Why we fast
By Elias Karmi
The month of Ramadan is when Muslims worldwide are required to fast, meaning to refrain completely from eating and drinking from dawn to sunset. It is also a month when Muslims perform more worship than they would during the rest of the year: praying more at night, reading more Qur’an, giving more in charity, etc.
A question that I hear frequently from my Minnesotan colleagues is: “Why do you do that?” – meaning, why do we fast. To Muslims, God’s order to fast is more than enough reason to do it, regardless of its health benefits that have been revealed over the years. But the question carries an interesting subtlety. The way the question is verbalized and the body language used suggest my colleagues are really asking: “Why do you have to make yourself suffer so much?” or “Why do you have to put yourself through this for a whole month?”
Looking deeper into the question, it is not the act of fasting itself that fascinates Americans; the principle of fasting is well established in several religions. Rather, it is the humility it takes for someone to submit, to the degree that fasting for a month per year becomes normal. To someone looking from the outside, it would appear as if Muslims are subjecting themselves to something they should refuse.
This appears to be stemming from the unfortunate fact that American culture has somehow acquired many widely accepted notions that are, in fact, opposite to humility. These notions and behaviors actually create a line of division between Muslim and American cultures.
Muslims view many things in America as displays of arrogance. Motorcyclists showing off, people dressing indecently, men talking too loudly in casual conversations, people blasting music in their cars, people walking proudly facing up and staring other people in the eyes, or simply “acting tough” at all times for no reason. All seem to be results of the “I do what I want when I want” attitude and all of which are things that Muslims see as contradictory to humility. And humility in the way we walk, talk, and otherwise act is very highly recommended in Islam – it is almost mandatory. Indeed, if you have Muslim friends who really like you, it is very likely that you show little or no arrogance at all.
So Ramadan comes as an annual reminder for us to adhere to humility in how we feel about ourselves. Arrogance with others implies an attempt to turn someone else into, figuratively, a slave even for a short time. Arrogance within ourselves implies denial of what we really are. We are all literally owned by God no matter how wealthy or influential we become. One of the basic tenets of Muslim faith is Uboudiya, or “enslavement” to God: the complete and unconditional obedience to our Owner.
Now that is a whole lot of humility! But many Americans who are humble by nature can readily understand this. The attitude that accompanies the acknowledgment of our enslavement to God makes the act of fasting not restrictive, but merely consequential.