By Malia K. Salaam
Since the beginning of time, various faiths have embraced fasting as a form of spiritual devotion. In Ancient Egypt, the divinely inspired text, The Book of Coming Forth (aka The Egyptian Book of the Dead), was said to have come to priests after abstaining from wine and meat. The Old and New Testaments of the Holy Bible have countless scriptures that refer to fasting as a form of worship. Isaiah 58:3 states, “Wherefore have we fasted, [say they], and thou seest not? [wherefore] have we afflicted our soul, and thou takest no knowledge? Behold, in the day of your fast ye find pleasure, and exact all your labours.” In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, nearly every Prophet observed some sort of fast lasting from three days to forty or longer, after which a new divine revelation would be passed down, i.e. the Ten Commandments. During forty days and nights that Jesus was tempted in the wilderness; he relied on fasting to fortify him. He also equates the importance of fasting to the acts of praying and giving alms (Matthew 6:6-18).
Islam is a religion of 1.57 billion followers, representing 23% of the earth’s population, and is recognized as the second largest and fastest growing faith in the world, according to Wikipedia. The religion has five pillars: 1) Faith (Iman), 2) Prayer (Salat), 3) Charity (Zakat), 4) Fasting (Saum), 5) Pilgrimage (Hajj). The scripture of Muslims, The Holy Qur’an says about fasting: “O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that ye may (learn) self-restraint.” (2:183)
With fasting being one of its major tenets, there are a number of occasions during which a believer might fast, but the foremost is during the month of Ramadan. Ramadan is the ninth month on an Islamic calendar using lunar calculation (vs. Gregorian) and it moves up by approximately 10-11 days each year. The significance of Ramadan is it was the month in which the Holy Qur’an was revealed to Prophet Muhammad, in Mecca, beginning in 610 A.D. “Ramadan is the (month) in which was sent down the Qur’an, as a guide to mankind, also clear (Signs) for guidance and judgment (Between right and wrong). So every one of you who is present (at his home) during that month should spend it in fasting, but if anyone is ill, or on a journey, the prescribed period (Should be made up) by days later. Allah intends every facility for you; He does not want to put to difficulties. (He wants you) to complete the prescribed period, and to glorify Him in that He has guided you; and perchance ye shall be grateful. (Holy Qur’an, 2:185)
Many of Prophet Muhammad’s sayings and practices were documented and called hadith. In one hadith, the Prophet declared: “He who fasts Ramadan, expressing his Faith and investing for the sake of God, his sin in the past and in the future will be forgiven” One could assume the blessings of this month is pretty significant to wipe away past and future sins. The observance of Ramadan is not merely limited to abstention from food and drink, but requires a purification of one’s thoughts, words, and deeds. Another hadith of Prophet Muhammad states, “One who, while fasting, neither guards his tongue from telling lies nor refrains from doing bad deeds does not respect his fast, while Allah does not approve of mere abstention from food…”
The fast takes place for thirty days, beginning at dawn and lasting until sunset. One neither partakes of food or drink of any kind during this time. Additionally, profanity, gossip, anger, sexual activity, and unnecessary consumer and entertainment activities are also refrained from during the daylight hours. A Muslim, instead feeds himself or herself with prayer, pure thoughts, charitable acts, reading of Qur’an and hadith, and fellowship with other believers.
When thinking about Muslim professionals in the Washington area, I was curious to discover how easy or challenging it is to observe the fast of Ramadan in a country that is not predominantly Muslim, and whether or not they see the religious obligation is seen as blessing or a burden? One gentleman I had the pleasure of speaking with was Hassan A. El-Amin, Associate Judge of the 7th Judicial Circuit for Prince Georges County, a practicing DC Barred Attorney with 16 years of service to the District. Since 1972, he has been a member of the historic Masjid Muhammad, known as The Nation’s Masjid and also sits on Imam’s Board of Advisors. When asked to summarize what the sacred month means to him, Judge El-Amin replied, “Ramadan is like an old friend, you love to see it come and you love to see it go.”
CN: What makes you say that?
HE: You love to see it come because this is an opportunity to affect self-discipline. By this point in your year, things may be falling apart and we have a chance to tighten up. Ramadan allows us to get back in touch with the universe, with God, and return to our center, our source. It brings sanity to the craziness all around. We’re in a time where the matrix has become a reality. We are being tested, spied on, and assaulted from every angle, from our senses to our finances to our health. When (the month of) Ramadan comes, it is like a STOP! sign or a big time out. The process of reading the Qur’an brings clarity. We get a chance to stop over-consuming. Well, I don’t know about everybody else, but I know I do (laughs).
