Just prior to the start of Ramadhan, I came across this interesting chart showing fasting times around the world.
It shows how the length of each fast can vary considerably depending where one lives – from 22 hours for those in Iceland, to just under 10 hours in Chile. The number of fasting hours in the UK is much closer to Iceland, so I couldn’t resist tweeting:
Within 24 hours, it had got more than 200 retweets. A relief to know so many who can relate to the demands of Ramadhan saw the (intended) funny side.
But joking aside, this is the one month that Muslims all over the globe eagerly look forward to.
What, you might ask, can be so exciting about the prospect of spending three quarters of each day, for up to 30 days, without food and drink; to rise around 3am each morning for prayers; to spend most of the evening in the mosque? What planet do these Muslims live on?!
To those in the developed world, choosing to starve oneself might seem to be an absurdity – confirmation even that Islam really isn’t compatible with modern life. If I wasn’t a Muslim myself, I’d probably be thinking the same.
But whenever the time of Ramadhan comes round, and with every year that I fast, the more I learn about the profound wisdom behind it.
So why am I, along with more than one billion people, putting myself through such discomfort? What’s the point of it all?
The same questions can be asked about anything that involves striving, and sometimes suffering, in order to achieve a particular goal. The student who wants to excel at school, professional who aspires to climb the career ladder, and athlete that trains to become the best, must all struggle to accomplish their aims. No pain, no gain.
Faith works along the same principle. Progress and attainment (to use educational terms!) apply in spirituality just as much as they do in anything else. The Qur’an alludes to this analogy:
“God sets forth similitudes for people that they may reflect” (Chapter 14 Verse 26).
But I’m not referring to promised rewards in the afterlife, as the sole motivation for those who observe religious practices such as Ramadhan. The benefits of fasting can be earned here and now.
When I am hungry and thirsty for so many hours, I can empathise with those who are without food and drink. You might ask what difference does that make to a starving child elsewhere? Whilst the physical act of fasting doesn’t, the system of fidya, or donation to the poor, does. Through this, I can pay the cost of three square meals for families struggling to put food on the table for each day of Ramadhan. Usually fidya comes from those unable to fast – such as the sick, elderly and pregnant women – but all Muslims are encouraged to contribute.
Indeed it was during the month of Ramadhan that the Prophet Muhammad’s charity and regard for the destitute was at its highest, an example for Muslims to follow.
Therefore, not only does my sacrifice make me appreciate and become more grateful for what I have, it is making a difference to those in need too.
Ramadhan also teaches me self-restraint, physical and emotional. Giving in to various temptations and harbouring ill feelings towards others are strictly forbidden. The Prophet said: “If anyone seeks to abuse or argue with you, say ‘I am fasting’.” He condemned those who fast yet pass the day in dishonesty, deception and lack of discipline, adding: “God has no need for such a person leaving their food and drink.”
Fasting is essentially about self-examination – a time to reflect on what I say and do, how I behave and treat others, and to try to reform accordingly. Reminding myself of my own faults makes me more inclined to overlook the weaknesses of others.
Therefore, this is a month for me to recharge my spiritual batteries – to feel a closer connection with my Maker, but also to strengthen ties with my neighbour. Ramadhan really can change the world for the better, as it requires a commitment from every Muslim to not only improve themselves, but to make a positive difference to others. And that’s why it is a month when, as the Prophet said, “the doors of heaven are opened, and the gates of hell closed.”