Fasting

It has now been about two weeks of Ramadan.  What always strikes me during Islam’s holy month is the solidarity between people in Morocco and how much fasting brings people together.  More or less everyone is fasting in the day, so everybody shares the same feelings of thirst, hunger, or sleepiness, along with the same traditions of breaking the fast at night.  I usually choose to fast for several days each Ramadan so that I can feel that same sense of unity with those around me.  That way, when I walk to work, I know that it is not just me who skipped breakfast, but an entire community.

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Breakfast/dinner of dreams

Fasting is not specific to Islam.  During the past few days, quite a few of my students have asked me about whether Christians fast.  We do occasionally have days of fasting at my church, sometimes related to important dates, and sometimes just to reflect about a specific topic as a group, but it rarely lasts more than a week.  Another local church is currently having a “year of fasting,” where each month the members are encouraged to give up one thing that distracts them, such as television, facebook, or coffee.

I looked up fasting in some other religious groups, and found that Coptic Christians in Egypt fast for the forty days of Lent by giving up all animal products, or basically becoming vegan for that period.  Fasting is required at different periods in Judaism, Bahaism, and Catholicism.  The purpose of fasting during Ramadan for Muslims is to remove mundane desires to increase spiritual reflection, and for all Muslims to feel what it is like to be poor and to increase charity.

According to the bible, fasting is not necessarily about food. We can read in the book of Isaiah what a fast should be: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house?” (Isaiah 58:6-7)  This sort of fast requires charity, generosity, and a fight against oppression, but mentions nothing about food other than that it should be shared.

The New York Times recently published this article on the health benefits of fasting, unrelated to religion.  Apparently, regular periods of fasting can promote weight loss and longevity.

As you can see, there are a lot of different methods of fasting and reasons to do so.  Have you ever fasted?  In what way?

 

Empty or Full

The other day, I was reading a travel blog written by one of my coworkers.  She had visited both Sacre Coeur and the Hassan II Mosque in one day, and was commenting on how grand they both are.

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The blog entry detailed how beautiful the two structures are, although the cathedral is no longer used and is falling apart.  It ended by saying that it is a shame that the mosque is more elaborate and impressive despite being for an “empty religion.”  After many Islamic studies courses in college, I find this statement surprising and ignorant, especially coming from someone who chose to work and live in a Muslim country with students and coworkers of different faiths. Although I doubt she reads my blog, I am going to tell you, my dear readers, some fascinating things about the Islamic tradition.

Poetry and music – You’ve probably heard of Rumi, the Persian poet.  If you haven’t, look him up!  His poems remind me of the book of psalms; a lot of them sound like love songs, but are about God instead of a man or woman.

Language – The Quran is written in classical Arabic, which is a beautiful and complex language. Even native Arabic speakers have to study it for many years to grasp its many rules and structures, but those who can truly speak or write it can produce wonderful songs, stories, and poetry.

Islamic law – Many scholars have worked together to produce Islamic law and the correct sayings of the prophet.  I think it is amazing that one can read exactly what the prophet said, along with who reported what he said, when it happened, and where, and that we can trust that this information was researched for years.

Science and math – The schedule of daily prayers is very complex.  It involves finding the exact times the sun rises, sets, and is at it’s highest every day.  I also find it interesting that there are set periods of time in which to pray. Many Christians set aside a certain time of the day for prayer and reflection so as to make sure to stay on track, which is much the same idea, though less rigid.

Some Islamic art on display in Londo

Some Islamic art on display in London

I firmly believe that one can appreciate the gifts given to us by other religions while still being steadfast in our own beliefs.  And you never know; you might just learn something new about your own traditions and values by learning about those of others!

Not a Time for Vegetarians

Eid alKebir, or the Big Festival, is the biggest holiday of the year on the Islamic calendar.  It has a very interesting and meaningful story, although can be a bit frightening for those who are unfamiliar with it, particularly for former vegetarians like myself.

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There are no seatbelts for sheep.

The Eid recreates the story of Abraham and his wife Sarah, who desperately wanted to have children but seemingly could not.  Sarah prayed and prayed, and finally, after many years, had a son.  But after the son was born, God told Abraham that he had to sacrifice his son.  Abraham certainly did not want to do as God said, but he was so faithful and so trusting that he took his son up a mountain and prepared for the sacrifice.  In the bible, the son’s name is Isaac, but in the Quran he is Ishmael.  Abraham was about to kill Ishmael/Isaac when God stopped him and said he could instead just sacrifice a sheep; his former instructions had only been a test of Abraham’s faith.  On the Eid, every married Muslim couple is expected to sacrifice a sheep in order to recreate this story and show their faith in the Lord.  Although Christians do not perform sacrifices, this story is equally meaningful as a foundation of the Abrahamic religions.