CN: Why do you love to see it go?
HE: Well it’s just like an old friend who comes to visit, you enjoy the time and company while they’re there, but when it’s time for them to go, you’re ready. It wouldn’t be that special if your friend came then stayed EVERY day, you’d be like, hey… Once Ramadan is over, you can go back to the natural way (of life). The thirty days of regimentation is over. We also mark the end with the celebration of Eid ul Fitr, which I look forward to.
CN: What are some of the adjustments you have to make when Ramadan comes?
HE: One of my favorite little pleasures is having a pitcher of ice water on the bench. I look forward to that each morning. I get to rinse the coffee after-taste away, sip water, and crunch on ice while I listen to litigants make their cases. This is something I miss during that month. Really, it’s only the first four or five days of the fast where time seems to move more slowly; after that you get accustomed.
CN: How does having a high-stress or high-profile job impact your observance?
HE: By me being a little prominent, my staff and other people within the court–Muslims and non-Muslims alike–would be shocked if they did not see me observing. It would only be under extreme physical illness, that I would even consider not doing so.
CN: How do you feel the mainstream culture’s view of Islam and Muslims is now compared to when you first began practicing the religion?
HE: You know I have one of those At-A-Glance Commercial Calendar Planners that you buy at the office supply. Listed in red, is July 8th as a holiday, “First Day of Ramadan.” The Mayor of the District, the Governor of Maryland, even President Obama and the White House have scheduled Iftar Dinners (the supper where one’s fast is broken each day) throughout the month. Each year I receive about a half-dozen invitations to iftars across the area that are hosted by government entities. Slowly, surely, America is being introduced to appropriate and healthy traditions in Islam. You’d be amazed at the amount of support and respect I get from colleagues who are Jews, Roman Catholics, etc. They have high admiration for the fast of Ramadan. Many have said they plan to join in, but they never seem to go more than a few hours!
I later spoke with a young professional Muslim woman, J.R. Cisse, a DC Barred contract attorney, she offered an additional perspective.
CN: When did you first begin observing the fast during Ramadan?
JC: I was a new Muslim in 1993 and Ramadan fell during February that year, which was my first fast.
CN: What is your favorite thing about Ramadan?
JC: The best thing for me is the camaraderie, being with other Muslims for iftars and tawaweeh (nightly devotional prayers). Ramadan became even more enjoyable after I got married in 2006, because I had someone to share the experience with. It’s also more fun in the DMV, period because you get to masjid-hop to different activities across states here (she’s a California native).
CN: What is the most challenging aspect of the month for you?
JC: I don’t know what’s most challenging since I enjoy Ramadan so much, probably not being able to fast when I was pregnant or nursing. Although, you can do other acts of ibadah (worship), during Ramadan including taraweeh prayers, it still seems like you’re left out of ‘the club.’ (She chuckles). I love and prefer celebrating among a big community of Muslims that I know. Celebrating Ramadan in a new city is challenging because I miss that community spirit when I’m among folks or a masjid that I don’t know. Even though Muslims are welcoming, it feels better being with a community that you consider like family.
CN: What has been your experience working in a fast-faced field and fasting?
JC: I have worked in a lot of different environments, but I haven’t had any negative experiences. Sometimes I miss the camaraderie of going out with the crew for lunch, but that feeling usually passes after a few days. I work with different people on different projects from year to year and usually have to educate a new crop of co-workers. They marvel at the no water part (of the fast), even though they get no food. I always get the question, “No water either, from sunrise to sunset? Wow…I couldn’t do that!” Especially during long summer days, they think I’m either brave or crazy. (Laughs)
This year, Ramadan will begin either on July 8th or 9th, because it officially begins at the sighting of the new moon. Around August 7th or 8th marks the celebration of the completion of Ramadan, called Eid ul Fitr, which literally means “feast of breaking,” as in breaking one’s fast, This celebration lasts from one to three days and includes a large congregational prayer, usually with several masjids represented, a huge feast, exchanging gifts, giving charity (zakat), entertainment geared toward children and families, and much more. To forge inter-faith relationships or find out more about Ramadan and local Eid ul Fitr festivities, check out: masjidmuhammad.com or isna.net (Islamic Society of North America).