From the moment we are born to the last rites of our life and every moment in-between we follow rituals, though some may deny it. Whether we go to the gym, eat our food, go to sleep, wear clothes, drive some place, in our intimate moments, going to the mall or picking that phone up, every turn and every significant moment of the day is a ritual.
Rituals signify the mile stones of our daily life. Every turn and every significant moment of the day is a ritual. It is an unwritten way of measuring our progression; a memory pattern to bring discipline to our actions.
Discipline is necessary to do things on time, managing personal relationships, driving to a destination or keeping within budget to achieve the goals; the result is worth the discipline to most people. When joyous, whether we are a theist or not, we have to express that sentiment, otherwise a sense of incompleteness prevails.
The Spiritual masters have captured the human gravity for rituals and have molded it with the art and science of self-discipline in their respective religion. The noble purpose of each one of them was to bring a balance in our lives and a balance with things that surround us; life and environment.
The Spirit of Ramadan
Every faith is composed of a set of unique rituals to bring discipline and peace to human life. Fasting is one of the five key rituals that Muslims around the world observe.
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar and is generally observed with a ritual precision; it is an annual training or a refresher. It requires one to abstain from food, drink, intimate relations, ill will, ill talk, ill actions or any temptations from dawn to dusk. One has rise above his or her baser desires. Islam gifts this month to its followers to inculcate such a discipline to bring moderation in their daily lives. Twenty five hundred years ago, Buddha, the enlightened one taught that human suffering is caused by unrestrained desire to own and had recommended a middle path.
Although Ramadan is popularly known in the West for its culinary delicacies and fancy Iftaars (ceremonial breaking of fast at sun down), the spirit and intent of Ramadan lies in a human transformation in a month long inner spiritual journey of finding oneself in tune with spirituality.
God has no need for the hunger or thirst of someone who hurts others, violates their dignity or usurps their rights, said Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). The fasting of the stomach must be matched by the fasting of the limbs. The eyes, ears, tongue, hands and feet all have their respective fasts to undergo. The tongue's temptations, for example - lies, backbiting, slander, vulgarity and senseless argumentation - must be challenged and curbed to maintain the integrity of the fast.
Consciousness of behavior and vigilance over action are the most profound dimensions of fasting: the fasting of the heart focuses on the attachment to the divine. That is when Ramadan really becomes a source of peace and solace, just as Christmas goes beyond the rituals to bring forth kindness, charity and caring.
True fasting is self-purification; and from this, a rich inner life that bring about values such as justice, generosity, patience, kindness, forgiveness, mercy and empathy - values that are indispensable for the success of the community.
Knowing about hunger is different from knowing hunger. Empathy is not an intellectual equation; it is a human experience. Our hardness of heart often springs from our distance from the human condition of others. The poor, sick, disenfranchised, oppressed - we rarely walk a mile in their shoes, not even a few steps. "Rest assured," cautioned one teacher, "if you do not taste what it feels like to be hungry, you will not care for those who are."
For fasting to be truly universal, its benefits must extend beyond the fraternal ties of Muslims and must extend to forging a common humanity with others. Fasting is meant to impart a sense of what it means to be truly human, and its universality is reflected by its observance in Bahai, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Sikh, Zoroastrian and other faiths.
Ramadan will come and go with such stealth that we cannot but be reminded of our mortality. What is it that we value and why? Habits, customs, even obsessive behavior like smoking can be curtailed with relative ease in the face of a higher calling.
The Rituals of Ramadan
It is celebration time when Muslims around the world anxiously wait for the first moon of the ninth Lunar month to appear on the sky. The families gather in their backyard, or get on the nearest hillock or climb on the top of their house and wait for the pencil thin moon on the horizon to appear. It is the same spirit and excitement to watch the fire works on 4th of July and when the moon is sighted, it is like the first day of Christmas, Diwali, Rosh Hashanah, Paryushan or the Jashn, the festivities begin and with that the joyous month of self discipline begins.
Rituals vary in different Muslim cultures, where I am from, it is Chandni Raat, moonlit night festivities, and it is an expression of joy of people coming together. It is almost like the National night out or the last night shopping prior to Christmas.
For 30 days, with small variations in practices, families rise up early around 4:00 AM. In my tradition, the whole family gathers in the kitchen and participates in cooking the meals and about 5 minutes before the cut-off time, everyone finishes his/her food intake and takes the last sip of the water. Right after that is the Morning Prayer congregation at home or Mosque, then we are free to do what needs to be done.
