The Muslim world entered the blessed month of Ramadan with news of the passing away of Muhammad Ali, the boxing legend, the civil rights activist and a symbol of African-American Islam, at the age of 74. On the second day of Ramadan, Istanbul, the financial and cultural capital of Turkey, was shaken up with a car bomb attack that killed seven policemen and four civilians in the early hours of the morning. All this news and others have taken a toll on our minds and souls as we fast as an act of worship and reflect upon the meaning of existence.
No matter when or where it comes from, sad news always brings an emotional burden. But it also awakens something spiritual in us. While struggling to find a way to deal with the pain of loss, we also try to make sense of it all and seek answers to questions of why. It is this yearning for true answers that elevates us above and beyond the limitations of time and space. It unveils our deep humanity and adds depth to our experience of life. In many ways, this is what fasting is meant to do for us as an act of worship and spiritual reflection.
Muslims fast for a full month every year - a tradition that Jews and Christians still have albeit in different and highly revised fashion. We abstain from eating, drinking and sexual conduct from dawn to dusk. But more importantly, we are enjoined to avoid illicit behavior and moral sins with a heightened sense of consciousness during and after the month of Ramadan. Not eating and drinking for 17-18 hours may sound too harsh to our modern sensitivities. Some may even consider this to be a form of punishment for the body. But that is not true. By abstaining from worldly needs and pleasures, we do not lose anything but gain something deeper and lasting.
This is the trade-off of fasting: With our intelligence and will, we choose to give up the material pleasures of the world in order to attain a higher state of moral and spiritual refinement. We go beyond the corporeal temptations of food, drink and sex only to reach a higher state of happiness and freedom. We refrain from such moral sins as murder, stealing, lying and oppression to realize our fundamental human nature, which the Muslim tradition, like Socrates, takes to be essentially good and nurturing.
In this sense, there is nothing unnatural about fasting. We have become so accustomed to the comfort mythology of our modern lives that we see any self-imposed limitation on our bodily needs as giving up on our freedom. But this is wrong at so many levels. We do give up many things to become, say, a successful businessman or have a fit body. The question is what we give up and what we gain in return. There is nothing wrong with looking after your body and physical well-being. As a matter of fact, the Islamic tradition considers the human body a 'trust' given to human beings. The same applies to the entire world of creation - it is a trust for which we are responsible and expected to return to its real owner intact. The question is what true freedom means.
Fasting is an act of spiritual emancipation. It is an opportunity for us to use our reason and will to transcend the limitations of worldly existence and reach a state of higher consciousness. It is a response to the divine call to give up something small for Him so that He grants us something more precious and valuable in return. Abstaining from material pleasures, even for a short period of time, is an act of spiritual nobility whereby we show our resolve to move from the ephemeral and transitory to the eternal and ever-lasting.
It was in the month of Ramadan that the holy scripture of Islam, the Quran, began to be revealed. As the month of the Quran, Ramadan is also the time for Muslims to read the Quran and reflect on the meaning of our earthly existence. There is nothing more liberating spiritually than devoting oneself to the Divine, helping the poor, reading the Quran and fasting with your body and spirit.
Fasting is a time of spiritual reflection, inner peace, compassion and friendship. It is a gift to enjoy but also a call to shake us up from our daily routine of living a banal and empty life. It is a moment of joy and awakening. Let's hope and pray that it bring at least a degree of peace, mercy and contentment to us all.