Guest Letter from Saadia: Ramadan 101

I am honored to post this guest letter from Saadia Faruqi. Saadia is an interfaith activist, speaker, and author from Houston, Texas, USA, who grew up in Pakistan. I met her on “Abraham’s Tent”, a Facebook community for religious dialogue between Jews and Muslims. Given our common passions for writing and for bridging the gaps between our cultures, we hit it off pretty quickly. 😉 I recently asked her if she could write us a letter explaining the Muslim month of Ramadan, which, as mentioned in the previous post, began last week. She kindly obliged.

But before we get to her letter, I have to tell you the really exciting thing: Saadia’s first book, a collection of short stories called Brick Walls: Tales of Hope & Courage from Pakistan, was published just a couple weeks ago.

I finished reading it today, and here’s what I have to say about it: buy it. Now. 😛 With her rich and vivid prose, Saadia paints a diverse collection of characters from all walks of life in modern Pakistan, from the dirt-poor Asma to wealthy “political princess” Rabia, from cantankerous grandmother Farzana to industrious 10-year-old Nida, from desperate Faisal who gets drawn into a terrorist cell, to successful rapper and musician Javed Gul–and all of them are well-drawn and deeply human. All the characters face struggles that closely relate with their unique environment, but are universal, too; struggles with family, self-worth, justice, cruelty, grief, and ambition. The result is a rich and nuanced tapestry of poignant stories exploring many aspects of life in modern Pakistan. The impression I got from Brick Walls was of a Pakistan that is complex, dangerous, and beautiful, where evil and cruelty are real and very present, but hope, courage, faith, kindness, and compassion are greater.

Have I convinced you yet? Click the photo of the cover to the left to buy it on Amazon. 😉 And you can read more about Saadia and her work on her website at www.saadiafaruqi.com.

Ramadan kareem, and enjoy!


Dear Josep,

You must have heard that Ramadan has started, and I’m sure that like many outside the Islamic faith you have more questions than answers. It’s not all that complicated, however, and you’ll find Ramadan very similar to the Jewish tradition of fasting.

First I thought I’d remove some common misconceptions about Ramadan. It is not a holiday or celebration as it is frequently called, it is a month – the ninth month of the Islamic calendar to be exact. Muslims don’t fast the entire month, because that would be absolutely insane and probably fatal, but the fast lasts from dawn to sunset every day for 30 days. And every Muslim doesn’t fast, although the media makes it seem so. Only healthy adults are required to fast, and those who are sick, traveling, pregnant, nursing or children are exempt from fasting during Ramadan or any other time.

So what is Ramadan exactly? Muslims fast in this month first and foremost because it is a commandment of God as recorded in the Quran. We don’t fast to commemorate any event or memory, nor do we fast because any human being in the past used to do so. Our fasts are for God alone, and on His command. The Quran states:

“O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that ye may (learn) self-restraint (2:183)”. Remember that Muslims believe that the Quran is the literal word of God revealed to the Prophet Muhammad through the angel Gabriel (more on that in a future letter). In addition Ramadan also commemorates the beginning of the Quran’s revelation which first began in that sacred month.

The Islamic fast is a complete fast, not unlike the one on Yom Kippur1. We eat a meal before dawn each day, and then don’t ingest a single thing – water, food, medication – until sunset, when we break the fast with another meal. We also don’t engage in sexual relations during the fast. The aim is to allow Muslims to understand that what we consider needs are actually things we can do without for the sake of God.

But I don’t want to give you the impression that Ramadan is all about abstaining from physical things like food and drink. The real abstinence during this month of fasting is keeping away from bad habits, and the purpose of the fast is to urge us to improve ourselves spiritually. Think of it as a boot camp, where fueled by hunger and thirst, we are motivated to do better, to forego our ego and our base physical self in order to rise to a higher level of spirituality. There is a hadith (saying) of the Prophet Muhammad: “He who does not desist from obscene language and acting obscenely during the period of fasting, Allah has no need that he did not eat or drink.” (Hadith books of Bukhari and Muslim). So you see, Ramadan is not really about the fast, but in fact it is a time to practice enhanced worship, to try to achieve patience and a nearness to God that cannot happen when we are busy feeding ourselves literally and figuratively.

Of course it is not as easy as it is made out to be. Personally, I find fasting almost as difficult as being patient while hungry. But the blessings promised by God to Muslims who fast are so great that I am eager to participate as much as I can. Yes, it is hard to abstain from the most basic of life’s supposed necessities, but the reward is worth it. Muslims believe that the one who fasts sincerely can have his or her sins forgiven, and can achieve the love of God.

Ramadan is also a time of community and social activity. Mosques are filled at sunset because we consider it better to break our fasts together. Late nights are spent in special prayers called Tarawih, and in the final days of Ramadan some people stay in the mosque in seclusion and prayer. Even those who are not fasting are able to participate in the spiritually uplifted atmosphere in mosques and homes during this blessed month. Everyone urges each other to do good, feed the hungry and give plenty in charity, for all good deeds are richly rewarded during this month.

Fanous, lanterns traditionally used to decorate homes during the festive month of Ramadan.
Fanous, lanterns traditionally used to decorate homes during the festive month of Ramadan.

So that’s Ramadan in a nutshell. Only one who fasts can understand the true flux of emotions, the courage and strength this time requires. Such is the strenuous nature of the fasts that at the end of the month Muslims celebrate with a special event called Eid, in which we wear new clothes, give each other gifts and offer special prayers of gratitude. At Eid we are thankful that we were able to participate in Ramadan and attain some of its blessings. Eid is the big send-off party, the expression of goodbye until next year. Ramadan is special, and hopefully what we learn during this month will stay with us for the next 365 days.

Regards,

Saadia


1. Note from Daniella: Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, and there will be a letter about it when it comes around. I would say the fasting of Ramadan is more similar to that of the “minor” fasts in Judaism than Yom Kippur. But I will be writing about Jewish fast days soon, as we have one coming up in a couple weeks, and there I will elaborate on the differences between the “major” and the “minor” fasts, and how these compare to Muslim and Christian fasting.

Want to share your own experience of Ramadan, or another period of uplifted spirituality in a different faith? Comment below, or write us a guest letter of your own!

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