Through out the day we abstain from food, water and any thing that is detrimental to self-discipline. We pray in the afternoon, late afternoon and then the whole family gathers in Mosque or homes and waits for the sunset to break the fast. It is usually a communal activity rather than an individual act.
When you break the fast it is a healthy practice to eat the appetizer sized items in fruits, vegetable and refreshments. Dates are the most popular item as it was the practice of Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh).
The breaking of fast, also Known as “Iftaar” has become a community event, where Muslims invite their non-Muslim friends to join in their celebration of that day. President Clinton started the tradition of holding an Iftaar party carried forward by President Bush. It has become a major social event for the politicians just as it is with Diwali, Rosh Hashanah and other festivals.
At the end of 29th or 30th day, depending on the moon sighting, NASA or other tradition, the fasting would come to an end with the celebration. It is a major celebration where literally all Muslims gather in an open space and pray the thanksgiving prayer for having a blessed Ramadan. It is a day one formally forgives and gets forgiven and starts another year with good will. Every one hugs three times; I am your friend, you are my friend and we are friends.
Though the annual ritual of fasting takes 30 days its true destination is endless. May we always hunger to discover our heart? May we always aspire to find our balance, connect with each other, open our hearts and minds to fellow beings; the joy that comes with it is ours to keep.
The politics of Ramadan
Since the beginning of Islam, there have been debates as to what constitutes moon sighting. Some interpret that there has got to be a minion to declare that they have seen it themselves with their own eyes, where as others do not accept it unless they have seen it themselves. In the United States there is an organization that monitors moon sighting called the Hilal committee. At one time it was acceptable if the moon was sighted elsewhere, but now, each group has to have their own moon sighting.
Politics run our community lives, be it a temple, synagogue or church, Muslims are no different. A few scientifically-inclined-Muslims have adopted NASA’s calculation, believed to be precise. Today, four different traditions prevail concurrently; i) Strictly Calendar, ii) NASA and iii) Sighting with bare eyes and iv) sighting by others in the community.
The NASA oriented and the Calendar group misses out the fun, joy and exhilaration of waiting and watching the moon climbing anything above ground, including standing on some strong shoulders. It is like the belief in Santa Claus, Angels and other myths, each tradition fulfills one’s emotional needs and none is superior.
In the tradition of Prophet, let every one celebrate the way their group feels, it is against the spirit of Ramadan to denigrate, diminish and devalue other practices. The essence of Ramadan is to become humble, simple and free from ill-will, anger, meanness and hate. Let’s fill our hearts with goodwill and honor Ramadan by saying “Eid Mubarak” or Happy Eid to every one who celebrates on a different day in the same town. The essence of Ramadan is joy and let’s not prick any one’s bubble; God has not signed a pact with any one behind others back, let’s rejoice the differences. If you want to celebrate, go to every celebration.
In spirit of Ramadan, I pray Ramadan gets into our hearts and minds and make us embrace all factions of Muslims without undermining their tradition and further pray that we treat every human on the earth with dignity, respect and care.
That is indeed the wisdom expressed in Qur'an, Al-Hujurat, Surah 49:13: "O mankind! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another. The noblest of you, in sight of Allah, is the best in conduct. Allah Knows and is Aware."
Note: The Author writes similar articles on festivals of different faiths as time permits. He has written quite extensively on Bahai, Buddhist, Christian, Jain, Jewish, Sikh, Wicca, Zoroastrian and other faiths. The idea is for us to learn about our friends and how the celebrate or commemorate their joys and sorrows, so we can share it with them.
Disclaimer: This essay has evolved in content, essence and size over the last five years and continues to add value to it. It is a compilation of several ideas; similarities of thoughts are merely co-incidental. God willing it will be become a comprehensive document on the Spirit and Rituals of Ramadan for Muslims as well as Non-Muslims.
Mike Ghouse is a Speaker, Thinker and a Writer. He co-chairs the center for interfaith inquiry of the Memnosyne Foundation, president of the Foundation for Pluralism and is a frequent guest on talk radio and local television network discussing interfaith, political and civic issues. He is the founding president of World Muslim Congress with a simple theme: Good for Muslims and good for the world. His comments, news analysis and columns can be found on the Websites and Blogs listed at his personal website www.MikeGhouse.net. Mike is a Dallasite for nearly three decades and Carrollton is his home town. He can be reached at MikeGhouse@aol.com