Are you hungry? Are you thirsty?
For most people it wouldn’t be very difficult to just walk over to the fridge or the local market right now and grab something to eat or drink. Compared to our ancestors it’s a blessing to be able to fulfill your physical emptiness at the snap of a finger.
Have you ever thought or felt, however, what it would be like to not have that luxury? Or, in the same token, have you ever considered what its like to be spiritually empty? Maybe you even feel that way now.
What is Ramadan?
For Muslims, Ramadan is all about taking your focus off the physical world and putting it onto the spiritual. It’s a month long commemoration of the Prophet Mohammed receiving the first revelation of the Quran, and it’s also a time to humble yourself and remember what the poor feel when they have little or nothing to eat (I should mention that Muslim and Arab societies actually have religious laws in place to ensure that the hungry have food given to them at some point. Plus it’s not uncommon for bakers or restaurant staff to go out in front of their shops and give a small bag of food to the local beggar with joy. It’s pretty sweet).
If you aren’t aware, the jist of Ramadan is that from sunrise to sunset a Muslim is not allowed to eat or drink anything. Pregnant women, children, the elderly, and travelers are exempt.
“That’s crazy, and sounds kind of impossible. Especially for Muslims who live in the hot desert regions of the Arabian Middle East.”
Actually if you ask people from that region of the world, such as Jordan where I was during Ramadan, you’ll hear that it’s normal for them and they have learned to deal with it (they won’t go as far as to say they enjoy it though). Growing up in that type of climate their bodies become like camels: very good at storing water. This is important, especially since some people still have to work and go on with normal life during the day.
My Experience With Ramadan (how it works, hour by hour)
Roughly one month ago around this time Ramadan ended. It was also around this time that I left Jordan a few days before Eid (celebration of feasting after fasting for a whole month, yes!).
I am not Muslim, but because in Christianity we also are commanded to fast, because Ramadan started a few days before Pentecost, and because I want to learn the culture of the area first hand, I decided to fast during Ramadan as well. And I did it “the right way.”
I woke up at 3:30am each morning with my Muslim friends to eat sahoor, which is the meal before the sunrise. This wasn’t a time for crackers, popcorn, chips, or other unhealthy quick food. It was a time to fill up on water, carbs, sugar, and some protein to keep you going throughout the day. Around 4am, my friends were off to the mosque or their room to do ablution (washing of hands and feet with water) and salat (prayer, the first of five throughout the day). I on the other hand, was off back to sleep after thanking Jesus for food, breath, and life. Then everybody came back to sleep as well.
Between 10:00am and 12:00pm my friends and I start waking up. The sun is outside shining brightly and heating up the arid land, my friends are waking up sluggishly, and I wake up fighting the habitual urge to reach for a glass of water (it’s easy after the third day or so). For those who work it’s business as usual, but for those who don’t it’s a time to decide whether to go back to sleep until maybe 16:00 (4pm) or to wake up and do nothing. Check your Facebook, scroll through Instagram, hit up your friends, or watch a movie (these are not the spiritually correct ways to do Ramadan, you are supposed to read the Quran and pray throughout the day in devotion to Allah).
Given that I am traveling in a foreign country and want to explore the sights, I definitely chose not to go back to sleep and prepared myself to go out for the day. My traveling friend from France also would prepare himself to go out for the day with me. Most people would take it easy throughout the day if they were fasting like this, but my friend and I were no pushovers (I was thinking of another word but it’s not appropriate. Take a guess). We lived life as if we weren’t fasting.
We hiked up steep hills. We swam/floated through the Dead Sea. We trekked through rivers with waterproof shoes through Wadi Mujib to reach a waterfall about 2 miles inland. We walked on average anywhere from 10-17 miles (16-27 kilometers) a day in the dry heat. One day I even ran outside for a good two or three miles (I was late to church and was too cheap to take a taxi).
We had a good time, yet we felt very surrendered while doing so. Even though my friend is Muslim and I am Christian we talked a lot about God, humanity, religion, politics, love, women, money, business, etc throughout the day; we connected very much on a lot of things. We both not only seek to do good for others but to live a life worthy of the name of God and be good fathers and husbands someday. We respectfully refer to Him as Lord, and we both say grace (my friend says bismallah) before we eat. I consider him a good friend, and being with him made fasting for Ramadan that much easier. It also helped that during the day no restaurants or food related shops are open, with the exception of one or two in big cities like Amman (for the foreigners).
Fast-forward past all the fun and chatting about life, around 18:00 (6pm) we start thinking about 19:45 (7:45pm), the usual time that the sun goes down and you hear the call to prayer signaling the “green light” to eat fatoor/iftar, or dinner breaking the fast. We coordinate with our local friends as to where to meet and what to buy at the store to help prepare fatoor. We meet up and are told to just relax while the locals prepare the food (Arab hospitality, it’s amazing).
