The first blog I read about Ramadan this year was full of the usual self-righteous pontification that takes this occasion to remind people to do such and such at this or that level. Who is the target audience for such an approach, I wondered? It seemed to operate on the basic idea that Muslims will NOT do the right thing unless someone tells them to. Mostly, though I noticed the gloom and doom of it and I decided then to make my Ramadan focus on joy.
First a quick reminder about the basics: Throughout the 9th
lunar month, Muslims are obliged to abstain from food, drink and sexual
intercourse during the day. It goes on like this for 29-30 days. There
are also points of difference about some details of the fast, like how
we determine which day to start. Either we actually cite the new moon,
go by advanced calculations of the new moon, or some combination of
these two. This leads to healthy chaos at the beginning because no one
knows when the first day will, be but must prepare in order to get in
that pre-dawn meal, called suhur. I say,
healthy chaos, not only because I’m a bit of an anarchist, but also
because I like that no one has complete control about such an important
Also of note this year, in the Northern hemisphere, Ramadan started
just a few days after summer solstice, which means the day light goes
for 16-20 hours—in the heat! Some people observe the length of the fast
according to actual day light,
others observe the length of the day in another sacred place, like in
Makkah. Again, no single decision prevails over all others leaving room
for diversity and personal conscience about which option.
There are some exemptions from the fast, with days made up at other
times of the year for temporary interferences, like travel, sickness,
menstruation. Fasting is not obligated upon those with long term
concerns like diabetes. “Feeding the poor” is an alternative to fasting
permitted by the Qur’an and practiced widely, again in different forms.
I know what that person was trying to do in that blog. Really, I do.
You see, Ramadan is like an annual tune up of faith and devotion. More
(of the 1.3 billion) Muslims observe fasting in Ramadan than any other
prescribed Islamic ritual. There are also additional acts of devotion
associated with the month: personally reading through the entire Qur’an,
praying up to 20 units of prayer each night, usually in congregation,
called tarawih, and putting your own ego in check over anger and other bad habits.
This year, I thought a lot about what I’d like to call “a culture of
fasting”. For although this culture is diverse, it is clear that Muslims
are conscious that their fellow Muslims will be fasting, even if they
do not observe by choice or necessity. In this culture, even a
non-faster wouldn’t invite another faster to lunch! Meanwhile to share
the fast-breaking meal, iftar, with family,
friends, neighbors, and strangers, even at public and commercial places,
is one of the most anticipated pleasures of the observance.
I began my fast awaiting the birth of my grandson in a house with
several other adults who were not fasting. So I felt the pang of not
having this culture of fasting, except with my daughter who was too
pregnant to fast. In my isolation, it didn’t take me long to lose my
good sense of humor about making my way to the kitchen at 3 a.m. using a
flash light. I missed not having control over my kitchen. It was worse
than fasting while traveling, because then it is usually only for a day
A week into the fast a new groove is reached. For me this means
greater mental clarity, new insights even to some of the same
intellectual concerns. Not being bogged down with much food must make a
radical change in the body and the mind. For sure, fasting in Ramadan
emphasizes the critical connection between body and ritual. It’s not
just about how one feels in the heart, the entire body participates so
that whatever is recognized, is intensified. The Qur’an says, the fast
teaches self-constraint. A solid month-long readjustment in basic habits
brings not only awareness, but appreciation.
In my quest for the joy this year, I met a person who made the best
affirmation of gratitude I think I have heard in a long time. It showed
me up for the complaining I had been doing about fasting away from my
comfort center and with no culture of fasting around me. I saw how I had
found fault with being alone, wandering around the house at 3 a.m. with
Then an interesting thing happened. A medical emergency in my family
led me to a hospital in another city where I had no recourse except to
sleep in my car. At 3 a.m. I got a bag of chips and a bottle of water at
the 7-11 and began to chuckle: Had I previously been complaining about a
flashlight in a dark house while fasting alone?!
Yes, Ramadan can teach us gratitude; but first we might need to learn humility.
I’m thankful for the lesson.
I am grateful, for a lifetime of work towards Muslim women’s freedom,
agency and upliftment. I’m grateful for amazing friends in all parts of
the world and the means to keep in touch with them. I am grateful for
my family, especially my adult children; all kind, decent, and
responsible with a spiritual dedication of their own. I’m grateful they
are now parents with generosity and compassion.
This month we welcomed a new member to our family. I am grateful for
the opportunity to see him come into the world. I wish him and my
family, and you and yours a long and healthy life of prosperity,
justice, peace and love abundant.
amina wadud is Professor Emerita of Islamic
Studies, now traveling the world over seeking answers to the questions
that move many of us through our lives. Author of Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective and Inside the Gender Jihad,
she will blog on her life journey and anything that moves her about
Islam, gender and justice, especially as these intersect with the rest
of the universe.