By Qasir Sheikh
Ramadan is almost over and you realize you still don't know anything about it, including that it was almost about to be over. Fear not fellow Torontonians, there's still time to figure out and experience what the month of Ramadan means for a little over a billion people in the world.
The fastest way to get a feel for the month would be to try a day of fasting: I know, I know, this seems like crazy talk. No food or water for a whole day? Yeah, it's tough, but that's just the beginning. Ramadan is about more than just refraining from food and drink. It's about being (or becoming) the best you can be while sacrificing seemingly essential things in life for spiritual benefit. It's about emptying your life of distractions, and with clarity determining what is essential and what isn't. Kind of like a vow of silence but more intense. People that take the vow of silence would probably say they were better listeners because of it. In the same way, fasting means drilling down to what makes you tick and making it better. Or as the famous poet Yeats puts it, " Now that my ladder's gone, / I must lie down where all the ladders start / In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart." Is it uncomfortable? Absolutely, but stepping out of your comfort zone and doing something difficult is what deepens a person's character and facilitates personal growth, which brings me to my next point – Lent. The concept of Lent in Christianity has some similarities to fasting in Ramadan. The traditional purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer through prayer, penance, repentance of sins, almsgiving, atonement and self-denial. In common day practice, Christians will give up or sacrifice one or a number of foods or activities which they enjoy and fast this way for forty days. Perhaps the Islamic concept of fasting goes a step further by fasting from all food and drink during daylight hours, while also engaging in prayer, penance, repentance of sins, almsgiving, atonement and self-denial. It can be challenging but with some determination and discipline you can make it happen.
If you have a medical condition or just don't think fasting for 17 hours a day is your thing then I suggest attending an Iftaar (gathering of people breaking their fast) and get to see the fun side of Ramadan – people sharing food, smiling, laughing, and sharing the stories of the day including the "you can't even have water??" question that inevitably pops up. For those that fast, Ramadan is a serious spiritual endeavor but it doesn't have to be a lonely one. In fact, enduring tough circumstances often brings people together and the best people are those that fast with a smile on their faces and with words of kindness and encouragement for everyone. Most people will break or begin their fasts by eating a date. The super sweet, and often sticky date is high in vitamins and minerals and is exactly the sort of super food your body needs to recover from a day of fasting. Of course, once the floodgates of eating and drinking open they are hard to close and you'll see people gorging on massive amounts of food at a pace that'll leave you wide eyed. These are the rank amateurs of Ramadan who have given into their insatiable cravings. I don't blame them but if they used just a tiny portion of the willpower from their day in the evening we'd prevent a lot of belly aches.
If you're more academically inclined and like to science things (that's right, it's a verb now) attend a lecture about Ramadan at your local mosque or check out one of the many high quality YouTube videos about Ramadan and Islam in general like Quran weekly or Taraweh truffles. If you’re anything like me, I'm always interested in knowing the origin of certain practices and explanations of various concepts in Ramadan. Sometimes the best way to learn is from a learned person that holds a degree or some other reliable credential rather than Wikipedia or the comments section of YouTube video (why are people so mean in YouTube comments?!).