From the moment we are born to the last rites of our life, every moment in between is laden with rituals, even though some of us may deny it. Whether we go to the gym, eat, sleep, wear clothes, drive or talk on the phone, we follow rituals.
Rituals signify the milestones of our daily life. Every significant moment of the day is a ritual. It is an unwritten way of measuring our progression, a memory pattern to bring discipline to our actions.
Discipline is necessary to do things on time, manage personal relationships, drive to a destination or keep within budget. The result of disciplined behavior is worthwhile for most people. When joyous, whether we are a theist or not, we have to express that sentiment, otherwise a sense of incompleteness lingers in our hearts.
The spiritual masters have captured the human gravity towards rituals and have molded it with the art and science of self-discipline in their respective religions. The noble purpose of each one of them was to bring a balance in our lives and a balance with our environment.
Every faith is composed of a set of unique rituals to bring discipline and peace to human life. Fasting is one of the five key rituals that Muslims around the world observe.
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar and is generally observed with a ritual precision; it is an annual training or a refresher. It requires one to abstain from food, drink, intimacy, ill will, ill talk, ill actions and other temptations from dawn to dusk, every day for a month. One has to rise above his or her baser desires. Islam gifts this month to its followers to inculcate discipline to bring moderation to their daily lives. Twenty five hundred years ago, Buddha, the enlightened one taught that human suffering is caused by unrestrained desire to possess and had recommended a middle path, and the same recommendation was made by Prophet Muhammad fourteen hundred years ago.
Although Ramadan is popularly known in the west for its culinary delicacies and fancy iftars (ceremonial breaking of fast at sun down), the spirit and intent of Ramadan lies in a human transformation in a month-long inner spiritual journey of finding oneself in tune with spirituality.
God has no need for the hunger or thirst of someone who hurts others, violates their dignity or usurps their rights, said Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). The fasting of the stomach must be matched by the fasting of the limbs. The eyes, ears, tongue, hands and feet all have their respective fasts to undergo. The tongue's temptations, for example -- lies, backbiting, slander, vulgarity and senseless argumentation -- must be challenged and curbed to maintain the integrity of the fast.
Consciousness of behavior and vigilance over action are the most profound dimensions of fasting: the fasting of the heart focuses on the attachment to the divine. That is when Ramadan really becomes a source of peace and solace, just as Christmas goes beyond the rituals to bring forth kindness, charity and caring.
True fasting is self-purification; and from this comes a rich inner life that bring about values such as justice, generosity, patience, kindness, forgiveness, mercy and empathy -- values that are indispensable for the success of the community.
Knowing about hunger is different from knowing hunger. Empathy is not an intellectual equation; it is a human experience. Our hardness of heart often springs from our distance from the human condition of others. The poor, sick, disenfranchised, oppressed -- we rarely walk a mile in their shoes, not even a few steps. "Rest assured," cautioned one teacher, "if you do not taste what it feels like to be hungry, you will not care for those who are."
For fasting to be truly universal, its benefits must extend beyond the fraternal ties of Muslims and must extend to forging a common humanity with others. Fasting is meant to impart a sense of what it means to be truly human, and its universality is reflected by its observance in Bahai, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Sikh, Zoroastrian and other faiths.
Ramadan will come and go with such stealth that we cannot but be reminded of our mortality. What is it that we value and why? Habits, customs, even obsessive behavior like smoking can be curtailed with relative ease in the face of a higher calling.
Mike Ghouse is committted to building cohesive socities and is available to speak on Islam, Pluralism, interfaith, peace and justice.