“The thing we tell of can never be found by seeking, yet only seekers find it.” –Bayazid Bistami
Written & Contributed by Soha Al-Jurf
It’s the final week of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and for the first time in my life, I am fasting. It’s not actually the first time I’ve fasted during Ramadan; it’s just the first time I’ve fasted during all of it, wholeheartedly.
I wake up every morning at 4:30 a.m. to eat, and then I don’t eat or drink again until sunset, which, here in California, is currently around 8:00 p.m. When I say this to non-Muslims (or to Muslims who reject the idea of religion or of fasting), they invariably reply, “No water? You can’t go for a whole day without water; human beings can’t survive without water!”
Well, I haven’t died yet, and neither has anyone I know.
During Ramadan, Muslims are not only obligated to refrain from food, water, and sexual relations from sunup to sundown for the entire month, but also from gossip, displaying anger, and even thinking ill thoughts. These guidelines all seem quite spiritually sound to me, and I can see the wisdom in them. But, sustaining these practices every day for thirty days is not easy.
When I fasted in the past, I cheated. It’s embarrassing to admit it, but it’s true. I took sips of water. I chewed gum. I kept eating past dawn if I hadn’t woken up early enough to finish my morning meal by the time the sun began to rise.
My reasoning went something like: “I’m not religious. I’m doing this to practice discipline and steadfastness, to empathize with people who are starving and less fortunate than I am. It’s good enough that I’m fasting at all. I don’t have to adhere to all of the rules precisely. God is supposed to be merciful; He gets where I’m coming from.” As if God should be grateful to me for doing Him this favor that is of considerable inconvenience to me. After all, I wasn’t even sure what I thought of Him, or of this religion.
Having been raised in a non-Muslim country, I wasn’t given the opportunity to take my Muslim-ness for granted. Lacking the cultural immersion that other Muslims have, I relied primarily on my immediate and extended family to teach me about Islam. My understanding of Islam was fragmented as a result. Rather than being an integrated part of my being, it was a heady, disjointed set of ideas, rituals, and rules that I wasn’t sure how to interpret or internalize. The austere requirement to refrain from consuming food and water from dawn to dusk for thirty days a year just didn’t quite fit into what I perceived to be my life as a progressive, Western-influenced, educated woman. Yet having faith and seeking spiritual connection did.
Over the years, I became less and less convinced that Islam was helping me to find peace in my heart and connectedness within myself, nor with anything outside of myself, either. At best, Islam seemed like a set of bewildering dictums and rules of conduct that had no spiritual effect on me whatsoever. At worst, it was a vehicle for punishment and shame.
I occasionally met Muslims who emanated the unmistakable light of unquestioned faith, which was something I desired intensely. But these individuals seemed to be the exception. More often than not, the Muslims I encountered were people who used religiosity as an excuse to act as if they were the exalted keepers of truth and divine wisdom, which they believed not only gave them the right, but the obligation, to dictate how everyone else should behave. These phenomena are not unique to followers of Islam. But Islam is the religion into which I was born, which makes it the religion I must contend with.
Eventually, recognizing that what I knew of Islam was not leading me toward anything merciful or divine, but finding no alternative guidance within it that was in line with the type of spirituality I desired, I sought teachings outside of the Islamic paradigm, hoping that there might be another path that would guide me more effectively toward finding compassion in my heart and peace in my soul.
At some point in my teenage years, I had been exposed to Buddhism, primarily through the books of the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh. When I was in my early thirties, I started to do sitting meditation. Over the ensuing years, I adopted Buddhism as my primary spiritual practice, though I have never stopped identifying as a Muslim.
As I continued to practice Buddhist principles, I started to notice parallels between Buddhist practices and the practices of Islam. As far as I could tell, they were both rooted in mindfulness training, non-attachment, and transcendence of the traps and illusions of this manifest world. For many years, I think I saw Buddhism as a gentler, more accessible form of Islam. The principles of both are meant to guide human beings toward unity within themselves, with each other, and, ultimately, with something that is beyond both self and other.
Hearing the call to prayer broadcasted over loudspeakers in a Muslim country reminds people to stop and listen as a way to be present in those moments, just like a mindfulness bell in Buddhist practice. The ritual of praying five times a day, similar to doing sitting meditation, provides an opportunity to step away from worldly concerns and focus inward, helping us to release our attachments to our thoughts, our false beliefs, and the elusiveness of our outer world. Buddhism also espouses the physical and spiritual benefits of fasting, based on the belief that it can cure certain illnesses, clear out negative karma, and nurture compassion. Fasting is a practice that both traditions utilize to help us to purify and “reset” the body, mind, and soul, so that we can connect with our spiritual nature.
I’ve done many different kinds of fasts over the years: juice fasts, water fasts, and liver cleanses, as well as fasting (albeit half-heartedly at times) during Ramadan. Each has its merits. Each has an undeniable function of challenging us to stay present with what is happening in our minds and bodies when we want to escape from an uncomfortable feeling.
Nearly every day that I fast, at some point or another, I consider breaking my fast. Each night before bed, I tell myself that I don’t really need to fast the next day; I deserve a day off. I negotiate, I bargain, I stomp my feet and rage an internal tirade against this ridiculous, pointless, unnecessary practice that I have chosen to do, when there is food in my refrigerator and water available to me if I just lift the handle of a nearby faucet.
But every day, I continue. I feel the physical pangs of hunger, I listen to the pleas in my mind to satiate my desire for food and drink, I force a dry swallow, and I keep going. Continuing with my fast in spite of my internal struggle reminds me that it is only an internal struggle. I remind myself that I am unlikely to die from starvation before sunset. Eating or drinking in that moment is not a real need, but only a want. And, like all other things in this ephemeral world, whatever despair, longing, pain, or craving I thought I could not survive disappears within a few moments of sitting in stillness, observing my breath, or simply moving on to the next thing and forgetting.
Denying my body of its physical and emotional needs for food and water causes me to question my perceptions of what is true, and what is just a notion or an idea. Fasting also reminds me to be cognizant of the fact that for many people around the world, whether or when to eat or not is not a choice. Refraining from food when there is an abundance of food available to me fosters compassion and understanding of those who are without it.
My decision to commit to fasting with clear, genuine, and heart-centered intention this Ramadan stems from my curiosity about what Islam might hold for me if I actually commit to experiencing it, rather than feeling caught between resigning to it or rejecting it. My relationship with Islam has always been one filled with ambivalence. But ambivalence is not outright rejection; it signals that one is still seeking.
Seeking can make you cynical. Doubtful. It can lead to a feeling that you are wandering aimlessly through life; that you are groping for some undefined thing that perpetually eludes you. Like many seekers, I’m not always certain what, exactly, I’m looking for. I just know, on some intuitive level, that it is something different from what I already have.
Simultaneously, I know it is something that is already in me, but with which I have lost connection. The result has been that rest—a genuine sense of settledness and well-being—is almost always out of reach for me. Yet the desire for a sense of oneness does not leave me. I have a desire to return to something from which my soul seems to have separated.
That oneness—the return of my soul to something from which it came—that is what I call God. I believe that everyone who seeks this oneness in earnest must take his or her own path to get there. The practices in each spiritual tradition, when taken on with sincere intention, are designed to help get you there. Yet, many people seem to lose sight of the end goal because they are lost in rules and rituals.
This month, having taken on this practice with focused attention and genuine humility, I have experienced moments of moving toward wholeness, rather than fragmentation. I have had many experiences of clarity, peacefulness, and serenity, both in solitude and within my community. Moments of feeling an integration between that which I long for and that which is already here. Those moments have been a blessing.