The first time I fasted I was 18. I remember the splitting headache more than anything—always the headaches. Hunger I can manage, but the headaches are the ones that knock me down. I remember rushing home and preparing a massive dinner of Kraft Dinner, sandwiches, and a bevy of other dishes. And then, much to my surprise, I was barely able to stomach it. I was shocked to find that my stomach had shrunk its capacity during my fast.
From then on I was a bit more conservative with my iftar dinner.
I started fasting on Mondays and Thursdays. My manager did the same, and so I figured I would try it as well. It is a voluntary and highly commendable act in Islam. Prophet Muhammad said, “Deeds are shown (to Allah) on Mondays and Thursdays, and I like my deeds to be shown when I am fasting.” (Tirmidhi). It’s a good way to train yourself to fast the month of Ramadan.
On the outside, Ramadan can seem like a near-impossible task, especially in a place like Edmonton where fasting can last up to 16 hours in the hot summer months. My mom, being a mom, always worried about my fasting. Every Ramadan she would exclaim, “…not even water?” But the human body is an amazing piece of work, and within a few days your body can adjust to your new schedule. Plus, there’s just something that God placed in the month of Ramadan that makes it easier to fast than any other time throughout the year.
With Ramadan, however, comes a time of self-reflection and analysis. The physical fast where you deprive yourself of food and drink sets the stage for a much harder task: reforming yourself. In addition to abstaining from food and drink, Muslims are also supposed to hold themselves back from anger, backbiting, jealousy, swearing—any and all vices. The Prophet said, “Whoever does not give up forged speech and evil actions, Allah is not in need of his leaving his food and drink.” (Bukhari).
For myself the challenge of Ramadan doesn’t come from the physical fast. I have a desk job, and the office is well air-conditioned, thank God. For me, the challenge comes from the personal and spiritual struggle of self-reflection and reformation.
The Junkyard of the Self
Someone once told me, “Purification of the heart doesn’t begin until you walk through the junkyard of the self.” For many years now, Ramadan has become a time to walk through that junkyard and see what debris and refuse has piled up in there.
Every year, another part of me is shed as the month progresses. It’s a process of weeding out the undesireables, getting rid of things about myself that I didn’t like, clearing out the remnants of things I’d gotten rid of, or letting go of things that I realized that I no longer needed. It sounds easy in a sentence, cleaning your heart can be a painful struggle. In a way, it’s jihad.
The prominent Islamic scholar, Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani, indicated that jihad is not limited to military combat, but it refers to striving hard and struggling against one’s own self, against impulses of the devil, and in enjoining the doing of what is right and good and forbidding the doing of what is wrong and evil in the society.
The struggle to reform oneself is not something taken lightly. In the Qur’an, the 75th surah starts with God saying, “And I do swear by the self-reproaching soul.” (75:2). When God swears by something in the Qur’an He wants to draw attention to its importance. One commentary on this verse is that the Muslim should be self-critical in both good and bad things. To me, that means being critical of how well you are doing good—doing things with excellence and not just passively—as well as the negative aspects of your self.
It’s no surprise that the month of self-reformation is also the month of fasting. By depriving ourselves of water and food, we are forced to confront ourselves without the comfort of basic necessities. God knows our true selves, and purifying the heart is a means of coming closer to being the person that God knows we can be.
It’s a hard walk through that junkyard. But if you’re willing to grit your teeth and bear through it, you’ll find yourself lighter when you come out on the other side.