Ramadan challenges Islamic faithful to discipline that can last all year
Dr. Reshma Khan admits that Ramadan’s daily fasting, especially going without her beloved caffeinated tea, has its challenges. But that is precisely the point.
Islam’s holiest month of the year, which lasts through Aug. 7, celebrates the Koran’s revelation to Mohammed. It challenges the faithful to resist temptations, including food and water, but also immoral behaviors, and to immerse themselves in prayer and religious study.
The idea: If one can sustain such spiritual and physical discipline for a month, one can maintain it throughout the year.
“It’s like an intensive crash course,” says Khan, an OB-GYN and Mount Pleasant mother of three. She compares it to a doctor taking an educational course and applying the content long after the class is over.
Besides, fasting from roughly 5 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. in Charleston is far easier than in, say, Britain where daylight lasts for several hours longer each day.
And after the first few days of fasting, you get used to it, Khan says.
More importantly, Ramadan’s emphasis on prayer and Koran study opens a deeper spiritual connection to God that overrides hunger and thirst, she adds.
Ramadan also calls for self-reflection and added discipline over acts such as holding one’s tongue and thinking more deeply about how to treat others, in keeping with Islam’s emphasis on charity, notes Khan, who recently opened a nonprofit gynecology clinic for women in Mount Pleasant called the Shifa Free Clinic.
“You are doing this for God,” Khan says. “It’s all about how much better your faith is at that point. It is God consciousness. Because God told me to do this, it is good for me.”
Considered one of the Five Pillars of Islam, Ramadan’s month of fasting from dawn to sunset is observed by Muslims worldwide.
Khan and her family typically partake in a post-sunset meal, prayer and Koran study each night of Ramadan. Then, all but her younger two children rise a few hours earlier than normal and follow a similar tradition before sunrise when a new day’s fasting begins.
Her oldest child, 11-year-old Ameen, is in the middle of his second year of full fasting. Generally, children are encouraged to fast after puberty. But the sixth-grader chose on his own to participate with Khan and her husband, Dr. Ahsan Khan, a nuclear medicine specialist.
Their younger children, ages 9 and 6, fast for shorter periods as they choose and are able.
“We try to keep it very simple and focus on prayers and our understanding of the Koran,” Khan says. “I am thankful God has given me the strength to do it.”
Ramadan, which this year runs from July 8 to Aug. 7, is familiar and welcome territory for Khan, who grew up Muslim. But it can present challenges for new converts.
Brian Buzby of South Boston, Mass., had a splitting headache the first day of Ramadan from caffeine withdrawal and mild dehydration. Yet, he loved the late night prayers at a mosque, when a portion of the Koran is recited each night, and stayed long afterward talking with friends. Then he returned home to his apartment and opened the refrigerator again.
“I don’t even go to sleep before suhoor,” the 30-year-old student told a small group of fellow converts gathered at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center last week, referring to the 3 a.m. predawn meal. “I go home and I keep eating.”
A burst of laughter; their teacher, Hossam AlJabri, smiled.
“We’re still in the beginning,” he said. “But Ramadan will just keep throwing beautiful things at you.”
Fasting is a physical challenge. And non-Muslim family, friends and colleagues are not always quick to see its purpose or benefits.
Boston’s largest mosque, the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, has been working to help converts enjoy Ramadan and navigate its tougher terrain.
The imam, William Suhaib Webb, is particularly attuned to issues facing converts: He is one.
“Twenty-nine or 30 days, you think about it, man, it’s intense,” Webb said. “And you feel so much better spiritually, you are really more sensitive to people around you.”
Getting the hang of fasting, a gesture of solidarity with the poor and a way of focusing on the nonmaterial world, was a challenge for some at first. Leanne Scorzoni, who was raised Catholic and recently converted, fainted at work the second day of Ramadan, despite her carefully planned suhoor of a bowl of oatmeal, water, Gatorade, Pedialyte, a hard-boiled egg, a banana, and a Flintstone vitamin.
Yet, after two days of fasting, many converts reported feeling exhilarated.
“I feel like I had a lot of energy from the excitement,” said Jenna Laib, a math teacher from Somerville, Mass. “I felt really uplifted.”
AlJabri advises his students to be patient.
“The most memorable part of Ramadan is not a challenge but rather the spiritual journey,” he said. “The feeling for many of them at the end of the month is, ‘I wish there were two months of Ramadan.’ ”
The New York Times contributed to this report.