What Islam and My Muslim Friends Taught Me This Ramadan

Above all, the many lessons that this Ramzan taught me was this: the need to think of, and turn to, God at least for a few minutes every day. That was something that I hadn’t done for years.

By Ghulam Kabir Das

Even as a child I thought of Muslims who fasted the whole month of Ramzan with a strange feeling of awe. For me, it suggested a passionate commitment to their religion that I sorely lacked.
One Ramzan – this was several years ago – I decided to fast. I wasn’t sure how many days I could manage – I had never fasted before. Perhaps – I can’t really remember – I hoped to fast for the entire month. However, I managed just a day, and that, too, with difficulty. Fasting was just ‘too tough’, I told myself. But, as I now see it, the real reason for changing my mind about fasting the whole of that Ramzan was possibly this: I didn’t want to do anything that might entail even the slightest apparent inconvenience or discomfort – not even for the sake of God.
 All these years, even while claiming to be on a ‘spiritual quest’, I was really searching for an understanding of God and religion that would mirror my own preconceived notions of what the two ought to be.  I definitely didn’t want a God who would make ‘inconvenient’ and ‘irksome’ demands on me – such as fasting or praying regularly, for instance. This, in part, is what drove me to experiment with religious traditions that denied God in toto or had no room for Him in practice, as well as those that elevated Man to God’s position or relegated God to a remote corner in the cosmic periphery.
Despite the enormous mental barriers I had built up over these many years, this Ramzan I decided to fast. I really don’t know exactly why – I can’t fully explain it even to myself. And with God’s grace, I fasted every single day of this blessed month. Can you believe it?! When I think of it now – just a few days after Eid – I can hardly believe it myself! I can only suppose that it was because of God’s blessings that I managed to do so.
I wasn’t the only person in the world who doesn’t identify himself as a Muslim in the conventional sense of the term who fasted this Ramzan, though. You’d be pleasantly surprised – or so I hope – to know that scores of others like me in India did so this year, including a batch of prisoners in a big Indian city. You don’t have to be a Muslim, as the term is conventionally understood, to fast in Ramzan and to appreciate its beauty, as I discovered.
This fasting month was for me a beautiful learning experience. It taught me several very valuable lessons. For one, it disabused me of some of the many prejudices about Islam and Muslims that I harboured. It provided me some glimpses into the amazing beauty of Islam that Islamopbhobia and radical Islamism both work to shut out from our vision. It enabled me to better appreciate why some of my Muslim friends actually eagerly await the onset of Ramzan, which was something that, in my prejudice, I had once attributed to their supposed ‘congenital fanaticism’.
Training yourself to abstain from food even when the stomach growls can, I discovered this Ramzan, be an enormously empowering experience. No longer need you be a miserable slave to your bodily or sensual desires. Liberating yourself from these cravings is what the spiritual path is all about – so many religions tell us – and fasting can be a major step in that journey.  Fasting can teach you to dis-identify yourself with your body, to go beyond the body to discover who you really are – the ‘real you’. This is what various religious traditions – and not just Islam alone – talk about as lying at the heart of the spiritual quest.
Interestingly, on most days this Ramzan I didn’t really feel ravenous or noticeably enervated, contrary to what I might have expected. But on the few days that I did, the experience was potentially very instructive. I don’t know if I really learned this important lesson from it, but I ought to have – that enduring discomfort is a wonderful way to learn patience and self-control or self-discipline, virtues that you can’t go very far in life without.
Another amazing realization that fasting this Ramzan led me to was that it is possible to live on two wholesome meals a day and still function well. You don’t really have to binge all day in order to get the energy to do things.  At the same time, though, fasting also taught me the importance of slowing down and shedding the obsessive desire to be busy doing something or the other all day. Sometimes when you fast, your body and mind go slow, and that, as I realized, is not necessarily a bad thing, as some might think. In fact, it can actually work wonders for the body, mind and soul. It can teach you, if you are willing to learn, that there are other, better ways to spend the precious moments of our lives than constantly being ‘productive’ and ‘doing’, such as engaging in silent prayer, reflection and contemplation.
The good news that you don’t need to sleep eight hours a day (or a whole third of your entire life) to be healthy was yet another valuable lesson this Ramzan provided me. Spending every day the whole of Ramzan, as many Muslims who fast in this month do, by getting up early in the morning, praying several times a day, reading scriptures and other uplifting books and remembering God (instead of watching TV, engaging in idle chatter and backbiting everyone who comes to mind, for instance) is an excellent way to begin to appreciate the value of time, and to bring order into our chaotic daily lives, so that each day is spent mindfully and meaningfully.
