Idaho faith: With fasting during Ramadan, Muslims soften their hearts, learn empathy

This year, Muslims all over the Treasure Valley are fasting the lunar month of Ramadan, which happens to straddle April and May. As in every year, Muslims fast from dawn to dusk, abstaining from food and drink during daylight hours.

Fasting for Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam. This divine institution is ordained in the Quran, Verse 2:183: “O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that you may (learn) self-restraint.”

In this verse, the Quran refers to the People of the Book (mainly Jews and Christians) who preceded Muslims with their own rites and rituals. The verse then explains the purpose of this period of abstinence as a training for self-control and self-restraint.

To explain the Islamic fast, it is useful to distinguish between two phases during the month of Ramadan. The first phase is an adaptation phase, which may be considered the hardest since it involves an overnight change of lifestyle. A fasting person suddenly shifts from a lifestyle of regularly spaced meals to one of rigor and diet. After about 10 days, the body becomes accustomed to this new lifestyle and begins an equilibrium phase lasting about 20 days.

Children, nursing women, the elderly and those with chronic health problems are exempted from this fast. The traditional way of acquitting oneself from this religious obligation is to feed one poor person every day at the “iftar” time — that is, at the time of breaking fast.

A more convenient way is to pay the monetary equivalent of an iftar to the local mosque, which will use it to feed poor people.

Travelers are also exempted from fasting provided they make up for the lost days later.

To make the fast less arduous and safer for the body, Muslims are urged to eat a predawn meal called the suhur. This small meal is a notable difference from the fast of other People of the Book, which could last 24 hours, from one sunset to the next.

One of my fondest memories is recalling my mother waking me up to eat the suhur in the middle of the night. I would stumble to the kitchen table, half asleep. There, in the company of other members of my family, we would eat silently in the quiet stillness of the night. I am now more grateful than ever for my mother’s compassion for waking me up, even if my body wanted to remain asleep.

During the day, a fasting person mobilizes their senses to be extra careful with behavior. We commonly use a metaphor to say that all of the senses are fasting. For example, a Muslim strives to guard their tongue from using offensive language and closes their ears to senseless speech by leaving the company of those who engage in it.

Acts of anger are strictly avoided, as they may nullify the fast. The traditional response to an act of provocation during the day is to say twice, “I am fasting,” to a belligerent person and to turn the other cheek. This meek behavior requires tremendous effort and focus for someone deprived of food and coffee.

The month of Ramadan is essentially a period of training the spirit to have dominance over the body and its primal desires and instincts. A month of fasting may seem like a long period for the uninitiated. To be meaningful, however, a training period must be sufficiently long and adequate in order to recalibrate one’s biological, mental, emotional and spiritual dimensions.

During 30 days, the will and spirit are galvanized in a union where they reinforce each other. The spirit takes over the reins of a person’s life and obliges the body to submit to a new lifestyle of sacrifice and reward. A person becomes better able to control one’s emotions and to confine them to their proper role. The body learns that one’s desires no longer direct one’s life and personality.

In this state of fasting, we are not suppressing our emotions. We are merely readjusting the role of each part of ourselves. An imperfect fast, on the other hand, only brings hunger, starvation and disappointment.

When we fast, we learn to empathize with the poor, the hungry and the destitute. There are also the elderly, the sick, the widows, the orphans and the stranded travelers. Keeping them in mind softens our hearts and guides us to relieve their hardships with acts of kindness.

Fasting is a communal event. A fasting person realizes that they are a part of a bigger community which rises or falls together. It is common for families to invite each other for dinner and to exchange food.

Unfortunately, this year, just like last year, the pandemic has put a damper on communal activities. We will need to be patient for now and reluctantly wait another year until this pandemic is over. We hope that good times will return soon, after most everyone has been vaccinated, and that it will be safe to gather again for prayers and Ramadan festivities.

Said Ahmed-Zaid is a Boise State University engineering professor and the 2004 recipient of the annual HP Award for Distinguished Leadership in Human Rights. The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.