty days? You must be joking. I was determined to try at least three.
Sunday, July 29, marked the solemn Jewish holy day Tisha B'Av, a day when many Jewish people fast. This seemed an appropriate day to begin my own fast since I was traveling with a Jewish friend to an interfaith Iftar that evening. My friend explained that in the Jewish tradition, fasting can take on different meanings and purposes depending on the occasion of the fast. A fast might make you feel discomfort as a way of relating to the suffering of ancestors or at other times, eating could be a distraction from the spiritual and therefore it is better to go without food. I listened with genuine interest and tried to understand, but by the end of that day, as I took the first bite of a juicy date, I couldn't quite comprehend that my discomfort had made me feel any closer to the divine. As I prayed later that evening, however, something strange began to emerge. My hungry conscious self did not anticipate subconscious ramblings expressing feelings of gratitude and happiness. I felt blessed for the day, in spite of myself.
Staying with a dear friend for the next two days, I tried to fit into her Ramadan routine. Prayer soon became far more regular than I'd ever known, not to mention it acted as a good distraction from thoughts of food. Going to the mosque each evening, I sat at the back in quiet contemplation, glancing toward my Muslims sisters' as they bowed and prostrated, whilst listening to extracts of the Quran in Arabic; I could little understand it, yet still I recognized its beauty. One thing I love about Islam is that it is a religion deeply rooted in and centered on praying. During Ramadan this is strengthened, as Muslims try to spend more time at the mosque, joining together as a community for the night prayers.
Community is certainly an element of Ramadan that uplifted me. Sharing in the fast with my friend and her family made me quickly feel like part of this small community, not to mention the trips we made to the homes of extended family and the sharing of food at the mosque on my final day of fasting. One reason that I chose to fast during Ramadan in particular, is because in my experience, of all the world religions, Islam is perhaps the most misunderstood and often misrepresented. Last Autumn, I attended a debate on multiculturalism which very quickly turned in to a tirade against Islam. The first speaker set the tone by telling a story of Muslim school children being denied water on the hottest day of the year during Ramadan. The facts of this story remain unclear yet in my experience the younger siblings of the family were beyond enthusiastic about Ramadan. They were learning to fast gently: one day on, one day off. But they clearly wanted to fast. It felt as if they recognized fasting as sharing in something bigger, something that was uniting the family and the whole community. Certainly, I felt united through shared experience. And it goes without saying that I was welcomed warmly (and not without a certain degree of curiosity) when I was found to be a non-Muslim fasting for Ramadan.
Although I only fasted for three days, the experience has stayed with me, so that even now, weeks later, I am still reflecting on that time. There is much to be learned from Ramadan. Not just about the Muslim community and improving religious literacy, I learned a great deal about myself. I didn't know that I had such strong will power, having given in to the first stomach rumble at the earliest opportunity before the fast. Inspired by my experience, my approach to food and eating has now improved for the better. Perhaps obvious lessons I take away include reasserting self-control and developing increased empathy with those who have no choice but to go without food.
As a result of the conversations I shared and through my limited understanding (after just three days of fasting), I reflected that the reason why Ramadan is so special and potentially so transformative is because of the sustained effort and the notion of focus that this both allows and creates. We might try day in and day out to live our faith, to express our beliefs as best we can through out daily actions, but we are human; we will and we do fail. What is wonderful about Ramadan, I think, is that it is a full month out of 12 where one can become deeply self-reflective, to look back on the efforts of the year that has past and look forward to the year ahead. Of course we can be (and one might argue ought to be) self-reflective at any other time of the year. But perhaps the fasting, the sense of community, the shared experience and the self-control presented during Ramadan offers a much needed helping hand. I know that I could use a helping hand once in a while. So this may have been the first time, but it will not be the last time that this Quaker will be fasting.