It has been nearly a week since Ramadan started. When people hear “Ramadan” they either think “starvation” or “isn’t that a hotel?”. A Muslim fasts for the simple reason that God told them so. Yes, it was the month in which the Qur’an was revealed, and yes, it does increase your empathy for the poor who have to fast every day. But the simple reason Muslims do it—or any act of worship, really—is because it was an instruction from God.
Edmonton is probably one of the most difficult places to fast in the world. The days are long and hot and, unlike most Muslim countries, the economy doesn’t shut down during the day to observe the fast. Muslims have to go about their day like any other day, whether they’re labourers, office workers, or students. This year the fast lasts about 19 hours, leaving 5 hours for dinner and breakfast. Exempt, of course, are those who are too ill to fast (including diabetics) and women who are pregnant or menstruating.
But I’m not writing this to give you an in-depth analysis of the rules of fasting. There are many other places you can go to read that. But there’s another aspect of fasting, the one that isn’t mentioned as much: fasting of the soul.
Ramadan is a time to reign in any bad habits. In fact, this aspect of Ramadan is almost as important as abstaining from food or drink. Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, once said:
“Whoever does not give up false speech and acting upon it and offensive speech and behaviour, God has no need of his giving up his food and drink.”
The first time I fasted, I was miserable. My head ached. My stomach hurt. And when I got home, my then-wife and I made a giant pot of macaroni with hotdogs, some sandwiches, and tall glasses of milk, among other things. It was a banquet. And halfway through our bowls of macaroni, we were wondering just how it was possible that we were full.
As I fasted more and more Ramadans, one thing became clear: fasting is not about the food waiting at the end.
Ramadan is a time of self-reflection.Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, told us that the devils are chained up during Ramadan. What that means is that in this month, unlike other times throughout the year, we aren’t attacked by the temptations and evil thoughts that the devils whisper to us. They have no power over us. Instead, it’s just you and your self. And what remains isn’t always pretty.
That means that any arrogance, negativity, and bad habits are what remains. I was troubled by this and asked a couple Islamic scholars to explain it. They told me that these negative things have been so persistent throughout the year, that they eventually become part of your self (in Arabic, nafs). And so in every Ramadan, I have to face myself. During Ramadan, I can’t just blame the devil for whatever crosses my mind or whatever sins I do. I have to constantly check where my thoughts and feelings are coming from. So fasting is not just a detox for the body, but also for the soul.
In that regard, Ramadan is about taking ownership of your self, and keeping your ego in check. It’s about doing as much as you can do bring yourself closer to God, and become a better person. It’s about uprooting those bad habits and bad thoughts and bad deeds and starving them in the hot sun until they die and whither away.
It is far more painful than simply not eating or drinking.
But it is also far more rewarding than any evening meal.