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Vol. 4, No. 1, 2005
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Robert J. Lewis
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Riad Saloojee is executive director of the council on American-Islamic Relations based in Ottawa. He's the author of We've Seen This Plot Before.

* * * * * * * * * *

© Jonathan MandellAs a boy growing up, I remember Ramadan by my incessant questioning – “Is it time to break fast yet?” – and my growling stomach. And no one made a break for food as fast as I did when sunset rolled around. Poutine never, ever looked so good.

The ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, Ramadan is one of Islam’s five fundamental pillars. Fasting was always taught to me with ritual precision: abstaining from food, drink and intimate relations from dawn to dusk. Ironically, Ramadan is most known, whether by Muslims or others, for its exotic culinary delicacies the world over. It’s also not one of the Muslim world’s best-kept secrets that in some countries Ramadan is best identified by an inverted ‘work’ schedule: sleep during the day; gorge at night. Call it our own unique circumvention of God’s law: fasting through feasting.

Ramadan, however, has nothing to do with feasting or the lack thereof. The intent and spirit of Ramadan lies in a human transformation, with hunger and thirst being merely the first stage, the external dimension, in a month-long inner journey of struggle and discovery.

To begin with, fasting is not about hunger and thirst. The Prophet Muhammed taught that God has no need for the hunger and thirst of someone who hurts others, violates their dignity and usurps their rights. The fasting of the stomach must be matched by the fasting of all of the limbs. The eyes, ears, tongue, hands and feet all have their respective fasts to undergo. The tongue’s temptations, for example – lies, backbiting, slander, vulgarity, and senseless argumentation – must be challenged and curbed for the integrity of the fast.

This consciousness of one’s behaviour and vigilance of one’s actions are meant to lead to the most profound dimension of fasting: the fasting of heart in continual focus on, and attachment to, the Divine. It is this experience and in this state that Ramadan becomes a source of peace and solace.

Fasting is thus meant to impart a sense of what it means to be truly human. We are more than the sum of our parts. We are more than mere material creatures or a series of conditioned responses. Different traditions have different names for it –- soul, spirit, heart -- but all argue that we possess an essence beyond this four dimensional world. It is perhaps this recognition that accounts for the fact that fasting is a common feature in the practices of other faith traditions.

The true fruit of fasting is a rich inner life, embellished with the cultivation of values such as justice, generosity, kindness forgiveness, mercy and empathy. And it is these latter values that are indispensable to all communal life.

Why do we find it so difficult to connect with others? The world has shrunk but so, it seems, has our empathy for one another. One reason is that knowing about hunger is different from knowing hunger. Empathy is not an intellectual equation; it is a human experience. As spectators in our ivory towers, our hardness of heart often springs from our distance to the human condition of others. The poor, sick, disenfranchised, oppressed –- we have rarely walked a mile in their shoes, or even just a few footsteps. How could true civic responsibility be otherwise?

That 1.2 billion Muslims fast concurrently speaks to the universality of fasting in transcending the barriers of geography, color and race. For fasting to be truly beneficial, however, its benefits must extend beyond the fraternal ties of Muslims and must extend to forging a common humanity with others.

As an abrupt break in our annual routine, Ramadan will come and go with such stealth that we cannot but be reminded of our mortality. What is it that we value and why? The food and drink, previously indulged in with a sense of necessity, was reduced with no dire consequence. Habits, customs, obsessive behaviours like smoking, too, were curtailed with relative ease in the face of a higher calling. How much of me is really an algorithm of consumption? What does it mean to be a global citizen living in Canada, a land of tremendous privilege?

Though the ritual of fasting may take 30 days, its true destination is our infinite journey. May we hunger to find the gold within us; may we hunger to discover our heart.

You may write to Riad Saloojee HERE .

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