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Ramadan Reflection Day 3: An Unseen Sweetness

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RAMADAN FASTING RULES
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Imam Khalid Latif is blogging his reflections during the month of Ramadan, featured daily on HuffPost Religion. For a complete record of his previous posts, visit his author page, and to follow along with the rest of his reflections, sign up for an author email alert above.

This morning a young man in my community called me up asking if he could fast today. He had a doctor's appointment scheduled and we found out that the procedure that was going be performed on him included water going down his throat. This, unfortunately would break his fast. When I told him this he got pretty sad, but reluctantly agreed that his doctor's advice on keeping his scheduled appointment was necessary for him to follow.

One of my coworkers who overheard parts of the conversation asked me if sick people had to fast. I explained to her some of the situations in which a person is exempt from fasting to which she said "He's pretty lucky. It's hot outside." She assumed that the young man was happy that he wasn't obligated to fast for the day, but in reality he was upset. He wanted to fast.

It's hard to explain sometimes why so many Muslims get excited about Ramadan. A couple of nights ago, many of my students' twitter and facebook accounts buzzed with anticipation for Ramadan to begin, leaving their friends wondering how anyone could possibly look forward to not eating or drinking during the day for an entire month. Especially when that month is in the hottest time of the year and the days are 15 hours long.

Most people who don't fast look at it as a burdensome ritual that is done out of a sense of obligation. They don't see it as something that people long for, look forward to, and prepare for weeks in advance to get the most out of it. Our Islamic Center at NYU hosted a weekly workshop for seven weeks leading up to Ramadan that had more than 400 people registered for it who wanted to ensure they were at their potential best for the month.

In our tradition, we don't see fasting as a punishment to the body. Rather we see it as a means to elevate the spirit. The action in and of itself can be quite liberating as it teaches the worshipper about their limits, strengths and weaknesses. You stop becoming a slave to your usual needs, routines and desires. You become instilled with a renewed sense of hope that there is opportunity for you to do and be better; that you have another chance to try to reach your best.

As Rumi wrote,

There is an unseen sweetness
in the stomach's emptiness.
We are lutes.
When the soundbox is filled,
no music can come forth.

When the brain and the belly
are burning from fasting,
every moment a new song rises
out of the fire.

The mists clear,
and a new vitality makes you
spring up the steps before you.

Be empty and cry as a reed instrument.
Be empty and write secrets with a reed pen.

When satiated by food and drink,
an unsightly metal statue
is seated where your spirit should be.

When fasting, good habits gather like
helpful friends.

Fasting is Solomon's ring.
Don't give in to illusion
and lose your power.

But even when all will and control
have been lost,
they will return when you fast,
like soldiers appearing out of the ground,
or pennants flying in the breeze.

A table descends to your tents,
the Lord's table.
Anticipate seeing it when fasting,
this table spread with a different food,
far better than the broth of cabbages.