Ramadan? That means no food, right? Well, yes, there is fasting during the day. But there’s much more to Ramadan than that. The month is a combination spiritual retreat, self-discipline training, and a powerful community-building ritual. So, what are you doing this month?
Ramadan is, of course, a fast. One does not eat or drink from sunrise until sunset. Where I live, near Toronto, the length of the day varies a lot so when Ramadan is in summer, the long daylight hours make fasting extra difficult while Ramadan in December is a comparative relief.
But there is a lot more going on than not eating. Ramadan is an exercise in using the body – in this case, its physical discomfort – to foster a meaningful spiritual experience. This is not unusual. First Nations communities have practices like vision quests and sweat lodges that also use physical discomfort to create a powerful experience. Catholicism has a tradition of all-night vigils and Buddhist meditation is heavily dependent on simple but important bodily practices of comportment, stillness, and attentive breathing to work its magic. Ramadan is yet another example of a central truth: the body is a powerful tool for teaching the mind.
Tradition is to break the fast by eating a date, a practice said to trace back to Muhammad.
Ramadan aims to teach adherents the value of putting something above the body’s hungers and urges – in this case, obeying God. This obedience takes work and working on something, almost every hour of every day for a whole month, is likely to leave its impression on you. That effort, that persistent work, is how the practice can help to cultivate and reform the self.
Ramadan is also very communal. People gather at the end of the day, sometimes in larger groups or with extended kin, and share a meal. There’s also a kind of bond that comes from enduring something together. I remember when I graduated from business school, I got a supposedly prestigious job which was, in retrospect, a sweat shop with suits. A few times I clocked over a hundred hours in a week. It was insane. But my cohort grew quite tight. I still have some friendships from then even though I worked there only two years, almost a quarter century ago. The military is the quintessential example, where two or four year stints can forge lifelong friendships. Neither of these match exactly to Ramadan but, to my outsider eyes, there is something about the shared struggle that connects people, creating a kind of communal glue. This culminates in Eid, the feast and festival that ends Ramadan, where everyone celebrates what they’ve all managed to do together.
In Muslim majority areas, night markets cater to bustling crowds as all enjoy the end of that day’s fasting.
There is more to say. Ramadan is also a time to refrain from gossip or swearing, to remove jealously or anger. It’s that attempt again, to use how attentive you are to your body’s discomfort, as a kind of lever for personal reform.
Know any Muslims? If you do, wish them a Ramadan mubarak (blessed Ramadan) or Ramadan kareem (generous Ramadan). The same two blessings work on Eid (Eid mubarak or kareem). And if you work with Muslims, there are easy ways to be considerate. Certainly avoid lunch meetings and, whenever possible, schedule meetings earlier in the day when a devotee’s energy is likely to be better. They’re spending a month working on themselves. And that, is hard work.