In the Name of God, the Kind, the Beautiful
This post was published on the Seeker blog today.
On Wednesday August 11, Muslims the world over began the annual fast of the month of Ramadan, during which the Muslim faithful abstain from food, drink, and other sensual pleasures from dawn until dusk. What is particularly significant about this year’s fast – and the fasts for the next decade or so – is that it is occurring in the dog days of summer, when the days are long and hot. It is definitely a challenge, and I ask God for the strength and fortitude to see this month through.
On the surface, it seems that the fast of Ramadan – especially during these hot months – is anti-thetical to concept of freedom. I am wilfully denying myself food and drink, even water, all day for no reason other than Islam said so. Many people may see this as a restriction of my personal freedom, even if it be self-inflicted. Yet, for me, the fast of Ramadan is actually quite liberating. It teaches me that when I fast, I am truly free.
A few years back, whenever Ramadan would start, I would be in a complete stupor from caffeine withdrawal. I remember being at the hospital at 10 AM and not being able to function because of profound sleepiness due to my not being able to drink coffee. I actually had to take a nap…at 10 AM! Reflecting upon that experience, I realized that I was not truly free. I was dependent upon caffeine to help me function. Subsequently, I would stop my caffeine intake several days before Ramadan would start so that I would not be in withdrawal during the month of fasting. Ramadan helped me become caffeine-free, and I was all the better for it.
The fast of Ramadan is also a golden opportunity for Muslims to quit smoking. That is because, in addition to food and drink, Muslims are not allowed to smoke during the day in Ramadan. There is no better time than Ramadan to teach Muslims that indeed, they can go all day without a cigarette and be alright. The sky will not fall if they give up the cigarette. If they can go without cigarettes all day, then surely they can continue their abstinence at night. Yet, almost without fail, as soon as the sun sets, I see smokers immediately light up a cigarette, sometimes even before they have a drink of water. This is not freedom.
This is a topic that is near and dear to my heart as a lung specialist. Every day in my practice, I see the devastation wrought upon countless people by their tobacco addiction. Thus, if I get the chance, I try to always give a Friday sermon about smoking cessation during Ramadan. If Muslims can only take advantage of the opportunity, the month of Ramadan can help them gain the freedom from nicotine addiction and terrible health effects that come with such an addiction. The same is true for someone who is consumed by hatred, or anger, or spite, or lust. The fasting believer must refrain from not just food and drink, but also bad behavior and character while fasting. The Prophet Muhammad once said, “Whoever did not give up lying and practising falsehood, God is in no need of his giving up food and water.”
That is the true purpose of the fast of Ramadan: to free the believer from the shackles of earthly life and lift him or her toward their Lord in piety and devotion. The fast of Ramadan teaches the believer that the only thing to which they should be bound, the only thing to which they should be “addicted,” the only thing upon which they should be dependent is God and He alone. And when one is bound to the Beloved, there is no greater freedom in this world.
Of course, if someone is sick, or is a pregnant or nursing mother, or must take medications to stay healthy, the fast of Ramadan does not apply. I routinely advise Muslim patients who have chronic conditions that must be treated that they should not fast. Yet, even these people can participate in the freedom that Ramadan brings: by feeding a poor person as a “ransom” for their not being able to fast. Thus, they can provide someone in need the freedom from want.
I won’t lie: fasting in August is hard…really hard. Yet, it is wonderful experience. And it teaches me that when I follow God’s commands – when I submit to His will – I am the most free I will ever be.