What Islam and My Muslim Friends Taught Me This Ramzan
Growing up with Muslim neighbours, I developed, as a child, a certain understanding of what Ramzan was about. It was something to be in complete awe of’that’s just how I thought of it, and ‘awe’ is just the right word.
Some of my Muslim neighbours fasted from dawn to dusk for the entire month of Ramzan, even at the height of the searing north Indian summer. This conveyed to me a passionate commitment that they had to their religion, which made them willing to cheerfully withstand considerable personal hardship. Many of them were domestic ‘servants’, who did hard physical labour, often for long hours, even when they were fasting. Theirs was a sort of commitment to God that I simply didn’t have and that I also probably secretly admired. It was a commitment that people in the family I was born into would have found utterly absurd, because, like many of their co-religionists of the same class background, they didn’t take their religion at all seriously. For them, unlike my Muslim neighbours, the purpose of life was maximizing sensual enjoyment. God was hardly ever talked about, and religion was seen as just so much ‘old-fashioned superstition’, which ‘modern’, ‘educated’ people like them had little or no time for.
As I type these lines, I see my neighbor Reshma Ji in my mind’s eye. That simple, saintly woman (God bless her soul) passed away many years ago. I can see her gently draping the pallu of her sari over her head as she readies for iftar. I can hear the tinkle of her glass bangles as she cups her hands before her face in supplication as she breaks the day’s fast. This was almost half a century ago, but the memories remain firmly etched in my mind.
Sometimes, Reshma Ji and her husband Nuruddin would invite me to join them for iftar. We would sit on the bare floor of the kitchen and eat together. Theirs was a simple, blessed meal’for they were poor people’some fruits, a glass of lemon water and a dish of boiled gram.
In the religious tradition in which I grew up, at least as my parents understood it, there was simply no conception of fasting of the sort Muslims observed in Ramzan. The only fast some folks in the family I was born into observed lasted for just half a day, from dawn to dusk. It was observed only by married women, who fasted, not for God’s sake or to get closer to Him or to comply with His will, but, rather, in the hope that it would help lengthen their husbands’ lives. Perhaps not surprisingly, married men weren’t expected to reciprocate this gesture and similarly abstain from food and drink for a day for their wives’ longevity.
When I got to university, I made several Muslim friends. Not all of them were particularly religious, but, yet, many among those who rarely, if ever, prayed, also, like the others, made it a point to fast through the whole of Ramzan. Sharing iftar with my Muslim friends was fun, waiting together for the announcement of the day’s fast coming to a close so that we could set upon a platefuls of ‘typical Muslim’ edible goodies. The hostel authorities were kind and thoughtful. Although only a small minority of the hostel residents were Muslims, they made special arrangements for those who were fasting. That meant, I suppose, that the cooks (almost all of who must certainly have been Hindus) would have been up and about well before dawn, every day for an entire month, making special food for sehri.
One Ramzan, I decided to fast. I wasn’t sure how many days I could manage’I had never fasted before. Perhaps’I can’t really remember’I hoped to fast for the entire month. As things actually worked out, however, I managed just a day, and that, too, with difficulty. Fasting was just ‘too tough’, I told myself. ‘Excessive’ fasting (that is, for more than the one day that I had somehow managed) might cause my already slightly low-blood pressure to further plummet, I convinced myself. Those were the sort of excuses I gave to myself to justify abruptly calling off my fasting plans.
But, as I now see it, the real reason for changing my mind about fasting the whole of that Ramzan was possibly this: I didn’t want to do anything that might entail even the slightest apparent inconvenience or discomfort’not even for the sake of God. Although I claimed to believe in God, my commitment to Him couldn’t stand even the mildest test, as my hurriedly cancelling my plans to fast the whole of that Ramzan testified.
All these years, even while claiming to be on a ‘spiritual quest’, I was really searching for an understanding of God and religion that would mirror my own preconceived notions of what the two ought to be. I definitely didn’t want a God who would make ‘inconvenient’ and ‘irksome’ demands on me’such as fasting or praying regularly, for instance. I was actually looking, although I may not have realized it then, for a god who would suit my own convenience. I wasn’t interested in God as God really was/is’whatever that may be. What I wanted was a god who would conform to what I wanted him to be, a god tailor-made to perfectly fit the demands and expectations I had of him. I certainly didn’t expect him to be ‘inconvenient’ and ‘interfere unnecessarily’ in my life, to lay down ‘suffocating’ rules and ‘restrictive’ laws that I had to abide by. Rather, I wanted a god who would do things for me, and who, at the same time, would make few, if any, demands.
