The sun begins to fade behind the hills. We hear the Adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, in the distance, signaling the end of the fast. I take a large swig of water and eat a soft date. The flavors almost feel like shocks on my tongue. After breaking our fast, the Muslim men in our group head toward our van to find a place to pray. As we wait for them, the rest of our group laughs about the adventure we just completed: a foot safari in Malawi. Some of us with no shoes - it’s a long story. We hardly saw any animals, but we did hear the river roaring alongside. I feel peaceful, and perhaps a bit sleepy. The men come back from praying, and we board the bus to head to our Iftar dinner. Another long day, and now, a blessed night.
Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic Calendar and a time of many special traditions for Muslims, including fasting for the entire month. I first learned about Ramadan in high school, when a student in my class observed the fast. After years of studying Islam both in the United States and abroad, I have come to love this time of year. Ramadan is observed by Muslims all over the world, with many traditions unique to nations, cultures, and languages. I remember Iftar, the breaking of the fast, in Turkey - in the massive metropolis of Istanbul, people gathered in city squares around endlessly long white tables to break their fast, and in small villages, families and relatives packed into living rooms, sitting on the floor around delicious stews, soups, and sweets, sharing everything, laughing and chattering. Suhoor, or the meal eaten before the first prayer at dawn, is perhaps a little less lively, but there is something special, even holy, about rising before the sun to start the day. Ramadan is a time to be together with family, in some ways not unlike other holidays we know in the United States: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Passover. This year, I was extremely excited to see signs in a few department stores around Chicago, like Macy’s, sporting “Blessed Ramadan” signs in their windows. This means that Islam is starting to be recognized as an American religion, as it should be.
Something about Ramadan makes me feel particularly spiritual, especially when I partake in the fast. In all of my Ramadan experiences in Turkey, the United States, and elsewhere, the Ramadan that made me feel most spiritual was the time I spent in Malawi with eleven other young people from the United States, Canada, and the UK. We were training as part of a joint fellowship founded by the Interfaith Youth Core and the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, the Faiths Act Fellowship. After meeting together in London for two weeks, we split into three groups and traveled to three different African nations: Mali, Tanzania, and Malawi. My group gathered stories and met leaders working on interfaith efforts toward better health care in Malawi, especially around infectious diseases like Malaria. Ramadan started during our time there, and though there were three Muslims observing the fast, many of us non-Muslims decided to participate. Some of us decided to try and observe the fast daily. I remember the first few days feeling so drained by the end of the day - I felt less willing to chat, laugh, or goof around as I had before. Yet, I felt more willing to engage in deeper thought and conversation about spirituality, especially with the others who were fasting. Even if we didn’t talk about Ramadan, or fasting, or religion - we talked about meaningful topics and issues.
Every night in Malawi, we broke our fast with uji, a type of rice pudding. It was not lavish or overly flavorful, but felt so good running down my throat after so many hours with nothing. I remember one night, one Muslim fellow took his uji and gave it to a small boy playing nearby. The boy inhaled it. My friend asked our group guide if he could have more uji, and soon, a whole group of little boys gathered around to eat. Another night, one of my friends performed the call to prayer, with no microphone or loudspeaker, at a nearby mosque. He waited to break his fast until after he and everyone else had finished praying. Examples of this sacrifice and patience really stick with me to this day, whether I fast or not.
As a Zen Buddhist with a particular affinity for Thich Nhat Hanh’s mindfulness practices, I think Ramadan is a fantastic form of mindfulness meditation. At the beginning of the month, I looked at the clock seemingly every minute, waiting, counting the hours until I could drink water. But soon enough, I felt more content not focused on minutes, but on the people around me, and my thoughts and feelings at that moment. Not taking time to eat or drink throughout the day not only gave me an extra two hours to just “be” with my fellow travelers and students, but the fasting discouraged me from worrying about the hours ahead, because if I did, I would feel the hunger.
This Ramadan season, I have been blessed to attend many community events and Iftars. Recently I attended a Ramadan Reflection at the Inner City Muslim Action Network’s offices, featuring Ustadth Ubaid Evans, who spoke about Ramadan as a time for giving up not just food and water, but behaviors and actions that become obsessive, and inhibit our relationship with God (or perhaps, our ability to live in the present). We must feel a sense of remorse, but not to the point of unhealthy guilt. This teaching reminds me of the Buddha’s final path to enlightenment, when he meditated for days under the bodhi tree, taking no food or water. The path toward enlightenment requires giving up worldly pleasures, not in a dwelling of the past, but in a focus on the present.
American Islamic College’s Annual Iftar Celebration featured Dr. Tim Gianotti, the Director of Islamic Studies at AIC. He spoke about why we should feel hungry - not for food, but for justice, for revolution. This revolution is about the mind. Ramadan is about fulfilling human needs more complex than food and water, like love and compassion. The deep spirituality I feel by participating in a tradition that I have not encountered my whole life reminds me that interfaith engagement not only helps us learn about other faiths, but can help strengthen our own. I remember the simple pleasure of warm uji running down my throat, reminding me to sit with the present, with my fellow human beings, to remember that faith and community can be our strength in a time when we feel weak.
Image courtesy of Flickr.