Whether we ate at home or met up at famous restaurants like Hashem in downtown Amman, we all sat together as a family around a table (or floormat) with a delicious array of food in front of us. The one rule: nobody was to touch anything to their lips until 19:49-ish (7:49pm), when the call to prayer took place. If you grew up like I did, you didn’t really have family dinners. There wasn’t all this prep and build up to a time of multiple people (4+) sitting around a table and enjoying food together. So for me, it was a gem to see all these strangers sit down together, both foreigners and locals, and eat together like a huge family at the -exact- same time. Foreigners who tried to jump the gun were usually called out, even though technically by law they are not obliged to observe Ramadan like Jordanians are.
When the time to eat arrived, oh it was feast! It’s traditional to break fast with a date. Not like take a pretty lil missy out to dinner date, but the fruit date. Then, it was water, juice, hummus, falafel, shawarma, maklouba, mansaf, lentil soup, tavuk sis, or whatever you were eating that night, galore. I cannot even begin to explain to you how glorious that first sip of cold water feels after not drinking anything all day. As for food, the key is to not eat too fast, or else you’ll jam your increasingly smaller stomach with half-chewed food quickly, and your intestines will give you crap (literally) about it later in an unpleasant way.
Aside from that though, fatoor was a time to celebrate the gifts of God, such as food, health, and relationships. Beyond the fact that I was hungry by that time, I very much looked forward to fatoor each night. My friends would say bismallah, while I gave thanks to the Lord for all the things mentioned above and more.
After fatoor, however, is when the real night started. By 21:00 (9pm), people were done eating and now they were in the streets or restaurants chatting, laughing, dancing, watching soccer games, drinking (juices, alcohol is forbidden), and smoking cigarettes or shishah (hookah). It was very lively, compared to the quiet almost empty streets void of people during the day. The liveliness was so much so that most young people forgot the “holy” aspect of Ramadan. The local guys were checking out and cat-calling the blonde or brunette foreign girls walking the streets, the local girls were giggling, gossiping, and staring at the tall white and or dark foreign men walking the streets; old men and women were yelling and laughing at each other in Arabic about silly things that happened throughout the day; little boys and girls were screaming and having fun walking around with their families; and shopkeepers were calling out to the crowded streets about their special prices. At around 21:45 (9:45pm) there was the final call to prayer of the day, and you would see mostly men heading over to the local mosque to pray before going back to their festivities.
The “party” would continue for most until sahoor, the meal before sunrise that I mentioned before, but for others such as myself I would be in bed by 1:00 or 2:00am, only to wake up an hour and a half or so later. Then it was “press repeat” to do it once again the next day for the next thirty days.
For those who didn’t hear much from me during that time, now you know why.
Final Thoughts and Explanations
I should clarify that I did not in fact fast all 30 days of Ramadan, if I counted correctly it was only about 12 days. The first seven days, however, I did indeed fast back to back. It was because those first few days were leading up to the famous day of Pentecost in Christianity in which we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit as promised by Jesus and of the birth of the Church. It also coincides with the day in which Moses received the Ten Commandments from God on Mt. Sinai. After Pentecost passed, I fasted every other day until I left for Europe.
Nonetheless, it was such an experience and blessing to fast in the Middle East during this special month for Muslims. Constantly my friends or myself would share (in Arabic) with local strangers that I was an American Christian fasting during Ramadan and the strangers would either be like: [A] “Wow, Mashallah (how beautiful and glory to God)! Why though?”, or [B] “Hey (talking to my Muslim friends), why are you guys forcing the Christian to do this? What’s wrong with you?” It was always a good conversation starter to tell my story and to hear about the relationships between Christians and Muslims in the region. It’s not at all what we hear about in the news, though the humanitarian disasters that occur are of course not disvalued in anyway.
Overall, Ramadan 2017 was a month I will never forget in my life. I highly encourage anyone, whether religious or not, to partake at least one full day of Ramadan-type fasting in their lives. If not just for the body toxins cleansing affect that type of fasting has on you. You don’t have to be religious to see the positive effects of it on your body, there are a lot of common diet plans that incorporate intermittent fasting.
I will say, however, that the physical effect of fasting is nothing compared to the spiritual effect. You learn to not worry, to think past your burdens and self, and to rid yourself of unbelief. Unbelief, in the sense, that the physical pleasures we enjoy in this life are not as important or necessary as they seem, as beautiful as they can be. They are but a shadow of the bliss and power available, here and now, to those who are humble and believe in the unseen.
Fasting is not a religious duty, it’s an invitation to know truth, freedom and love through self-denial.
“Is this not the fast which I choose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke? Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into the house; when you see the naked, to cover him; and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then your light will break out like the dawn, and your recovery will speedily spring forth; and your righteousness will go before you; and the glory of the Lord will be your rear gaurd.” – Isaiah 58:6-8