Iftar Time: The Thanksgiving and Mindfulness of Ramadan.

For the religion of Islam, it is now the holy month of Ramadan, which in its essence is a major fast observed by 1 billion Muslims throughout the world. People typically undergo the purification ritual of fasting as a means to cleanse the spirit, body or both. All major religions throughout the world including Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam involve some variation of fasting into their religious code of practice. Native American tribes also practice a fast paired with a guided meditation as part of a spiritual ritual. Plainly stated, fasting is the act of intentional abstinence from food and water during a specified period of time, but when done mindfully or with a spiritual purpose, it becomes much more.


The fast during Ramadan is like many other religious fasts, in that the intent is to guide humans through an intense course of self restraint, humility, and penitence. The Muslim calendar is based on the ancient lunar calendar, rather than the Gregorian calendar which counts off 365 days beginning on January 1 of each new year. Lunar calendars, on the other hand, are based on 12 moon cycles making the Muslim and other lunar calendars more variable rather than fixed. The calendar shifts by 10-12 days each year, thus shifting the start of the month of Ramadan to a different day and month each and every year. For example, in 2011, Ramadan began on August 1st  and this year it commenced on July 20th.


Ramadan lasts 30 days and ends with a great celebration also known as Eid. During the month of fast, Muslims completely abstain from water and food from sunrise to dusk. Additionally, Muslims are expected to practice acts of restraint and spiritual love. For example, Muslims do not smoke during the hours of fast nor are they allowed to curse nor utter any derogatory statements. Allowing anger or other sinful actions to get the best of you is considered a broken fast. The fasting for that day is compromised, you live, learn and return to the the spiritual journey the next day. One keeping a fast in the midwest can expect a 16 hour fast lasting from approximately 4:30 am to 8:30 pm; food and water is consumed pre-dawn and and post sunset.


I began fasting intermittently when my husband and I first married. The first fast I kept was during a November Ramadan and the sunset was around 5:30 pm. I distinctly remember the day as if recalling a play witnessed in theater. Withdrawal from the daily food grind was quite an awakening. The removal of the food and water cleanses the body and mind, making way for an amplified sensory experience. From the day of my first fast, I clearly recall the feel of the crisp autumn air swelling in my lungs, the bright sun warming my chilled nose and the the melodic comfort that ensued while listening to beats leaping from the Indian tabla drums.  


There's hidden sweetness in the stomach's emptiness.

We are lutes, no more, no less. 

If the soundbox

is stuffed full of anything, no music.

If the brain and belly are burning clean with fasting, 

every moment a new song comes out of the fire.

Jelaluddin Rumi


Dusk equals mindfulness and hope during Ramadan.Dusk equals mindfulness and hope during Ramadan.Still, I cannot forget how desperately hungry and weak I felt; I truly doubted my ability to keep the fast until the prescribed end time. When the day folds into night, you reach out for your first sip of water, which trickles down your throat, races through your esophagus and then splashes into the empty well of your stomach. The feeling experienced after enduring the fast is nothing short of phenomenal.


My first fasts were more for curiosity: Did I have the strength? What would the experience be like? Could I be open to a much-needed spiritual revival? Would I feel closer to my new husband? The answer was a resounding“yes!”


People are always amazed to learn how strict the Muslim fast is. Having grown up Catholic, where the strictest sense of the fast was to give up meat and snacking during the four Fridays of lent, I understand their shock. In my experience, the most challenging part of Lenten meatless Fridays was having a cheese pizza rather than pepperoni. The Muslim fast might appear akin to self-flagellation in some ways. Withholding water and food for a majority of the day, for 30 days in a row seems very strenuous. But, is it really such a arduous act as one would imagine?


I think not.


I must be honest and say that I do experience some trepidation each year right before Ramadan is to begin. Truly, no one wants to willingly give up their life of lavish snacking and indulgence.  This is the point, however. The act requires a willingness to commit to extreme self control. The 16 hour struggle is the journey and regeneration of body and purification of spirit is the trophy.


 In food’s absence comes the hours of remembrance, reflection, and introspection.


During my retreat, I carry with me torches that help me to see and to remember. I envision Fatima, the Somali woman who walked hundreds of miles in search of food and had to abandon her starving young child on the roadside, because she could no longer carry his dying, limp body. I figuratively travel through the day in Shabana’s foot steps as she moves from house to house in an affluent neighborhood of Karachi, Pakistan in search of work. She needs to earn enough to purchase flour, which mixed with water will become the bread that feeds her brood of six. I stumble into a giant omnipresent fun house of mirrors, forced to analyze myself from every angle, some very unflattering. In the last hours, when my body weakens and my daily pace slows, I sit in stillness and reach out to the heavens to talk to loved ones passed. Through this journey I am humbled beyond belief and emerge with a purer heart and mind, ready to accomplish more and to be a better, more mindful human.


At the end of the day, you watch the skies and wait for blackness to take control. “Iftar time!”, someone will shout, rousing the household toward the state of normalcy. After a prayer of thanks and a bite of date followed by a swig of water, one is enormously satisfied: another successful day marked by abstinence and a long-overdue act of atonement.


Leigh Ann Ahmad was dragged kicking and screaming to the Cities by her husband; having been born and bred in Cleveland, Ohio, she just could not fathom how colder could be better. Now, five years and two kids later, she cannot imagine a better place to play and thrive. She’s a reformed carb-aholic, wannabe writer, social justice advocate, book-club geek, veggie grower and local foods connoisseur. Her last article focused on local folks working to improve our food system: The Grow a Farmer Program.