by Jesse M. Lapierre. Pubished in the August 2, 2017 edition of The Arabian Sun under Your Voice*
Greetings to my Muslim friends and colleagues, and I hope you have had a blessed and reflective holy month of Ramadan. As someone who has lived in Muslim majority countries for over 10 years, Ramadan has become a season of my life, much like Christmas and Thanksgiving. However, unlike holiday seasons in the U.S. or Europe, I did not have the personal connection with Ramadan since I never fasted, or truly “observed” the season as Muslims do.
This Ramadan, however, I sought to join more than 1.5 billion others in observing the holy month through fasting and self-reflection, and here is what I experienced:
- self-restraint: Although I’ve experimented with intermittent fasting, this was much more serious and much more rigorous. The abstinence from liquids (coffee, water, etc.) from dawn to dusk was probably the most difficult restriction, and I felt like I gained new powers of self-restraint. It also encouraged my empathy for anyone engaged in physical or manual labor, working out in the 100-plus degree heat. Bearing in mind that the etymology of Ramadan is from ramiḍa or ar-ramaḍ, which means scorching heat or dryness, it makes sense that part of the challenge is the weather. I certainly felt the heat more intensely, and the dryness more acutely while fasting, but it also increased my compassion and understanding for the rigors faced by those fasting when Ramadan occurs in the heart of the Saudi summer!
- camaraderie: One of the unexpected benefits of observing Ramadan with my colleagues was the camaraderie and fellowship that I experienced. Most days, people asked me, “Are you still fasting?” and with each inevitable “Yes,” I felt our bond grow closer. The highlight of the season was definitely the office Iftar, which, much like the hallowed office Christmas parties of yore, was a chance for all of us to connect, made more significant by the physical deprivation of fasting and the subsequent enjoyment of breaking that fast with others. To feel the unique sense of relief when you hear the Azan, to join with your colleagues in anticipation of the moment when the fast is broken, and to laugh together after the meal is finished was a special gift of the holiday season.
- physical health: Lots of articles extoll the benefits of fasting, not only as a traditional cleansing and detoxifying process, but also as a proven way to push your body into unexpected fat burning. I can definitely say that I experienced a bit of both, with total weight loss at about 7 kg or just over 15 lb. Of course, I’m a big guy to begin with, so it could have just been water weight. However, either way, I actually looked forward to fasting each day, and was surprised at how a normal supper at night actually made me feel bloated and unhealthy. Conversely, I realized that the traditional breaking of the fast with dates, yogurt, and water was exactly what I needed to ease my stomach into a late meal, or even a later ghabgah! It was a physical and mental change that I appreciated in a new way this year.
- gratitude: Ramadan is known as a season of reflection and I made it a point to take time to reflect on all of the great things I’ve been given, not just this season, but in a lifetime. According to the “Hadith on Tranquility,” the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) was reported to have said, “Wealth is not in having many possessions. Rather, true wealth is the richness of the soul.” I certainly could not have said it better, and I appreciated the slower pace of Ramadan to fully explore this and take time for gratitude for all the richness in my life. I also noted the same gratitude and generosity from others, and it spurred me to mirror that in my daily activities. I even went so far as to chase a car down when the grocery attendant had mistakenly put one of their items in my bag. Of course, the startled driver gave me a huge smile when I handed him his Laban and wished him, “Ramadan Kareem!”
- clarity: This was probably the most transformative experience, and also the most difficult to explain. Participating fully in Ramadan, observing daily fasting and abstinence (yes, in all of its myriad dimensions) and connecting with Muslim friends and colleagues in new ways allowed me to share in a bit of the tradition that make this the most holy month. The word “tradition” itself derives from the Latin tradere literally meaning “… to transmit, to hand over, to give for safekeeping …” and I felt that by fully participating in Ramadan, I was receiving a new insight into the religion and culture of Saudi Arabia. This clarity transcended the physical, and synergized with all of the other experiences described above. The Sufi poet Rumi once wrote, “Everyone sees the unseen in proportion to the clarity of his heart, and that depends upon how much he has polished it. Whoever has polished it more sees more — more unseen forms become manifest to him.” Ramadan surely gave me time and opportunity to “polish my heart,” and allowed me to understand the importance of the season in a new light, a clearer light, and one that I will not soon forget.
Overall, observing Ramadan as a non-Muslim was a deeply rewarding experience, and in the end much easier and more beneficial than I would have imagined. As the Qur’an says, “Allah desires ease for you, and He does not desire for you difficulty.” As we all do our best to withstand the heat and humidity of summer and seek our own ease, I would recommend taking some time to reflect upon your own journey. After all, who wouldn’t benefit from practicing a little more self-restraint, seeking out some new camaraderie, concentrating on your physical health, reflecting and experiencing gratitude, and opening up your horizon to more clarity?