The month of Ramadan, also known as the month of Qur’an, is truly an amazing month. It is a month of worship where gratitude is expressed for the blessings that have been bestowed. During this month, those celebrating are more able to genuinely feel and take part in the compassionate teachings of the Qur’an. Those partaking do not experience it as a month of hunger and thirst, but instead as a month of blessings. The blessings experienced transcend the physical blessings experienced at iftar time, extending to charity, friendship, caring for the needy, as well as greater reverence in our prayers and supplications. In experiencing the blessings of charity, those partaking in Ramadan ask about the community’s more destitute members and extend their own blessings of charity to those less fortunate. Along with these blessings, Ramadan places much importance on the iftar meals and prayers, rejoicing over the food and prayers shared with friends and family, as well as solitary worship.
It was this dual nature of Ramadan, the personal and communal, that drew my attention this year. In essence, keeping with Ramadan is a very spiritual and personal occasion; at the same time, it is also very social and it is this careful balance between the social and spiritual aspects that makes Ramadan very fascinating. As far as my own experiences of Ramadan are concerned, a significant portion of the time is dedicated to individual fasting, contemplating and meditating. The social aspect of Ramadan emphasizes factors such as the food, people and the community, and the greater world that we live in.
Another of the personal aspects that is characteristic of Ramadan is fasting. Fasting is not about doing something, but rather about abstaining from doing something, more specifically abstaining from eating and drinking. The act of abstaining is a conscious choice that results from one’s own perceptions of themselves, the world, and objects existing in the world such as food and drink. When we fast our connection to God strengthens and we realize that, while I am connected to food, I am not at its mercy. I can choose whether or not to eat, and what, when and how to eat. This is different from an animal the eats when hungry and simply enjoys the food; a Muslim eats in the Name of God and also shares the blessings that they have been provided by God with others.
The relationship between choices and world perceptions are more greatly defined during Ramadan: not eating the accessible and available food despite hunger is a choice that creates a favorable time for self-reflection. Many questions arise as a result of this reflection: Who am I? What is food to me? How significant is it? What place does it have in my life, in my heart? What is it that binds me to food? What is hunger? Is it the need for food? Consciously abstaining from eating and drinking interrupts our daily routine, but increases our awareness of who we are in relation to God and the rest of the world. This awareness is the highest and sweetest blessing that we can obtain as the honored guests of the Compassionate Lord. It is so meaningful, that even if you are not united anywhere and eating alone, during Ramadan there is the feeling that you are a guest in your own home and are no longer alone. Awareness increases during Ramadan because we know that Muslims worldwide are fasting and that we all share the perception of the world as a guesthouse.
From my own experiences, once the time comes to break the fast at the end of the day, food no longer has the same appeal. I drink a glass of water, eat a little food and that is enough to pacify me. The water and food I ingest represent more than just a means of satisfying my hunger. Water and food are gifts from the Provider and are signs of the compassionate host. The hunger we feel is equivalent to our neediness and thus binds us to food, making it more meaningful than it actually is. Due to this assigned meaning, tastier foods are found more pleasurable when one is hungry. The pleasure experienced is in itself a sign that food is not the source of pleasure but is instead a gift. The pleasure experienced is increased once one realizes that it is a gift of love and compassion. The pleasure, while being physical, is also spiritual; pleasure and awareness are simultaneously achieved at being the guest of such a generous Provider/Host which results in gratitude and worship.
The more I realize myself as a guest of the Compassionate Host, the more I empathize with other guests (that is, others celebrating Ramadan) and the easier it is to share the blessings with others who are able to appreciate it. My experience of Ramadan is made more meaningful and enjoyable knowing that there is a community of appreciators becoming aware in much the same way as I am. In this way, Ramadan is so personal while also being related to the rest of the world. It is about worship and prayer and also about the food and the many different blessings, both physical and spiritual, experienced at this time.
In talking about the physical and spiritual experience, it is important to mention that there is no separation between them as they both exist on one continuum. The physical being is a mirror of the spiritual. As such, matter embodies meaning just as a book or food holds significance or meaning. This connection with the divine is very spiritual. It happens through the prayers and supplications and also through eating, making every aspect of Ramadan a month of spirituality. As a result, my relationship with the rest of the world as God’s creation is transformed; I am able to view it as God’s gift to me, opportunities to see ‘the face of God’.
Eid is the day when we remember all these blessings and celebrate them fully.