For someone who thought rituals were silly—maybe because I didn’t want to ‘inconvenience’ myself by doing them—fasting this Ramzan taught me to see worship in a very different light. Fasting, regular prayer and other such religiously-prescribed acts, if understood in a proper manner, I learned, are an important and, for many people, necessary means to express their love for, and devotion to, God. They can hardly be blamed—as I readily used to—for the fact that some people turn them into meaningless, mechanical actions.
Above all the many lessons that this Ramzan taught me was this: the need to think of, and turn to, God at least for a few minutes every day. That was something that I hadn’t done for years. Turning to Him meant not just pleading with Him to help us when we needed Divine assistance, but also trying to do what He wanted of us, no matter how ‘inconvenient’ or ‘bothersome’ it might seem—such as regular prayer and fasting and giving of one’s wealth to the needy.
It isn’t that I have reached anywhere near that stage of dedication and surrender, though. It’s all very well and good that I’ve learned, in theory, these many wonderful lessons this Ramzan, but putting them into practice in my own life is, needless to say, quite a different matter.
This fasting month was for me a beautiful learning experience. It taught me several very valuable lessons. For one, it disabused me of some of the many prejudices about Islam and Muslims that I harboured. It provided me some glimpses into the amazing beauty of Islam that Islamopbhobia and radical Islamism both work to shut out from our vision. It enabled me to better appreciate why some of my Muslim friends actually eagerly await the onset of Ramzan, which was something that, in my prejudice, I had once attributed to their supposed ‘congenital fanaticism’.
Training yourself to abstain from food even when the stomach growls can, I discovered this Ramzan, be an enormously empowering experience. No longer need you be a miserable slave to your bodily or sensual desires. Liberating yourself from these cravings is what the spiritual path is all about—so many religions tell us—and fasting can be a major step in that journey.  Fasting can teach you to dis-identify yourself with your body, to go beyond the body to discover who you really are—the ‘real you’. This is what various religious traditions—and not just Islam alone—talk about as lying at the heart of the spiritual quest.
Interestingly, on most days this Ramzan I didn’t really feel ravenous or noticeably enervated, contrary to what I might have expected. But on the few days that I did, the experience was potentially very instructive. I don’t know if I really learned this important lesson from it, but I ought to have—that enduring discomfort is a wonderful way to learn patience and self-control or self-discipline, virtues that you can’t go very far in life without.
Another amazing realization that fasting this Ramzan led me to was that it is possible to live on two wholesome meals a day and still function well. You don’t really have to binge all day in order to get the energy to do things.  At the same time, though, fasting also taught me the importance of slowing down and shedding the obsessive desire to be busy doing something or the other all day. Sometimes when you fast, your body and mind go slow, and that, as I realized, is not necessarily a bad thing, as some might think. In fact, it can actually work wonders for the body, mind and soul. It can teach you, if you are willing to learn, that there are other, better ways to spend the precious moments of our lives than constantly being ‘productive’ and ‘doing’, such as engaging in silent prayer, reflection and contemplation.
The good news that you don’t need to sleep eight hours a day (or a whole third of your entire life) to be healthy was yet another valuable lesson this Ramzan provided me. Spending every day the whole of Ramzan, as many Muslims who fast in this month do, by getting up early in the morning, praying several times a day, reading scriptures and other uplifting books and remembering God (instead of watching TV, engaging in idle chatter and backbiting everyone who comes to mind, for instance) is an excellent way to begin to appreciate the value of time, and to bring order into our chaotic daily lives, so that each day is spent mindfully and meaningfully.
For someone who thought rituals were silly—maybe because I didn’t want to ‘inconvenience’ myself by doing them—fasting this Ramzan taught me to see worship in a very different light. Fasting, regular prayer and other such religiously-prescribed acts, if understood in a proper manner, I learned, are an important and, for many people, necessary means to express their love for, and devotion to, God. They can hardly be blamed—as I readily used to—for the fact that some people turn them into meaningless, mechanical actions.
Above all the many lessons that this Ramzan taught me was this: the need to think of, and turn to, God at least for a few minutes every day. That was something that I hadn’t done for years. Turning to Him meant not just pleading with Him to help us when we needed Divine assistance, but also trying to do what He wanted of us, no matter how ‘inconvenient’ or ‘bothersome’ it might seem—such as regular prayer and fasting and giving of one’s wealth to the needy.
It isn’t that I have reached anywhere near that stage of dedication and surrender, though. It’s all very well and good that I’ve learned, in theory, these many wonderful lessons this Ramzan, but putting them into practice in my own life is, needless to say, quite a different matter.

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