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Sheep are too big to cook inside

I didn’t get invited to see the actual sacrifice, but I did go to a dinner on the Eid, and I saw some families cooking their sheep outside in the morning.  I don’t think I’m ready for the full celebration yet; I could barely stomach the pieces of mutton I was given at the dinner, not to mention the intestines and lungs.  For now, I’m happy to admire the idea of the holiday, and the sacrifice, from afar.

ImageThis sheep things he’s lucky to be taking the elevator…little does he know, this is the last elevator ride he will ever take.

The Life of the Mind Continues

As a former UChicago student, I am in possession of quite a bit of fairly useless knowledge.  Last night I was reminded of this, so here I am sharing it with my dear readers.

IMG_2591Some serious learning happened here.

As I was falling asleep, I was listening to a Sufi ceremony happening in a street nearby.  I could hear the chanting and drums that are typical of Sufi music, and I could make out the words as part of the attestation of faith: la illaha ila Allah, or, there is no God but God.  I know this because I went to a Sufi ceremony several times in Chicago, plus I wrote a lot of papers about Sufi philosophers and traditions when I was in college.  I also studied Arabic, and as my sister knows, I can convincingly pretend to be Muslim if I go to a mosque, in terms of knowing what to do, and also because I know both the first chapter of the Quran and the Shahada by heart.  This knowledge is not relevant to my life on a regular basis, so I’m pretty excited when it comes in handy.
BabaJerrahiThe Jerrahi Sufi order of Wicker Park, Chicago
My friend and I were listening attentively to the wisdom of the sheikh, familiarly known as “Baba”
This morning, after hearing the beautiful chants of our local Sufis, I was excitedly telling my roommate about how there are a lot of Sufis in Morocco.  I’m not so sure whether she really cared,  but you should care!  Here is why.
Sufism is a form of Islamic mysticism that is known for its artistic traditions.  Perhaps you’ve read the love poetry of the Persian Jalal-alDin Rumi, or seen a video of Turkish whirling dervishes.  If you’ve ever had a crisis of faith, you’ve probably read alGhazali in hopes of finding your path in a corrupt world (okay, maybe that one’s not so likely).  Sufis are known also for their music and dance because they use the enjoyment of music to experience the love of God.  I think this is fascinating, because singing to feel joyful reminds me of going to a church service (especially if the church has a drummer instead of an organ…that’s much more fun), so that is a nice reminder of what different religions have in common.  Because Sufis are so interested in experiencing rather than fearing God, they are open to discussion with people from other faiths.  The Sufis I met in Morocco last year were buddies with the local monks in the French monastery, and sometimes they met up with each other for some mint tea and deep discussion.  I think that’s pretty cool, so I hope you do too.

Reflections on Ramadan

As I wrote before, this is my second Ramadan living in a Muslim country.  Last year I was so excited about it, but this year I have mostly just been feeling cranky.  Instead of writing about Tunisia, I am posting what I wrote after Ramadan ended last year in Morocco.

Ramadan in Morocco

September 4th, 2012

About two weeks ago, Morocco, along with the rest of the Muslim world, celebrated a very important holiday.  Eid al-Fitr is a celebration that the month of Ramadan has just ended.  Ramadan lasted 30 days and was a month of fasting, when food and drink are not allowed during daylight hours, and people are encouraged to think of the poor and increase kind acts.  I fasted for only 18 days of the month, but I got quite a bit of insight into Moroccan culture and religion and learned about the meaning of the month.

The first days I fasted seemed to last a lifetime.  At school on Monday of the third day of Ramadan, I took a nap in the garden during our lunch break.  I had been joking with a friend who was also fasting that we should take a nap, but once we lay down on the grass in a nice patch of shade, it was no longer a joke.  But no need to be embarrassed, because we were definitely not the only ones.  And by the end of that week, my body had become so used to abstaining from food that I looked forward to the lunch break as a time to enjoy spending time with friends without the inconvenience of waiting in the lunch line.

