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From the moment we are born to the last rites of our life and every moment in between, we follow rituals. When we eat, sleep, dress, travel, shop, communicate, every turn is a ritual.
The spiritual masters have captured the human gravity for rituals and have molded it with the art and science of self-discipline in their respective religion. The noble purpose of each one of them was to bring a balance in our lives and a balance with things that surround us, life and environment.
Fasting is one of the five key rituals that Muslims around the world observe. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar and is generally observed with a ritual precision; it is an annual training or a refresher. It requires one to abstain from food, drink, intimate relations, ill will, ill talk, ill actions, or any temptations from dawn to dusk. One has to rise above his or her baser desires. Islam gifts this month to its followers to inculcate such a discipline to bring balance and moderation in their daily lives. It was 2,500 years ago that Buddha, the enlightened one, taught that human suffering is caused by unrestrained desire to own and had recommended a middle path of balance.
Although Ramadan is known for its culinary delicacies and fancy iftaars (ceremonial breaking of fast at sun down), the spirit and intent of Ramadan lies in a human transformation in a monthlong inner spiritual journey of finding oneself in tune with spirituality.
Prophet Muhammad clarified to his followers that God has no need for the hunger or thirst of someone who oppresses others. The fasting of the stomach must be matched by the fasting of the body. The eyes, ears, tongue, hands, and feet all have their respective fasts to undergo. The tongue’s temptations—lies, backbiting, slander, vulgarity, and senseless argumentation—must be curbed to maintain the integrity of the fast.
Consciousness of behavior and vigilance over action are the most profound dimensions of fasting: The fasting of the heart focuses on the attachment to the divine. That is when Ramadan really becomes a source of peace and solace, just as Christmas goes beyond the rituals to bring forth kindness, charity, and caring.
True fasting is self-purification; and from this brings values such as justice, generosity, patience, kindness, forgiveness, mercy, and empathy—values that are indispensable for the success of the community.
The world has shrunk, and ironically our empathy for one another has also shrunk.Knowing about hunger is different from knowing hunger. Empathy is not an intellectual equation; it is a human experience.
For fasting to be truly universal, its benefits must extend beyond the fraternal ties of Muslims and must extend to forging a common humanity with others. Fasting is meant to impart a sense of what it means to be truly human, and its universality is reflected by its observance in the Bahai, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Sikh, and Zoroastrian faiths.
It is celebration time when Muslims around the world anxiously wait for the first moon of the ninth lunar month to appear on the sky. Families gather in their backyards or climb on rooftops to wait for the pencil-thin moon to appear on the horizon, with the same spirit as American families watching fireworks on Fourth of July.
Rituals vary in different Muslim cultures. Where I am from, it is Chandni Raat, moonlit night festivities, and it is an expression of joy of people coming together.
With small variations in practices, families rise around 4 a.m., and gather in the kitchen cooking. About five minutes before the cut-off time (dawn), everyone finishes his or her food and takes the last sip of the water. Right after that is the morning prayer at home or at the local mosque.
Observers break their fasts by eating appetizer-sized fruits, vegetables, and refreshments; dates are the most popular item. Iftaar is commonly a community event, where Muslims invite their non-Muslim friends to join in their celebration of that day. At the end of 29th or 30th day, depending on the moon sighting, the fasting comes to an end with a celebration where Muslims gather in an open space and say a thanks-giving prayer for having a blessed Ramadan. It is the day one formally forgives and gets forgiven, and starts another year with good will. Everyone hugs three times: I am your friend, you are my friend, and we are friends.
Though the annual ritual of fasting takes 30 days, its true destination is endless. May we always aspire to find our balance, connect with each other, open our hearts and minds to fellow beings; the joy that comes with it is ours to keep.
In spirit of Ramadan, I pray Ramadan gets into our hearts and minds and make us embrace all factions of Muslims without undermining their tradition and further pray that we treat every human on the earth with dignity, respect, and care.
Mike Ghouse co-chairs the center for interfaith inquiry at the Memnosyne Foundation, is president of the Foundation for Pluralism, and also founding president of the World Muslim Congress. His columns and news analysis can be found at www.MikeGhouse.net. Contact him at MikeGhouse@aol.com.