I have known about the Ramadan fast for decades. But this year, I am catching my first glimpse, yes, even enjoying my first taste of the deeper spiritual meaning behind it. Even though I had lived in the Muslim world, I had always held the false impression that the observance of the Ramadan fast was not truly spiritual, but merely a mechanical observance of a prescribed ritual.
My journey began with my powerful conversion to the Christian faith on campus at the University of Arizona during the Jesus people movement of the 70s. My life was never to be the same. Two years of Bible school, a Masters degree in mechanical engineering, a wife and three children, and 20 years later, I found myself living in Kazakhstan for five years, serving as a Christian missionary and humanitarian aid worker.
For reasons that I can’t explain, I’ve always had a fascination with the Muslim world. Whether the oceanic peoples of Indonesia and Malaysia, the masses of colorful humanity inhabiting the Indian subcontinent, the ancient kingdom of Iran, the incredibly exotic cultures of North Africa from Morocco to Egypt, the desert sands of Arabia and the Middle East, Turkey and the newly exposed Turkic republics of the former Soviet Union, when I saw photos or television programs about these lands, I found myself brimming with excitement, and imagining myself traveling there.
My dreams came true in the summer of 1992 when I visited Kazakhstan with my family. Highlights of the trip included a couple of weeks in an incredibly remote mountain village near the border of China, several nights in a yurt at the highest reaches of Kazakh summer pastures in the Tien Shan mountain range, and a helicopter ride to a massive cultural festival to experience traditional Kazakh food and games. I felt like I was living in the pages of National Geographic.
In the fall of that same year, I and my family would return to Kazakhstan for a five-year stint. At that time, when asked about religion, virtually every Kazakh would identify as a Muslim. But after several decades of government enforced atheism, Islam was but a shadow. When I asked a Muslim village girl who Mohammed was, she was not able to tell me.
Even though I went to Kazakhstan with the intent of influencing people to become Christians, it was I myself who powerfully influenced. For the first year I set out to learn the Kazakh language and understand the culture. I spent hour after hour sitting on the floor drinking tea and having wonderful meals with various families and groups, as I experienced the iconic hospitality of the Muslim culture, Kazakh style. This I will never forget. As I absorbed Kazakh culture, and adapted to it as much as possible, it caused me to process in my mind the question, “What aspects of my Christian faith were mere cultural practices?” I dug deep and began to strip away one thing after another that I had considered essential. It was a good exercise.
As I was experiencing the richness of the Kazakh culture, at the same time I was experiencing a fair bit of disillusionment resulting from fairly serious interpersonal issues within the teams I was part of. This was to be the beginning of my awakening to the revelation that we are all in this together.
My own arrogance became crystal clear to me. Who was I to think that, of the several billion people on the planet representing several major and countless minor religious traditions, I, and those I agreed with, had found the one true answer. That I was right, and everyone else was wrong. This no longer made sense to me.
After five wonderful years in Kazakhstan, I and my family returned to the US and did our best to re-assimilate into our native culture. Four years later 9/11 happened. Like everyone, I was thoroughly traumatized by the continuous replay of video clips showing 737s full of people smashing into the sides of the World Trade Center towers in broad daylight. But I think it affected me even more deeply. How could this culture that I had come to love produce men who would fly airliners into buildings?
But what followed was even more troubling to me. Fast forwarding to today, going on 16 years of a so-called “War on Terror”, and a populace thoroughly conditioned by universal and incessant media exposure to every act of terror committed by demented psychopaths. It’s no wonder that Islamophobia in the United States is even worse now than it was after 9/11.
It became impossible for me to sit on the sidelines. I felt overpowered with the need to do my part to bring to light what I knew about the many Muslims I had come to love. I began reaching out to Muslim communities in San Diego, attending interfaith activities, and doing research for a book. It has been wonderfully refreshing! I meet with Maaz, a young leader of a small Muslim community, every couple of weeks, and we have fabulous dialogue as we connect on a deep spiritual level and understand that we are brothers with one heart. I have lunch regularly with Mohammed, a PhD software developer, and find myself tearing up almost every time when I experience his humble, kind, soft-spoken demeanor and highly intelligent and deeply spiritual approach to being a Muslim. He could tell me specifically, quoting verses from the Quran, why it was wrong for Muslims to kill, except in self-defense. The tears come when I consider the gross misrepresentation of Muslims that is alive in the hearts of so many of my fellow Americans, as I sit in the presence of this kindhearted man.
So, for the first time, I find myself positioned to experience and understand the fast of Ramadan as never before. The first thing I noticed was the excitement of anticipation. Weeks before the beginning of the month of Ramadan, imams were speaking about it in their Friday talks, and rank and file Muslims were preparing their hearts for it. There was the expectation that something good was going to happen; that we would emerge from the month closer to God and a better person. There was the understanding that it would be difficult.
I loved hearing about the “night of power”. This takes place during the last 10 days of the fast, when it was thought that Mohammed received his first revelation. If one has a successful fast, one can expect a special visitation from God, and special forgiveness.
It was enlightening to hear about abstaining from things other than food and drink, such as sex, and especially the emotion of anger. And I learned that it is also proper to be especially charitable towards those in need during this special month.
I developed an incredible level of respect for those who practice the fast in America and other non-Muslim cultures that don’t observe the fast. I had every intention of keeping the fast myself, but then there was Memorial Day weekend, which occurred on the exact weekend of the beginning of the fast. I had a prearranged social gathering around the barbecue, and was not able to fast. Then there was my Monday lunch meeting with another interfaith leader. Again, the fast not happening. Oh yeah, then surfing. You can’t really surf on an empty stomach. One day after another during the first week, something came up. It would take a great deal of planning and commitment to successfully keep the fast during the entire month of Ramadan.
That said, I’m looking forward to participating in iftar events around the city, in which the fast is broken after sunset, although, my conscience will be troubling me, I’m sure. Many of the Muslim communities around San Diego are reaching out and inviting the public to their iftar gatherings.
And finally, I have learned that the most important holiday of the year for Muslims is Eid al Fitr, which formally occurs after sundown on the last day of the fast. I am looking forward to experiencing this holiday and learning more about it.
So call this a baby step. I believe I have at least a partial understanding of the spiritual meaning behind the fast of Ramadan. Perhaps by the time the fast is over I will have gotten organized enough to be able to keep it for at least a week or two. Ramadan is a rich spiritual tradition, and I hope that one day it will be acknowledged and accommodated in the United States.