A God who ordained fasting and regular prayer and expected total commitment and self-sacrifice on the part of humans, whom He considered His servants, was definitely not a ‘convenient’ one at all, as far as I was concerned. Such a God was simply too much to tolerate’so I then thought. I refused to accept that God could possibly be this way’as if I really knew what He was or could be. Such a God was just ‘too bothersome’. What a ‘sheer waste’ of one’s ‘valuable’ time it would be to have to worship Him several times a day, I felt. Surely, this time could be more ‘productively’ used’ What a ‘horrible waste of energy’ it would be to fast for days on end, I was convinced. Surely, God would be happier if I ate well and used the energy I derived from this by being more ‘productive’
These were the sort of arguments that I invented to convince myself that God’or so I wanted to believe’didn’t expect me to pray, to fast and to do other such ‘inconvenient’ things, unlike what some people believed. How drab and dreary and fun-less life would be following a God who commanded you to do ‘this-and-that’ at every step of your life, I thought. Such a God just couldn’t gel with the unbridled pursuit of sensual enjoyment that had become the purpose of my life. One could hardly be ‘footloose and fancy free’ and do whatever one liked if one sincerely believed in God as the Lord and Master and of us as His servants, as many religions maintained. Refusing to give up on my untrammeled freedom, and being fundamentally averse to being anyone’s servant (even God’s) and to obeying anyone’s will but my own, I was viscerally opposed to believing in a God who made any ‘bothersome’ demands on me.
That being the case, I was forced to choose to either abandon belief in God altogether or else to manufacture a deity who didn’t expect from me more than an occasional thought, perhaps only when I was in distress and in need of divine intervention.
This, in part, is what drove me to experiment with religious traditions that denied God in toto or had no room for Him in practice, as well as those that elevated Man to God’s position or relegated God to a remote corner in the cosmic periphery. I suspect, though I really cannot confirm, that this allergy that I had to a God who makes demands on his servants rather than pandering to their whims is one major factor that drives many people who join religious cults that deny God or else preach a god who does not require much of his followers other than an occasional nod or a hymn once in a while in his praise.
To justify my hostility to an ‘inconvenient’ God, I invented a host of seemingly clever arguments. As I see it now, this was my way of convincing myself that prayer, fasting and so on, actions in which one’s faith commitment is often embodied, were ‘wholly useless”simply because I didn’t want to be ‘inconvenienced’ by having to do them myself. And so, I decried prayer, for instance, as ‘meaningless ritualism’. If God is All-Knowing, as believers say He is, He already knows what we want or need, and so it makes no sense to pray to Him, I told myself. It was all meaningless mumbo-jumbo, I concluded. And as for fasting, it was ‘awful’ for the body and mind, I convinced myself. It could cause I didn’t know what all sorts of ailments. It was nothing but religiously-sanctioned masochism. It was a ritual invented by crafty priests to exercise an iron grip on their followers and also to fuel fanaticism, based on the principle that the more difficult a religious practice, the greater the devotion to it of the unthinking masses, who equate hardship with true religiosity. And so on.
But despite these enormous mental barriers I had built up over these many years, this Ramzan I decided to fast. I really don’t know exactly why’I can’t fully explain it even to myself. And with God’s grace, I fasted every single day of this blessed month. Can you believe it’! When I think of it now’just a few days after Eid’I can hardly believe it myself! I can only suppose that it was because of God’s blessings that I managed to do so.
I wasn’t the only person in the world who doesn’t identify himself as a Muslim in the conventional sense of the term who fasted this Ramzan, though. You’d be pleasantly surprised’or so I hope’to know that scores of others like me in India did so this year, including a batch of prisoners in a big Indian city. You don’t have to be a Muslim, as the term is conventionally understood, to fast in Ramzan and to appreciate its beauty, as I discovered.
