Ramadan begins today, another Ramadan. I’ve been a Muslim for maybe twenty Ramadans, but none of them have enriched me like those first ones in Riyadh. In fact, I actually dislike Ramadan in the United States, astaghfiruallah (may Allah forgive me). Here, in my home country, fasting in Ramadan would make me ill, and I’d hate to admit that I’ve not even tried to fast.
This Ramadan, the fasting day lasts approximately eighteen hours, longer than any fasting day we endured in Saudi Arabia. That’s because of geography. America, especially the state in which I live, is located farther north of the equator than Saudi Arabia, so days are much longer in June, and nights are long in November.
I’ve hoped that as I got older, I might acquire a medical dispensation to excuse me from the fast. In fact, I believe I now have such dispensation, though I have not consulted a Muslim physician or a sheikh, because I am confident enough– some people would say arrogant enough– to decide for myself that fasting eighteen hours while remaining awake and functional would be detrimental to my health. Even the “authorities” of Islam will admit that fasting is not supposed to compromise one’s good health. Certain people do merit an exemption, according to their state of health and whether or not fasting would challenge it.
Nowhere in Islamic sources, however, do we find the instruction to carry on with our normal daily routine during fasting. Correct me if I am wrong. Therefore, while I was in Saudia, I followed the example of the Saudis, who had been fasting for many more years than I had, and who had established the habit of sleeping from Fajr to Dhohr, thereby accomplishing the tricky requirement of keeping daily prayers while fasting, and not taxing their bodies more than necessary. Those who worked during the mornings received an exemption from completing the workday while fasting. During my working years, I was excused at the time of the Asr prayer, and I thankfully went home and napped or remained quietly reading until the time of breaking fast. Fasting is not a pleasant experience, especially during the first days of Ramadan before you get used to it and develop strategies for tolerating it during the day.
The Saudis know all of this better than anyone, but I’ve heard Muslims criticize the Saudis for changing their routines during Ramadan. I, too, used to criticize them until I experienced for myself the wisdom of doing so. Besides, changing one’s routine does not occur consciously. The body responds to fasting by slowing down metabolism, and then consciousness. When a Muslim breaks fast at the end of the day, he/she experiences a surge in energy, a physiological response to an influx of nourishment after the period of deprivation. Staying awake during the night becomes easy, and sleeping during the morning hours becomes natural.
The Saudis accommodated this physiological fact by adjusting their regular daily activities. In the hospital, for instance, surgeries would be performed either very early in the morning or after breaking the fast. Businesses closed during the day and remained open at night until well after midnight.
During the last hours of each day’s fast, Riyadh looked like a ghost town, with only an occasional car, and a rare pedestrian who performed a necessary outing, or people driving to attend breakfast invitations. After Isha, the city lit up with worshippers praying Taraweeh, families shopping and businesses offering sales and new merchandise. By the end of Ramadan, everyone’s circadian rhythm had been reversed. The Saudis knew how to do Ramadan, and I came to appreciate their habits.
Unfortunately, many Muslims think the one’s fast becomes less valuable, or even invalid, by changing the daily routine. These people think that the discomfort of the fast should not be alleviated. Even here in the United States, where very long days and unforgiving work environments make the fast difficult at best, impossible at worst, many Muslims think that observing it brings more blessings because of its difficulty.
Yesterday I attended the Friday prayer at the city’s largest mosque, not our neighborhood mosque. The khutbah (sermon) focused, predictably, on the necessity of staying focused and strong during the fasting hours, and of resisting the temptations of nightly television and entertainments after breaking the fast. Ramadan is supposed to be a time of drawing closer to Allah by reading the Qur’an more frequently and doing extra prayers, and of purging oneself of bad habits. One does not fast only from food and water, but also from all sorts of activities that do not bring one closer to Allah, such as unhealthy eating habits and unproductive social habits.
I left the mosque feeling depressed, as I often feel after such a khutbah.
In Saudia, I did read the Qur’an more frequently, and I made a dedicated attempt to curb overeating after breaking the fast. Reading the Qur’an enriched my faith in some ways but challenged it, or, to be honest, wrecked it, in other ways. Religion, in general, apart from its distinctions, has always produced this dual response in me– an increase in faith concurrent, or alternating, with a decrease in belief. Sometimes, the increase prevails, and at other times, the rejection takes hold. Neither pole is rigidly bad or good, neither is necessary, neither helps or hinders me, except when I try to maintain one or the other. I circulate around and through them, always approaching the middle, and thereby aiming for an ultimate balance, or maybe simply a holding of the tension of the opposites, which isn’t such a simple position to maintain, after all.
A more interesting blog post would delve into the specifics, would produce a narrative that would take the reader with me along this figure-eight of attitudes, and perhaps I will address such a project in the future, but for now, I will continue to write generalized comments, in an effort to accustom myself to writing regularly again. Apart from any religious practice or lack thereof, a regular writing habit has always cleared my mind, set my heart straight, and quieted my anxieties. As for Ramadan, I will go back to reading the Qur’an. Jung’s theory of Synchronicity has shown me that a return to the study of the Qur’an is appropriate now, and I’ll write more about that another time.