GUEST COLUMN: This Ramadan: Reclaiming the common ground

By Reem Rahman

This past weekend, 1.6 billion Muslims around the world welcomed the start of the holy month of Ramadan. Given the turmoil of current events and denials of common ground, people often want to know what Islam is; Ramadan provides part of an answer to this question. Understanding the month of Ramadan not only highlights the essence of Islamic practice but also reveals elements of a profound journey that is common across the spectrum of human experiences.

Ramadan is the ninth and holiest month of the 12 months of the Islamic calendar, and it shifts back about 12 days each year in accordance to the lunar calendar. It is a month intended for return, introspection, compassion and community, and is a foundation for the rest of the year. It is the month of the Qur’an – when the Angel Gabriel, as Muslims believe, began the 23-year period of revealing the chapters of divine instruction and guidance.

In Islam, Ramadan is described as the blessed month of God in which its days are the best of days, its nights the best of nights, and its hours the best of hours. It is a month of increased spiritual vigilance during which God is believed to be especially forgiving and generous. As the contemporary European scholar Tariq Ramadan describes “This month is a feast… not of noise, but silence; not of banquets but restraint; not of forgetfulness but remembrance. This month is a feast for the faith.”

For those who are physically and mentally able to, every day is marked by fasting-restraining from food and drink from the sunrise until the sunset. This simple act of withholding sustenance resonates with significance. By being cut off from many of the worldly comforts, even for a short period of time, a fasting person seeks to realize and gain sympathy for the entrenched prevalence of hunger, sickness and poverty. Within the context of Generation Y’s culture of instant gratification, the denial of basic food and drink is an exigent exercise in the unthinkable.

The separation of physical concerns from daily activities further serves to allow more attention to faith. A vital dimension of fasting is heightened consciousness of behavior and vigilance over action. Among others, behavior such as anger, backbiting, vulgarity and senseless argumentation are challenged and curbed to maintain the integrity of the fast, and to build good habits to be continued throughout the year. The Prophet Muhammad described that “fasting is a shield. On the day you fast, do not use obscenity, nor yell at others, nor act ignorantly towards them. However, if anyone abuses you verbally or attempts to draw you to fight with him, say ‘I am fasting’, ‘I am fasting.'”

It is thus that the most profound dimension of fasting may be achieved: fasting of the heart in focus on the divine, God. It is then that Ramadan truly becomes a source of peace and solace.

The ultimate intent of Ramadan is for the total experience to reverberate beyond the individual and beyond the single month, incorporating faith and social responsibility as a central part of everyday life and community. It is a time intended for teaching and for the infusion of mechanic ritual with meaning. It is intended for charity to win over avarice, generosity over selfishness and love over hate.

These overarching elements are similarly found across the spectrum of religious traditions – from the abstinence of Lent, the fasting of Yom Kippur and the introspection of Rosh Hashanah, to the emphasis on establishing harmony amidst the impermanence of the body within Hinduism and Buddhism.

In large part this is a month directed at creating a common experience. During Ramadan, we find ourselves as a part of something larger; we join over a billion other people fasting and engaging in intense spiritual purification, but we also join billions more continually struggling to infuse greater meaning to life and to establish increased charity and social responsibility. It is a journey of struggle and discovery that echoes universally across the human experience.

Reem Rahman is the Director for Council on American-Islamic Relations at UIUC. CAIR-UIUC invites the campus community to an interfaith fast and bread-breaking this October 18th. For more info, contact [email protected]