I was nine years old when I remember saying to my mother, “I want to fast with you tomorrow.” This was a decision I had arrived upon independently and after much deliberation. At the mosque I attended growing up, I was taught that fasting, refraining from food and water, during the month of Ramadan (the holiest month of the year for Muslims), is an act of individual and collective responsibility — a practice of self-discipline, patience, reflection and faith.
At home, I learned that fasting was a ritual filled with tradition, love and devotion. I always thought of Ramadan as a season with its own specific feeling, aesthetic and rhythm. There was a noticeable shift in our house during the month. Everything was more intentional, sincere and community-oriented. Fasting was always a choice rather than an expectation, which is why my mother smiled softly, nodded her head and said, “OK” in response to my declaration.
That night my mother and I prepared for our pre-dawn meal by setting the table before we went to sleep. We woke early, ate breakfast in sleepy silence and began our fast with a prayer and an acknowledgement of our intentions. I went back to sleep for a few hours before getting ready for school.
It was October, and the days were short and cool, making my very first fast remarkably easy. Naturally I struggled with thirst and counted down the hours till sunset. I tried to articulate what fasting was to a few friends at school, questions that I would be called on to answer often throughout my life. Most of all, I gave considerable thought to what I should eat that night and decided that I would break my fast with a 12-piece order of chicken McNuggets (a testament to my American-ness). I ended that day with a feeling of gratification and participation, having accomplished something that signified both my individual resolve and unity with Muslims around the world.
It has been 25 years since I observed my first fast. It is now the second week of the month of Ramadan. The days are considerably warmer and longer, making fasting more difficult, and the world is certainly more complicated, making my experience as a Pakistani-American Muslim more dynamic. Today, I approach fasting with greater clarity and conviction. The choice to refrain from food and water for 12 to 15 hours symbolizes choosing to go without what is accessible and available.
This is a profound practice to develop, particularly for those of us who are privileged and as a cultural imperative consume beyond our needs. Today, I fast as a personal act of self-discipline, physical and mental cleansing and mindfulness. Additionally, I fast as a political act of solidarity for the millions of people for whom hunger is not a choice but a perpetual reality. This simple exercise of choosing to go without increases my awareness of self and community. It grounds me to reality and invites me to consider experiences beyond my own. I notice that I am more patient, compassionate, contemplative and thankful. Choosing to go without, however temporarily, is a radical and transformative act on the personal and collective level. During the month of Ramadan, the majority of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims will participate in fasting for part of if not the entire month.
As I write this, heated debates around the construction of a mosque two blocks from 9/11’s Ground Zero are lining the pages and headlines of the local and international news. It is poignant that this debate emerges during Ramadan, a month of intention, solidarity for humanity, unity and love. Moreover, it is evident that we need greater dialogue in America about Islam. This piece is a very small contribution to that dialogue.
Nadia Raza is an instructor of sociology at LCC. She teaches courses on critical race theory, culture and social movements.