Depending on which authority you follow, based on the observation of the first crescent of the new moon, the holy Islamic month of Ramadan began either last Wednesday or Thursday. This month of months is set apart by fasting.
Islamic practice is to refrain, during the daylight hours of the month of Ramadan, from consuming any food, drink, tobacco, and having sex. On the positive side, Muslims are encouraged to pray, give charitably and think on God more during the fast.
As the Islamic calendar is based solely on lunar phases without regard to tropical seasons, the months slowly move through the seasons each year. Ramadan falling in August means, in the northern hemisphere, around fifteen hours without food or water each day for around 29/30 days. (Mehdi Hasan has written some basic FAQs on Ramadan for New Statesman.)
As an Anglican I’m fascinated by the Islamic fast. The practice of fasting in Anglicanism is in a shabby state. For most it consists of ‘giving up’ something for the forty days of Lent, usually chocolate. It is not exactly taxing. Apart from the giving up of things, we do encourage Lent courses as a way of getting some positive spiritual input, but we have to admit that it’s all quite slim. The Roman Catholic Church has always been more legalistic when it comes to fasting, setting out what can and can’t be eaten, and how much. However, the history of Catholic pronouncements on fasting shows a steady rolling back of strictures. In contrast, Eastern Christianity has retained a more robust idea of fasting: animal products and alcohol are not consumed during fasts, making one a vegan teetotaler.
I remember reading somewhere that Western Christianity’s gradual abandonment of fasting was in line with a rejection of the dualism that stated that the spiritual was good while the physical was bad. I’m not sure I agree with that, I think we’re just as misled by some of these gnosistic ideas today as were our forebears. I would suggest instead that individualism is the indicator of this loss: fasting works really well in community. Any serious dieter will tell you that a good dieting buddy can make all the difference in the struggle of mind over matter (there’s that dualism again!). In British culture today, the most public one is with one’s eating habits is when we line our groceries up on the supermarket conveyor. In our little, compartmentalised lives, all we’re able to do is make a promise to give up something, a very compartmentalised way of fasting.
The Islamic fast of Ramadan is tough, but even relatively secular Muslims who rarely would go to the mosque tend to fast. There is a sense that one would be letting others down if one didn’t. The sense of community in the Ramadan fast is strengthened by the connection of fasting with feasting. Every evening at sunset fast is broken, often with a date, but with much joy. Families eat out together, with restaurants preparing food so that it can be served to all customers the moment that the sun sets. Many Muslims admit to putting on weight during Ramadan due to feasting after sunset. The first day of Shawwal, the month after Ramadan and thus the first day without fasting, is Eid ul-Fitr, a whole day of great feasting.
The toughness of the Ramadan fast makes for the shared joy each evening when the fast is temporarily broken, in the name of God the Merciful the Compassionate. The shared hardships of Ramadan amplify the shared joy of Eid. Somehow, tucking into chocolate eggs on Easter Day after not eating chocolate for forty days is a poor reflection of how the feast at the end of fast should be.
Humans of all religions fast to make space for an awareness of the divine in our lives. Modern lives, immersed in consumer culture and with all our hangups about food and eating, need fasting, need the growls of empty bellies that remind us that many go hungry without choosing, need the joy of tasting food as if it were a precious gift, need the space to feel mortal, human and yet the image of the maker.
Jesus taught us not to boast about our fasting, not to have nothing worthy of a boast.