By Mike Ghouse, Dallas, Texas
A Syrian baker makes Ma’rouk cake during the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan in old Damascus city September 20, 2008. The sales of Ma’rouk increase during Ramadan.
REUTERS /Khaled al-Hariri
From the moment we are born to the last rites of our life and every moment in-between we follow rituals, though some may deny it. Whether we go to the gym, eat our food, go to sleep, wear clothes, drive some place, in our intimate moments, going to the mall or picking that phone up, every turn and every significant moment of the day is a ritual.
Spiritual masters have captured the human gravity for rituals and have molded it with the art and science of self-discipline in their respective religion. The noble purpose of each one of them was to bring a balance in our lives and a balance with things that surround us; life and environment.
The Spirit of Ramadan
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, intimate relations, ill will, ill talk, ill actions or any temptations from dawn to dusk. One has rise above his or her baser desires. Islam gifts this month to its followers to inculcate such a discipline to bring moderation in their daily lives. 2500 years ago, Buddha, the enlightened one taught that human suffering is caused by unrestrained desire to own and had recommended a middle path.
God has no need for the hunger or thirst of someone who hurts others, violates their dignity or usurps their rights, said Prophet Muhammad (s). 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 tongueâ€™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, 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. â€œRest assured,â€ cautioned one teacher, â€œif you do not taste what it feels like to be hungry, you will not care for those who are.â€
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.
The Rituals of Ramadan
Rituals vary in different Muslim culturesâ€”where I am from, it is Chandni Raat, moonlit night festivities, and it is an expression of joy of people coming together. It is almost like the National night out or the last night shopping prior to Christmas.
For 30 days, with small variations in practices, families rise up early around 4:00 AM. In my tradition, the whole family gathers in the kitchen and participates in cooking the meals and about 5 minutes before the cut-off time, everyone finishes his/her food intake and takes the last sip of the water. Right after that is the Morning Prayer congregation at home or Mosque, then we are free to do what needs to be done.
When you break the fast it is a healthy practice to eat appetizer-sized fruits, vegetables, and refreshments. Dates are the most popular item as it was the practice of Prophet Muhammadâ€™s (s).
The iftar has become a community event, where Muslims invite their non-Muslim friends to join in their celebration of that day. President Clinton started the tradition of holding an Iftaar party carried forward by President Bush. It has become a major social event for the politicians just as it is with Diwali, Rosh Hashanah and other festivals.
At the end of 29th or 30th day, the fasting comes to an end with â€˜Eid, a major celebration where literally all Muslims gather in an open space and pray the thanksgiving prayer for having a blessed Ramadan. It is a day one formally forgives and gets forgiven and starts another year with good will. Every one hugs three times; I am your friend, you are my friend and we are friends.
Though the annual ritual of fasting takes 30 days its true destination is endless. May we always hunger to discover our hearts. May we always aspire to find our balance, connect with each other, open our hearts and minds to fellow beings; the joy that comes with it is ours to keep.
Mike Ghouse is a Speaker, Thinker and a Writer, the founding president of the World Muslim Congress.