/ 10 September 2010

Of sheep, goats and fasting

Of Sheep

I have an uncle who, as a rule, never fasts during Ramadan. His theory is that Ramadan is God’s test to separate the metaphorical goats from the sheep. And all who fast fail the test — they have failed to see God’s sense of humour and will now be forever looked upon by Him as stupid.

Obviously, this theory doesn’t work for me. I fast. I enjoy it. And it totally freaks people out.

When looking at it from an outsider’s viewpoint, though, I see how it may well seem a bit crazy. I realised lately that people who are not Muslim see fasting as quite a radical step. A real sacrifice. Right up there with a woman covering her face or fighting battles in the name of Islam. Basically, it’s pretty hectic.

But I, who like to see myself as a liberal Muslim, if there is such a thing, see it as one of the most relaxed parts of Islam. Yes, it’s giving up food and water for 12 hours a day, but the point is that that’s not really the point.

The point, to me, is self-awareness — giving up something that seems like a necessity only to find that other, less obvious needs and senses are made apparent. By consciously giving up food, all the other senses are heightened and self-reflection, soul-searching and inward-looking become a natural part of the day. It’s a kind of meditation in a way, a prayer just by being. It’s all quite lovely, really.

And the feeling of reward that comes with chowing down on pastry-covered goodness and slurping on warm milky drinks after a cold and empty-tummied day is the most natural, innocent and original of pleasures. Nothing compares to such pure joy.

I enjoy reminding myself that I can be disciplined, pushing myself when I feel as though I may be a weakling and then allowing myself childlike rewards of the mind and the flesh.

And not going out for a month is a relief, really. The social pressure to perform and to have something to do and people to do it with come Friday night is removed.

“It’s the fast, I don’t go out,” is the regular response to offers of evening plans, to which scared friends just back away.

Fasting feels like the rope that pulls me back to normality. No matter how far off my path I stray, or confused I get with directions, fasting seems to get me back to where I was going.

This may all sound remarkably similar to a religious motivational speech, but the great thing about fasting is that religion can move aside if need be and plain old-fashioned spirituality can take over.

It’s simple: giving up something that we think is fundamental to daily living helps us realise how desperately we need it. That allows us to appreciate it and what we do have, yet also shows us how strong we really are because we can get on without it.

It’s a really enlightening four-week lifestyle. It’s that feeling of realising that, at the end of the day, nothing’s really that big or that important. We can manage things and we can live on less than we thought we needed. It’s very liberating.

Don’t be freaked out by those who are fasting. It’s a sacrifice, yes, and it’s difficult, but it’s not as radical as it may seem.