Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting from dawn to dusk (mid-May to mid-June this year), arrives at a difficult time for Muslim-Americans. Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center that tracks hate-crimes in America reports that faith and race-based attacks against Muslims, Jews, Blacks, Hispanics and immigrants have risen significantly since the election of Donald Trump. The Supreme Court’s decision to hold hearings on the president’s Muslim travel ban has given the anti-Muslim animus a boost, forcing many of us to rethink what it means to be an American these days. And with president Trump moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem that has already resulted in the death of at least 58 Palestinians, the move ‘blessed’ by a pastor who said in the past that “religions like ‘Mormonism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism’ lead people “to an eternity of separation from God in Hell," the future looks grim indeed.
Despite these dark developments, Muslims will welcome Ramadan with hope, humility and optimism. This is what the month is about: Confidence that the clouds will disappear, and the sun will shine again as we strive to affirm God’s living presence among us and unite to serve the common good of the country, no matter how daunting the challenge.
What is it about fasting that inspires this confidence? The Quran explains: “Fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may learn self-restraint.”
Self-restraint has two parts: What it forbids and what it encourages. The former includes abstaining not only from food and drink (often the easier part, even if for fifteen hours or more) but more importantly, from such vices as anger, arrogance, backbiting, lying, schadenfreude, solipsism, religious chauvinism and money mania. The latter includes a combination of gratitude, magnanimity, empathy, humility and moderation but above all, patience. Patience is the key virtue, which is why sabr, the Arabic word for patience, occurs over 100 times in the Quran.
Living up to the moral and spiritual demands of fasting is a struggle, especially when we recognize that God has no use for our hunger and thirst if we don’t curb our wayward thoughts, bad habits and dark desires. For me, patience is the elusive goal. Even when alone, I sense the need for patience, as when I am tempted to speed through a yellow light about to turn red. This may seem a minor trespass (although a $500 fine for running a red light in San Jose is hardly minor!) but I find that being attentive to small things makes loftier goals more attainable. Patience gives me a keener sense of the value of time. Tolstoy was on to something when he said the two most powerful warriors were patience and time. Honoring time has helped me fast from the small screen and social media while gaining a deeper insight into ‘Memento Mori’: Remember, you will die.
If we claim that practicing self-restraint in Ramadan makes us better human beings, it must reflect in the way we interact with our families, communities and the larger society. Given the current political climate, meaningful engagement with our fellow-Americans from all walks of life and spanning all faiths is critical.
A day before Thanksgiving in 2016, our Evergreen Islamic Center received a hate mail warning about the “new sheriff in town – President Donald Trump” who will do to us “what Hitler did to the Jews. You Muslims would be wise to pack your bags and get out of Dodge.”
When word leaked out, we were overwhelmed by the support we received from our neighbors, activists, reporters, politicians and law-enforcement officials. Their support continued into the 2017 Ramadan months later when larger than usual number of them joined us for community Iftar (breaking the fast) at sundown on Sundays.
This year we expect to host even more Americans during the Sunday Iftars. We particularly hope those who have misgivings about us and want to ask the hard questions will join us. We don’t have all the answers. All we know is that discussing concerns honestly and openly in mutual respect can remove fear and prejudice.
If nothing else, we hope they will come just for the food, for one of the most heartening lessons of Ramadan has been that few things in life forge friendship more fiercely than food, spicy or not.
The million-dollar question, of course, is: How long do Ramadan’s virtuous practices last?
I wish I could say they last from one Ramadan to the next for me, but they don’t. My resolve to become a better human being begins to fray by the fourth or the fifth month. I hurry past an octogenarian on a wheelchair without pausing to greet or offering to help. I become judgmental. I use unkind words. Instead of smiling at people in the elevator, I stare at my shoe. I splurge on clothes even though I have plenty. At the traffic light, I begin to live at the edge of yellow bleeding into red.
Yet I know that without the reflection and the renewal I experience in Ramadan, I would lose my center, my purpose. Without purposeful fasting steadying my sail, my boat would be adrift on the sea of life.
Instead of attempting quantum leaps, I will seek incremental improvements in patience, compassion, charity and respect for a textured truth. I will strive to answer the question the Quran asks, “So, where are you going?” by separating the signal from the noise and nurturing the values that give my life meaning. And I will try to summon enough spiritual stamina to sustain the effect of Ramadan for a month or two more than in the past, before forgetfulness enters the heart and I risk becoming a captive to my cravings. If I sincerely work at being good, tempered by humor and humility, perhaps I will even glimpse the ineffable and the transcendent.