Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Musing on Fasting

For one month in every year, Muslims all over the world are united in the observance of Ramadhan regardless of where they are and their station in life. During this holy month, we Muslims are prohibited from eating, drinking, smoking and any form of sexual intercourse between the hours of sunrise to sunset. We are also encourage to strive to be better Muslims by avoiding acts that would run counter to the teachings of Islam. It is said that any good deeds done during this holiest of months would be rewarded many fold and it is to our benefit to fill the months with acts of kindness and piety towards God. Fasting also allows Muslims to share and be mindful of the burdens of fellow Muslims who suffer starvation in their daily lives in some parts of the world. This realization of how it feels to be without the things that we sometime take for granted is hoped to spur all Muslims to be more thankful of what has been given to them by God.

Abstaining from food, drink, smoking and sex from dawn to dusk is not that difficult once you get used to it. All Muslims are taught how to fast from a young age. I can’t remember exactly when I first fasted for Ramadhan but it has to be before I was 7 years old as I already fasting the full day by then. I do remember that I was taught to fast first a few hours during the mornings before being coaxed to fast half the time that the adults fasted. I remember distinctly that my mother would ask us children to alternatively fast during the mornings on one day and fast during the afternoons on the following day. By teaching us this way, we were able to quickly adjust ourselves with the different challenges of fasting during the day. As an added incentive if we managed to fast for the whole day from sun up to sunset back when we were children, my mother would always give us a special treat at the break of fast. I also remember back when I was learning how to fast, my father would promise me a certain amount of money to be given at the end of the fasting month depending on the number of full days I fasted. Everyone in my family went through the same experience of learning how to fast and I don’t think that this experience in not that dissimilar to other families in Malaysia.

There are some local customs and traditions in Malaysia that you would only see during the fasting month. One tradition that is prevalent in Malaysia among Muslims during this time of the year is the pre-dawn meal that we call “Sahur”. This meal is taken before the dawn prayers to prepare ourselves for fasting in the day ahead. In my household, this means waking up at 4:30am in the morning to heat up the food that we have prepared the night before and sit down to eat as a family. I wouldn’t usually have any problems waking up at that ungodly hour but I rarely do it if I’m not at home with my family. It doesn’t feel the same waking up at 4:30 am in the morning to have sahur alone. If I’m at my apartment, I would usually skip it altogether and instead have a late supper before I go to bed. Another tradition that comes to mind is the Ramadhan bazaar that is organized by small traders in almost any populated area in Malaysia. It is at these bazaars that Muslims would congregate to buy food stuff, dishes, cakes and other delicacies for the meal to break fast with. In some of the bigger bazaars, one would be able to find local delicacies that would not be available any other month of the year. It is actually somewhat ironic to think that the fasting month is the best time of the year for any tourist who really wanted to sample true Malay cuisines and delicacies.

Muslims are reminded not to be wasteful during this fasting month. Not allowed to eat, drink, smoke and have sexual intercourse during the day time is not an excuse for excesses in any of them after the breaking of fast after the sun goes down. We consider people who waste food, for example, from the breaking of fast meal as not understanding the meaning of fasting in Islam. Fasting is a time for both moderation and meditation. It is a period of moderation in the sense of everything that we do before, during and after the fasting period. It is also a period of meditation in the sense of our relationship with God and fellow man. The month of Ramadhan allows us to contemplate the suffering that some people who have to live without sufficient food or water have to go through daily and allows us to share their burden. All able-bodied Muslims who meet certain criteria are also required to pay our yearly tithe during the month of Ramadhan which is usually the currency equivalent of a bag of rice per person. The alms that is collected during this month is divided fairly among the poor of the area that one lives in so that their suffering would be eased a bit during the holy month and that they would also be able to celebrate the end of Ramadhan with a little more cheer than they would have if they had nothing at all.

Ramadhan is the month that most Muslims look forward to as a month when we all can be spiritually recharged. It has been promised that during this holy month all good deeds are rewarded many fold, prayers are answered and forgiveness is easily given by God. It is the month when we can share the burden of hunger and thirst of the fellow man and do something to help ease the suffering that they have to go through day after day. The sense of brotherhood and unity among Muslims are the strongest during this month as we all have something that we share in common regardless of nationality, race or station in life. Every day in the month of Ramadhan is faced with patience and meditation in hopes that we will rewarded for our acts of piety. We would also celebrate the end of the fasting month with the Hari Raya or Eid celebrations not because we can eat during the day again but because we Muslim have successfully fulfilled our obligations to God for another year. It is this obligation that I for one am looking forward to successfully complete to the best of my abilities one day at a time.

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