Although I struggled at first, I had the feeling that fasting was worth the sacrifice of food and water during the day.  It was comforting to know that when I was tired and thirsty, so was nearly everyone else around me, along with the majority of people in the country, and millions of people across the world.  When I broke the fast at restaurants or with my host family, others would tell me that it is good to fast and several people explained to me that my stomach will be healthier in the future.  In the freedom of the evening, there were concerts and a carnival in Rabat and families walking around the city, enjoying the night.  I spent more time with my host family and got a better idea of their lifestyles; waking up at three in the morning to eat a meal was quite a bonding experience.  I was particularly thankful to be in Morocco for the whole month, because the entire country had a time change just for Ramadan so that sunset would come an hour earlier.

I realize that while I celebrated Ramadan on the surface, I missed out on a lot of the activities during the month.  Prayer is an important component, and more time is spent in the mosque since an extra prayer is added in the evenings.  I was not able to fully appreciate the spiritual element, and broke my fast for about a week when my mom came to visit; I thought it would be unkind of me to tell her that we could not eat breakfast during her vacation.  I celebrated Ramadan as an outsider, but have at least increased my understanding of the month.

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After Ramadan ended, I was happy to eat lunch and drink water while walking around in the hot sun, but occasionally I miss the routine of the month.  I always knew at exactly what time I would be eating, and at least for the meal at sunset, I knew exactly which foods my host family, or any restaurant, would serve.  I got to look forward to having dates, orange juice, sugary chebakkia cookies, and hearty Moroccan soup along with a tall glass of water every evening.  Right after Ramadan ended, eating and drinking during the day seemed like a chore; once I knew it was possible to be free of material needs for so many hours it was hard to get back on a regular schedule.  Now that it has been a little longer, everything has gone back to normal (although hopefully my stomach is actually somehow healthier, as I was told it would be).  However, I will not forget the feeling of sitting down with friendly and open people who are willing to share everything they have with me and quenching our thirst by sharing our first long and satisfying sips of a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice.

Not Enough Hours in the Night

Today was the first day of Ramadan, and the beginning of the second Ramadan in which I am fasting (for the experience…I’m not Muslim!)  Thankfully I only worked in the morning and so was able to rest in the afternoon, so hopefully tomorrow when I have to work until 5:30pm I won’t be so tired.  As always, the feeling of my digestive system starting back up again after breaking the fast was wonderful, and each type of food I ate seemed like the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted.

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My coworker and some of her family.  Maybe they’re not smiling because they just want to eat.

Last year I thought I would have trouble keeping myself from eating in the day, but Ramadan is like an alternate universe where food is not edible during daylight hours.  I found that it was actually harder to get myself to eat lunch again after the month ended, and I even missed the feeling of joy you get from breaking the fast each evening.  But happiness is fleeting, because I need to go to bed soon so that I can go to work tomorrow, but going to bed means that I have to start all over again!  The first day is the hardest though, so I think I’ll get used to this soon.  Tomorrow night I’ll stay later with my coworker so we can walk around and enjoy the freedom of nighttime.  But before then, another long day!  Ramadan kareem, and I hope everyone else who is fasting finds that there are enough hours in the night.

Islam and Nail Polish

Today my coworker painted my nails for me in alternating colors and with polka-dots.  We had to hide in a classroom to do it so the director wouldn’t see us decorating our nails on the job; we’re pretty rebellious.  It came out really well, I think:

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My coworker told me that she is so dedicated to nail polish that she will remove it to pray and then put it right back on afterward, since prayer in Islam requires having clean hands and feet.  But when she is menstruating, she says, she enjoys nail polish so much; women do not pray during menstruation because it is impossible to be clean enough, so the state of her fingernails is unimportant for one week each month.

Later today, the director of the school was asking me what kinds of things are forbidden by Christianity.  I don’t know that much about types of Christianity beyond Protestantism, which in my experience doesn’t really forbid most actions, except really serious sins like murder or theft.  But when it comes to the body, there are few requirements of what you consume or how you dress, at least as far as I know.  Back in Chicago, I sometimes went to Friday prayer services with a Muslim friend, and found it very confusing that I had to plan my outfit beforehand in order to have all of my skin and hair covered even while moving through the bowing and kneeling motions of Muslim prayer.  It’s harder than I would have thought!

Tomorrow is the first day of Ramadan (or, it might be, depending on the moon!) which means that eating, drinking, smoking, and sexual activity are forbidden during the day.  In Tunisia, Morocco, across the Muslim world, and across the globe, Muslims will be in the same physical state of fasting from dawn to dusk.  This will be my second year living in a Muslim country during Ramadan, and I intend to fast for the majority of it, as I did last year.  Hopefully I can improve my understanding of Islam and how it incorporates the body; even if I do keep my nail polish on!