This fasting month was for me a beautiful learning experience. It taught me several very valuable lessons. For one, it certainly disabused me of some of the many prejudices about Islam and Muslims that I harboured. It provided me some glimpses into the amazing beauty of Islam that Islamopbhobia and radical Islamism both work to shut out from our vision. It enabled me to better appreciate why some of my Muslim friends actually eagerly await the onset of Ramzan, which was something that, in my prejudice, I had once attributed to their supposed ‘congenital fanaticism’.
Training yourself to abstain from food even when the stomach growls and rumbles can, I discovered this Ramzan, be an enormously empowering experience. No longer need you be a miserable slave to your bodily or sensual desires. Liberating yourself from these cravings is what the spiritual path is all about’so many religions tell us’and fasting can be a major step in that journey. Fasting can teach you to dis-identify yourself with your body, to go beyond the body to discover who you really are’the ‘real you’. This is what various religious traditions’and not just Islam alone’talk about as lying at the heart of the spiritual quest.
Interestingly, on most days this Ramzan I didn’t really feel ravenous or noticeably enervated, contrary to what I might have expected. But on the few days that I did, the experience was potentially very instructive. I don’t know if I really learned this important lesson from it, but I ought to have’that enduring discomfort is a wonderful way to learn patience and self-control or self-discipline, virtues that you can’t go very far in life without.
Fasting this Ramzan powerfully conveyed to me the worth of a well-known, almost trite, adage: Where there’s a will, there’s definitely a way. If you really sincerely want to do something that’s humanly possible, then, God willing, you really can. Related to this, if you tell yourself something seemingly difficult isn’t really so, it might well turn out to be easy for you. That’s something wonderful I learnt this fasting month through my own experience. Unlike before, I didn’t begin my fast believing that it would be difficult or even impossible to carry on for a whole month. And that’s probably why’in addition to God’s grace, of course’I really didn’t find it onerous at all, as I once thought it would be.
Another amazing realization that fasting this Ramzan led me to was that it is possible to live on two wholesome meals a day and still function well. You don’t really have to binge all day in order to get the energy to do things. At the same time, though, fasting also taught me the importance of slowing down and shedding the obsessive desire to be busy doing something or the other all day. Sometimes when you fast, your body and mind go slow, and that, as I realized, is not necessarily a bad thing, as some might think. In fact, it can actually work wonders for the body, mind and soul. It can teach you, if you are willing to learn, that there are other, better ways to spend the precious moments of our lives than constantly being ‘productive’ and ‘doing’, such as engaging in silent prayer, reflection and contemplation. That’s what Muslims are supposed to do throughout the year, and especially in Ramzan.
The good news that you don’t need to sleep eight hours a day (or a whole third of your entire life) to be healthy was yet another valuable lesson this Ramzan provided me. Spending every day the whole of Ramzan, as many Muslims who fast in this month do, by getting up early in the morning, praying several times a day, reading scriptures and other uplifting books and remembering God (instead of watching TV, engaging in idle chatter and backbiting everyone who comes to mind, for instance) is an excellent way to begin to appreciate the value of time, and to bring order into our chaotic daily lives, so that each day is spent mindfully and meaningfully.
For someone who thought rituals were silly’maybe because I didn’t want to ‘inconvenience’ myself by doing them’fasting this Ramzan taught me to see worship in a very different light. Fasting, regular prayer and other such religiously-prescribed acts, if understood in a proper manner, I learned, are an important and, for many people, necessary means to express their love for, and devotion to, God. They can hardly be blamed’as I readily used to’for the fact that some people turn them into meaningless, mechanical actions.
Above all the many lessons that this Ramzan taught me was this: the need to think of, and turn to, God at least for a few minutes every day. That was something that I hadn’t done for years. Turning to Him meant not just pleading with Him to help us when we needed Divine assistance, but also trying to do what He wanted of us, no matter how ‘inconvenient’ or ‘bothersome’ it might seem’such as regular prayer and fasting and giving of one’s wealth to the needy.
It isn’t that I have reached anywhere near that stage of dedication and surrender, though. It’s all very well and good that I’ve learned, in theory, these many wonderful lessons this Ramzan, but putting them into practice in my own life is, needless to say, quite a different matter.