The Joys and Sorrows of Ramadan

Ramadan has just begun, and I must admit that it starts with no small amount of dread for me. Fasting, an essential pillar of ritual in Islam, consists of abstaining from food, drink and other sensual pleasures from dawn (before sunrise) until dusk.

Because the Islamic calendar is a lunar one, Ramadan travels backward along the solar calendar, and this means that for the next 10 years it will fall during the summer months in the Northern Hemisphere.

That will mean very hot and very long days, and distressingly short nights. I remember Ramadan being in June when I was about 12 years old, and it was hard then. I have since become much older, and thus, fasting during the summer has become much more difficult for me. Last year, when only a part of Ramadan was in August, I had a tough time. This year, all of August is Ramadan, and therefore — although I hate to say it — I am scared.

Of course, if fasting poses bodily harm to a person, he or she should not fast, and can feed the poor instead. In addition, pregnant and nursing mothers, people with chronic illnesses, and those who are traveling do not have to fast. Indeed, I could contemplate traveling the entire month of Ramadan, but I would likely not have a job waiting for me when I came back. And I would have to make up the days I missed.

So, I am going to have to suck it up and fast.

It shames me to admit that I am so scared to fast, because the month of Ramadan is chock full of divine blessings and rewards. The sins of the fasting person are completely erased, and Prophetic tradition holds that there are tremendous benefits for those who fast.

In addition, the act of forgoing food and drink during the daylight hours allows one to reflect upon the lives of the poor and hungry, who — out of sheer poverty — may quite often have to forgo food and drink. My hunger and thirst should motivate me to help relieve their suffering through charitable giving and work.

Moreover, there is a tremendous spiritual cleansing that comes with the fast of Ramadan. More than just depriving myself of food and drink, if only for a few (or rather this year, several) hours, I must not engage in bad behavior. Ideally, I should finish the month a better person than when I started it. Thus, I really should be happy that Ramadan is here, and I should be happy to be to fasting.

But I am not. It is going to be hot, I will have to stop eating at around 4 in the morning, and the sun will not set until well after 8 in the evening. The only saving grace is that the days are getting shorter. Normally, this makes me sad. During Ramadan, however, it brings me no small amount of joy. Yet that is the point of the fast, if one is able to do it. It is a physical and spiritual challenge, and God knows it is difficult. That is why in Muslim tradition He says: “Fasting is for Me, and I give the reward for it.” Struggling a little to fast for the sake of God is the essence of jihad, not violence and murder, as some radical Muslims believe.

Throughout this month, Americans will see Shariah law, which some want to ban, being practiced by the throngs of Muslims in the United States who are waiting until after sunset to eat, drink and be (very) merry. There is no threat at all in this. By making American Muslims better neighbors, better friends, better coworkers, and better people, the fast of Ramadan is only a good thing, for both the United States and the world.

By Hesham A. Hassaballa, a Chicago-based doctor and writer. His latest book is Noble Brother: The Story of the Last Prophet in Poetry

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