The fast –– as good for body as soul
Fasting blinds the body in order to open the eyes of your soul . . . .
The above quote is from Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, one of the most widely read poets in America. His poetry resonates in American society and, as a result Oscar-winning screenwriter David Franzoni has agreed to work on a biographical movie about this 13th century poet.
That line of Rūmī captures the reality and beauty of what Muslims the world over have been engaging in for the last three weeks –– the annual fast of Ramadan. The fast of Ramadan (the ninth month of the Islamic calendar) is one of the five pillars of Islam.
A Muslim is expected during this month to fast during the daylight hours from the break of dawn to sunset each day for the entire month. It is a complete fast from all food and drink, including water.
Of course, young children, sick persons, the elderly, pregnant and menstruating women are exempted from the fast –– as well as those who are travelling and those whose health would be adversely affected by the fast. Some of these persons can make up for the missed fast at a later date.
This type of fasting –– an act of staying away from food and drink –– while physical, the whole exercise is more associated with the spiritual, and repairing the soul. Both go hand in hand.
As writer Arsalan Iftikhar puts it, “this annual month of fasting is both simultaneously intimate and deeply communal with family, neighbours and community. Ramadan is an annual time of reflection for 1.7 billion Muslims worldwide; it helps us to replenish gratitude by fasting, which helps us to reflect on all that we have and remember those people who are far less fortunate than us.
“While abstaining from food and drink during daylight hours and dreaming of a hearty meal at the end of the day can help keep the raptor in your stomach at bay, these hunger pangs also remind us that there are billions of people around the world with nothing to eat or drink every day”.
Muslims recognize that it is not only their faith that has fasting as a component of their beliefs and practices. The major Abrahamic faiths of Christianity and Judaism also have fasts in their structures –– and other world religions as well have fasting as a practice.
In The Bible one finds in Isaiah, Chapter 58: “Is not this the fast that I have chosen? To loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke?”
One commentary on this points out: “Fast is a day to afflict the soul; if it does not express true sorrow for sin, and does not promote the putting away of sin, it is not a fast. These professors had shown sorrow on stated or occasioned fasts. But they indulged pride, covetousness, and malignant passions.
“To be liberal and merciful is more acceptable to God than mere fasting, which, without them, is vain and hypocritical. Many who seem humble in God’s house are hard at home, and harass their families. But no man’s faith justifies, which does not work by love.
“Yet persons, families, neighbourhoods, churches, or nations, show repentance and sorrow for sin, by keeping a fast sincerely, and, from right motives, repenting, and doing good works.”
The character-building aspect of fasting is emphasized in all the religions. It is an exercise that should help in making the individual better in his or her attitude, relationships, care and concern for others. If staying away from the food and drink doesn’t help in moulding the character of the person fasting, then all that individual gets is the pangs of hunger.
The global phenomena of the Islamic fast helps in bringing a unifying element to the whole exercise. All persons practising their faith are all fasting at the same time every year. Similarly, the complete fast requirement ensures that everyone observing are at the same level.
For example, I can’t fast and eat only fruit and understand what it is like for a person who doesn’t even have fruit or can’t afford fruit.
While Muslims all fast at the same time every year, some will fast longer hours than others. The time span depends on where in the world one is located, and what time of the year Ramadan falls. Because we use a lunar calendar, months on the Islamic calendar come ten or 11 days earlier each year, when compared to the standard calendar we are all accustomed to.
This year, Ramadan falls in the summer months for the Northern Hemisphere, which means that in places like Britain, a day of fast can be upwards of 17 hours. We in Barbados benefit from a slight deviation in time. Our longest day of fast may be just 14 1/2 hours.
The health benefits of fasting, while not the primary goal, cannot be overlooked. Many nutritionists champion the benefits of fasting, as long as it does not affect any existing health conditions the individual may have. For me, I feel extremely rejuvenated by the end of the month, benefiting from some weight loss and an overall feeling of more energy.
Obviously, it is not the same for everyone and this will also heavily depend on the type of diet one observes during the times (at night) one can eat during the month.
So while many Muslims will dream of that hearty meal at fast breaking, in reality, one should restrict the amounts and types of food during the fasting period. This will help enhance the health benefits of fasting.
The date-fruit and water are highly recommended traditional foods and drink when breaking the fast. It will further help us to inculcate those healthy eating habits outside of the fasting period.
Concerns regarding the health of Barbadians have again come to prominence with the sudden death of several people within the last few weeks. These tragic occurrences are causing much trepidation, and some medical experts are telling Barbadians to check their health, eating habits, stress and even medication with more scrutiny.
As persons of faith, we all recognize that death can strike at any time, but this doesn’t negate all of us from having an attitude of a healthy lifestyle.
Many persons will ask a Muslim how he or she can do it? Go without food or drink for such long periods? The reality is that for many it is easy; the mind is conditioned to accept such a practice and the body is adapted to going without.
(Suleiman Bulbulia, a Justice of the Peace, is secretary of the Barbados Muslim Association and Muslim chaplain at the Cave Hill Campus, UWI. Email firstname.lastname@example.org)