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Ramadan and Captain Kirk

This past week, my kids and I have been preparing for Ramadan and watching old Star Trek re-runs. So it's probably unsurprising that, as I rummaged through my garage in search of my collection of Ramadan lanterns, it struck me how strikingly similar the core values in Star Trek are to those of Ramadan. Both Star Trek and Ramadan are all about universal values: compassion, discipline, and the struggle for self-improvement.

Muslims fast for 29 or 30 days, from dawn to sunset, during the lunar month of Ramadan (which started on August 21st this year), to cultivate compassion, practice discipline, and reflect on higher goals. The overarching reason is that of reflecting on and giving thanks to God. And, okay, I admit I always secretly hope for weight loss, too, but that's incidental.

Healthy adults must refrain from food, water, smoking, and conjugal relations during the fast. How's that for discipline? It's meant to be difficult (because it wouldn't require discipline, otherwise), but not dangerous. In fact, those who are sick, traveling, pregnant, nursing, or elderly should not fast.

As for compassion, we all know that others in the world lack food and water, but I can attest that nothing quite brings that home as poignantly as experiencing actual hunger, thirst, and fatigue. Moreover, although giving charity is already one of the five pillars of Islam, Muslims are required to give charity during Ramadan.

Finally, fasting is also about putting aside bodily needs and impulses and concentrating on higher things: self-improvement, reflection, and spirituality.

As I watched one of my favorite Star Trek episodes for probably the 10,000th time this week, I kept thinking about how compassion, discipline, and self-improvement -- the spirit of Ramadan -- were all embodied in it. In this episode, Captain Kirk (my first crush), encountered a planet that had been at war with another planet for five hundred years. The inhabitants had eliminated the bloody, messy part of war by waging a virtual war exclusively by computer and then simply requiring casualties to report to disintegration machines to die. Though their people died, the aliens reasoned, their civilization and culture remained intact.

But why wage a virtual war and not a real one? Because, the planetary inhabitants explained patiently to Kirk, humans were barbarians. Kirk was a barbarian (the aliens said so, many times). There could be no peace, ever. So it's better to just resign yourselves to dying and at least save your buildings.

I've remembered Captain Kirk's reply ever since I first heard it as a kid: "All right," he said, "I'm a barbarian. But I can wake up every morning and decide, 'You know, I don't think I'll kill anyone today. Not today.'" And he proceeded to give the aliens an incentive to stop their five-centuries-old war by destroying their computers and bringing back the horrors of real warfare so that they had no choice but to make peace.

Well, I think that's an apt demonstration of Captain Kirk's compassion (I understandd your thinking even though you're wrong-headed), his discipline (I won't kill anyone today), and his understanding of self-improvement (you have it in yourselves to make peace).

That's what Ramadan is all about, too. As President Obama indicated in his statement from the White House today, Ramadan is about understanding and reflecting on our common humanity, whatever our race or religion. The Qur'an states that fasting is prescribed for us, as it was prescribed for those who came before us, meaning the Jews. Indeed, in the 7th century, Muhammad urged his followers to fast during Yom Kippur, in solidarity with the Jews. This reminds me of Ramadan in 2001, during which Pope John Paul II urged his followers to fast in solidarity with Muslims. Call it karma, if you like.

Although I never saw Captain Kirk fasting, he clearly held a deep belief in common humanity (even with aliens), as well. So as I watch Star Trek with my kids during Ramadan, I hope that this belief is what they'll grow up with too -- a result of their common Muslim, American, and Trekkie heritage.