Abdullah bin Hamid Ali is a teacher of Islamic law, jurisprudential principles and the prophetic tradition at Zaytuna College in Berkeley. He has taught at that school since 2007.
This week, he decided to write an opinion piece for Patheos about Ramadan, the 30-day fasting period for Muslims, ending in the Sugar Feast. Since I’m in Turkey, the festivities have already started (it’s one day earlier in Turkey then in the rest of the Muslim world).
Now, most people assume I don’t get involved much in Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr (the Sugar Feast), but I converted to Sufi Islam around eight years ago. So to me, Ramadan certainly is an important month… and these three days of festivities are something I’ve been looking forward to for weeks if not months. It’s basically our version of Christmas (which I celebrated as a youngster).
Back to Abdullah’s piece. In his article he explains what Ramadan is all about and what it’s supposed to do for Muslims:
Fasting is better for more than the simple health benefits that accrue to fasters. To limit the benefits of fasting to the material benefits is to strip fasting of its spiritual facets. Like all other acts of Islamic worship, one of the ultimate goals of rituals is to inculcate moral virtue. The prayer, performed with the correct understanding and awareness, contributes to deeper humility. Charity contributes to a number of virtues, like altruism, generosity and empathy with the poor. Fasting contributes to patience, self-control and endurance. The hajj is a consummate worship combining all the aforementioned virtues.
He adds that fasting isn’t only meant to be a physical experience, but also a spiritual one. It improves one’s virtues (perseverance, self-control) and makes one truly grateful to God for all one has (try not to eat and especially drink during the day, when it’s 40 degrees Celsius…. Trust me: it’ll make you very grateful to drink a glass of water in the evening). Although, he says, you can “buy off” fasting by giving to charity (literally: giving a poor person something to eat), it’s better for the Muslim to actually fast (it says in the Quran: “Fasting is still better for you if only you knew”).
As an enlightened, modern and Western Sufi Muslim (I adhere to the spiritual school in Islam, especially to that of Mevlana, who’s also known as Rumi in the West), my take on Ramadan and the Sugar Feast is similar in some ways, but different in others.
For, although I do recognize that fasting is incredibly effective if one wants to improve one’s virtues, I don’t think it’s the only way to “get there.” In fact, I usually only fast a few days and give to charity instead. The reason I don’t fast? I work during the day and have noticed that, when fasting, I work at a slower pace and the quality of my work is… let’s say, questionable. Fasting might be great for you personally, but it’s nothing more but theft if you don’t do what you’re paid to do. Obviously, I refuse to be guilty of theft while praising myself for withstanding hunger and thirst. The sin is bigger than the reward.
So what is Ramadan about, to me personally? First of all, I use the month to contemplate my own behavior. Did I, in the past year, treat my wife well? Did I work as hard as I could? Did I do my best to spread the ideas of individual freedom? And did I progress as a human being? Did I become more virtuous? Was there any area in which I slacked? After reviewing my behavior, I make plans — clearly described steps — to improve myself and make sure I become a better man.
Secondly, during Ramadan, I focus even more than usual on being grateful to God for everything I have; material things and, yes, spiritual and mental ones. So I take time to thank God (and yes, I call God “God,” not “Allah,” if for no other reason than that I was raised as a Christian, and the word “Allah” has less emotional significance to me) every single day, and even write down certain “things” for which I’m grateful. Perhaps it’s wise to do such an exercise regularly in one’s life, but to me, Ramadan is the best month to truly think about it — and not just for a few minutes, but hours at a time: once you truly start thinking about everything God has blessed you with, you realize there are literally billions of things to be grateful for — clean air, trees in the park, etc., included.
Last but not least, Ramadan is the month to practice charity. To me, this is actually the most important aspect of Ramadan, at least with regards to its social context. The amount a non-fasting Muslim is supposed to give to charity isn’t insignificant. Aspects two and three of Ramadan are connected: step two encourages you to contemplate everything you have and be grateful for it… and step three allows you to let others share in your wealth. What greater way to serve God than to serve members of your community by helping those in (financial) need?
The bayram (or religious feast) that starts today, then, is a culmination of all those things described above. These three days are days on which I remind myself that God has truly blessed my wife and me. I also celebrate God’s graces with others — loved ones, acquaintances and even with complete strangers.