I turn and reach from my phone, the 5am alarm blaring, too sleepy to even open my eyes. 5:15, ok, I should get up and eat I think to myself. I dread getting up but know that later in the day, it will be worth it.
It’s the fourth day of Ramadan but for me it’s probably the only day I’ll fast. I am not Muslim. I’m not even religious but I have fasted for one day of Ramadan for the last 5 years.
What is Ramadan?
Ramadan is the 9th month in the Islamic calendar and the same month in which the first revelation of the Quran came to the Prophet Muhammad. Muslims commemorate this event by fasting for 30 days. The month is also meant to be a time of generosity, gratitude and prayer.
Some important things to note about Ramadan:
- It’s not at the same time each year because the Islamic calendar is lunar.
- Muslims abstain from food, drinking, smoking and sexual activity from sun up to sun down each day. There are some exceptions to this, if your pregnant, sick, traveling or on your period you do not need to fast however some people believe you need to make up these days later in the year. Yes, even water!
- Some Muslims in more northern areas where the sun doesn’t set or only sets for an hour a day use the times from other Middle Eastern countries to decide fasting times, others just fast all day and only eat during that hour.
- Eid al-Fitr marks the end of the fasting month and is celebrated through festivals, gifts and tons of food.
If you want to know more about the specifics of Ramadan read this article – 9 questions about the Muslim holy month you were too embarrassed to ask and learn – from someone who’s actually Muslim. I’d rather leave room for Muslim voices to explain more.
Why I Began Fasting
This morning as I tried to fit 2 liters of water and a bowl of oatmeal into my stomach within 20 minutes, I think about why I’ve continued this tradition and why it began in the first place. The first year I decided to fast because my coworker at the time (later boyfriend and currently ex-boyfriend) was fasting for Ramadan. The start date kept changing as it usually does and another coworker, him and I were having a conversation about why he fasts while carpooling home. My female coworker mentioned that she always wanted to try a day. I personally hadn’t really ever thought of it before and didn’t fully understand Ramadan at the time. But interested and wanting to support my friend the two of us decided to fast with him the following day.
The First Day
That first day was hard. I taught all day then had a back-to-school night type activity where I spoke in front of parents and had to serve delicious looking food to parents. My throat sore from talking, I kept walking over to grab my water bottle throughout the day.
By the time we broke fast at 8:50 (yes, I still remember the exact time because this was a moment of my life that I will never forget), I was a little delusional. I could not stop laughing, and when I lifted that water bottle to my mouth I almost started crying because I felt so overwhelmingly grateful to finally have water.
I know, this sounds a little dramatic but it felt dramatic. There are over a billion people who do this for 30 days, every year. And here I was after just one day, on the verge of tears.
I had never had such sympathy for those who do not have access to food and water. I had never felt such gratitude for what I had in my life, not only the food and water, but the friends standing with me when we broke our fast.
Building a Community
My friend was so grateful that we had decided to fast with him. He converted to Islam, so his family does not fast with him. He was the only Muslim person at our work, although we did also have one student fasting.
After living in Malaysia, I understand how much easier Ramadan is when you have a Muslim community. When everyone around you is abstaining from food and water it feels easier, you can bond with others about good and bad fasting days. Most of my Muslim friends in Malaysia get together early in the mornings to eat and share meals at night with their families. A coworker shared with me that she had a great time with her friends meeting up at McDonalds at 5am. But in the U.S. some Muslims don’t have this community, especially people who have converted to Islam. There’s little celebration because some of them are doing it alone.
I was shocked when our decision to fast sparked others to do the same. When we mentioned that we were fasting to our other coworkers and around 5-10 others picked a day to fast with him. They also took time to ask him about his beliefs and reasons for fasting. Most days he had someone checking up on him and making sure he was doing ok. We somehow built a mini support system that summer. It was truly beautiful.
Why I Continue Fasting Each Year
I’ve continued to fast for one day (usually the first day) each Ramadan since. Sometimes I made the decision to support friends, sometimes because I think overall it makes me feel more appreciative of what I have. I think fasting builds compassion. At this time of year I also can’t help but think of the saying many U.S. children hear at the dinner table, “There are starving people in China/Africa, you know?” I wonder why this phrase became so common, why did we tell kids that they must stuff themselves in order to be grateful for their food? Instead, let’s try going without food for a day a see the empathy grow. Could you imagine globally how big of an impact that could have? If everyone went without food for even just one day, I think we’d see so much more being done to end starvation.
I don’t pretend to say that I’m an amazing person for doing this, on some levels it’s really such a minor thing. I could do more to help those in need, we all could. But I think of my one day as another way to grow myself, to make me a little bit better, to be a little more supportive, a little more empathetic. My one day promotes better actions year long. When thinking about supporting a food drive or making a donation my thoughts go back to how it feels, even if just for a day, to be without basic necessities for life.
This year I choose not to fast the first day of Ramadan because I was traveling. I picked today because my work is sponsoring a dinner for us tonight for all of my coworkers to break fast together. I thought it would be nice to break my fast alongside my Muslim coworkers. It will be a celebration tonight even though my coworkers have many days left of Ramadan. Each night becomes a celebration after each challenging day – a cyclic process to build faith, love and compassion.
How you can support Muslims During Ramadan
Islam is the second biggest religion after Christianity, with 1.8 billion followers. Unfortunately, most people are very familiar with Christian beliefs and traditions because it is more widely shown in the media yet many people don’t know much about Ramadan and Islamic beliefs. I highly recommend educating yourself on the religion as a whole more to better understand their beliefs. I also want to point out that just like Christians, not all Muslims practice their religion in the same way so make sure to not make assumptions on individuals based on the prominent narrative.
This is a great article highlighting 9 Ways You can Support Muslims during Ramadan, if you’re interested in learning more.