Originally written for Aquila Magazine
As Ramadan and a much-looked-forward to Eid al-Fitr return to us this year, we take a moment to pause and reflect the true meaning of Eid. Unlike other holidays, Eid is not a stand-alone holiday; it is the celebratory period after the Islamic month of Ramadan in which we fast from sunrise to sunset. There is no Eid without a Ramadan coursed with sacrifice and abstinence – and it is precisely here that we find a sacred covenant with God, the ummah, and ourselves.
The fast itself is part of our covenant with God – one that is not fulfilled until after a full month of observance. Our fast is a period of meditative focus, where through humility and suffering we’re bestowed a chance to reconnect with God. Here the journey is just as important as the destination. The journey teaches us compassion for God’s less privileged creatures, the hungry and the poor. There is no greater teacher than experience and there is no amount of education or charity work makes us as sympathetic to the needs of others as when we’ve walked a mile in their shoes. Even though our fast lasts just a month, if we see someone go hungry months after Ramadan, we’re embedded with a special sympathy and desire to help our fellow human beings.
Fasting also instills discipline so that we can act to please God even when we’re tested. As blogger Abdur Rahman writes in his blog, Islam vs. Muslims, our need for food and water is a source of weakness, so that the very “thought of living without food and water frightens mankind so much that he gets ready to do anything so as to not face that situation. And if any time in his life he comes across such a situation he has all the chances of loosing his intellect due to the pain of hunger and thirst and added to it is the fear of death.” Rahman points out the type of a responses that come with not having the patience to do without, as we do when we train our bodies to manage without food and water. He adds that self-affliction in the form of suicide, hatred for others, and even violence and bloodshed are possible courses of action for the undisciplined individual – none of which please God. Considering the instability of a modern world, it’s easy to how (as Rahman indicates) difficult circumstances can surface during “war, foreign invasion, drought, famine, flood, natural disasters, and captivity.” While abstinence teaches us to be more mindful of others and to act with grace in times of hardship, the sheer practice of fasting also draws us closer to each other.
Culturally, Muslims come together to break their fast during iftar. We join each other with a spirit of patience and appreciation, sharing whatever little food we may have. More than just a breaking of the bread that signifies a bond, it is rewarded mutual sacrifice that creates a powerful bond with one another. The bond carries over to an Eid celebration where we’re not only encouraged to offer zakat, but we’re also encouraged to talk after Eid prayer, to listen to each other’s stories, and to give gifts. These small actions create a community among a group of people, with the simple act of gift giving increasing community welfare and well-being. Just as Eid cannot be celebrated without the month of Ramadan, Eid can also not be realized unless it is celebrated as a community.
A one month proscribed period of abstinence enables us to better unite as a collective. Our fast is also a process of purification. During our fast, we’re not permitted to act in impurity by indulging in excess. To purify the body, we, we abstain from sexual acts and from addictive substances like sugars, caffeine, and nicotine. To purify the mind, we’re called to increase patience and humility, while shying away from morally depraving behavior including frowned upon back-biting, idle chatter, arrogance, and impatience. A fast without food and drink is no fast at all if our soul continues to feast on this moral decay. If we’ve developed a nature that leans towards these vices, we’re granted this one month to cleanse ourselves – a length of time even scientists can agree upon…
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