August 28, 2010

One Day in Ramadan

Earlier this month, I had been asked to provide an insider's perspective on Ramadan. That person had written:

I would like to know more about Ramadan ... I mean I could look it up in Wikipedia ... However, I would like to know not only about the event itself, but the event and the event [sic] from a more personal view.

This diary tries to present a small glimpse into the Ramadan experience.

4:30 a.m. - The alarm goes off to wake my wife and I up to start the new day. We eat some breakfast, take our respective sets of pills, then brush our teeth. The break of dawn doesn't begin until 5:45, but we stop all eating and drinking ten minutes earlier to make sure that, by 5:45, any remaining food or liquid in our mouths will have been swallowed.

This is my eleventh Ramadan; the first time I fasted for Ramadan was back in 2000. I had reverted to Islam only a few months earlier so, when I approached some friends at the mosque and asked them how I should prepare for fasting, they correctly advised me, "You don't." There is no correct way to prepare for fasting; you just plunge ahead and do it. The first four days of my fast were excruciatingly painful. My stomach had never gone through a full day without any food. On the fifth day, my stomach started to understand that there was not going to be any meals until supper, so the hunger pains began to let up. However, I still dealt with the issue of thirst, especially for the next nine days or so, when I ultimately discovered that the best thing to do was to keep my mouth shut, literally. Talk as little as possible (not always possible for a teacher), and breathe primarily through my nose. After that, fasting became easier. That first year, I lost a lot of weight, forcing me to buy a new, smaller belt during the middle of the month.

Fasting is about depriving one's self of some of the basic physiological necessities of life. But when one doesn't feel any hunger pangs or thirstiness during Ramadan, as I rarely do anymore, other issues come to the forefront. In recent years, I have begun to notice "themes" during Ramadan, spiritual lessons regarding different subjects that have tied into Ramadan. Ramadan is a time when there is an emphasis on feeling empathy for those who are less fortunate than ourselves. In the last few years I had had some relatively minor health issues to deal with during Ramadan (severe head aches toward the end of the day, and sticky mucus at the back of my sinuses that gave me some difficulty in breathing early in the morning). These discomforts have reminded me of those people who have little or no access to health care, something that perhaps some people take for granted, but an issue that can become the focal point of other people's lives. This year's theme has centered around family, as I suspected it would. With the sudden passing of my father-in-law earlier this year, my wife's family has worked to give more emotional support to some of the family members who have taken the loss of "Abah" the hardest.

One aspect about Ramadan that many non-Muslims don't grasp is the close connection there is between fasting and zakat, the giving of charity, which is another pillar of Islam. The two are closely connected in that both are about purification. Fasting helps to purify the body, while zakat helps to purify one's wealth. In Islam, income and wealth need to be "pure," meaning that the source or manner in which the wealth and income has been obtained must be halal. Muslims often work through moral quandaries in deciding whether to take certain jobs: Can she work as a cashier when the grocery store sells pork and alcohol? Can he work in a hotel that is attached to a casino? Can she become a teller at a bank that relies upon interest for its primary source of revenue? To help purify that money, Muslims donate some of their personal wealth each year to help the poor.* In Singapore, it is not uncommon to see people or even businesses donating food to the poor as part of their effort to give charity. (The most common food given away here is rice porridge with chicken; however, one year, I walked through a shopping center where a business was about to give out fried chickens to a long queue of people who were waiting to take some home for their dinner that night. That was one of the few times recently where I grew hungry during the day - the smell of all that chicken was very strong.)

In many countries with significant Muslim populations, the month of Ramadan has become commercialized although, at least here in Singapore, that degree of commercialization is nowhere near the level of the American Christmas season. Some countries increase the number of cooking shows and "crazy soap operas" on television (as an Internet friend living in the UAE put it). In Singapore, the commercial side of Ramadan means shopping in the Malay Village section of Geylang and Sims Roads. The difference between the Christmas and Ramadan shopping seasons, though, is that Muslim shoppers aren't necessarily looking for gifts to give. In Singapore, at least, gifts are only given to children during the Eid festivities, and the gifts are almost always some money. (I was shocked when, last year, my wife's grandmother gave me a gift of money for Eid; money, if it is given to adults, is almost always for older relatives, like parents, aunts and uncles, and grandparents, who may be living on fixed incomes.) Instead, Muslim shoppers normally buy merchandise to prepare their families and their homes for Eid. Thus, apparel like color-coordinated Baju Melayus for men and Baju Kurungs for women, home furnishings (curtains, cushion covers, rugs, etc.), and all sorts of traditional cookies are some of the most popular items sold at the Ramadan markets.

But ultimately, Ramadan is a religious observance, in which mosques become a little more crowded for all of the prayers other than the Friday noon congregational prayer (which remains consistently full year-round). In Singapore, evening tarawih prayers are often conducted at housing block void decks because there is not enough space in the mosques to accommodate everyone who wishes to perform them. Religious talks are often given publicly, some of which are broadcast on television, as well as Qur'an recital competitions. The hope of every Muslim during Ramadan is that each of their daily fasts are accepted by Allah (swt), in addition to all of the good deeds that they may have performed.

7:12 p.m. - I had actually fallen asleep on the bed late in the afternoon when my wife rushed into the bedroom. "Wake up! The adhan is playing!" she said as she handed me a glass of Coke Zero (not the traditional drink to break one's fast with ;) ). I swallowed a little bit of the pop while giving a prayer of thanks for having made it through another day in Ramadan. A few minutes later, my wife and I ate our dinner for the evening.

* The percentage varies depending upon the type of asset that is "zakatable," but for most Muslims who live in cities, the percentage tends to be 2.5%. Also, various assets are subject to zakat, while others are not, such as family homes. The calculations to determine zakat can become rather complex, depending upon what the person owns. BTW, zakat is a wealth tax, not an income tax.


blue said...

Assalamualaikum wr wb

Nicely put :) and I couldn't agree less to the 'Ramadan bazaars' hype. It's scale is getting bigger and bigger; they even sell cars...

JDsg said...

Wa 'alaikum salaam. Yes, I knew about the cars being sold, and had thought of putting that in the essay as well, but decided to leave it out. :)

I hope your fasting has been easy this Ramadan, and may Allah (swt) accept all of them from you.