By Shakeel Rashed
Growing up in India, we celebrated all holidays. In the spring, I would be multi-colored head to toe celebrating Holi with friends, in December, I’d wait for other friends after their Christmas mass and enjoy a delicious slice or two of fruit cake, and, of course, invite them all home for both Muslim Eids to share a variety of food and deserts. Looking at my calendar now, I feel the same excitement seeing so many holidays overlapping this spring of 2023. Starting with Ugadi and Ram Navami celebrated by my Hindu friends, to Palm Sunday, Passover, Good Friday, Easter, and the month of Ramadan, which started March 23 this year.
Ramadan is the holiest month in our Islamic faith. It is the month the first verses of the Quran were taught to Prophet Muhammad by Angel Gabriel (starting with the words, “READ, Read in the name of God”). Since the Islamic calendar is lunar based, it is not in sync with the Gregorian calendar and Ramadan moves earlier each year. Many cultures follow lunar calendars. They are easier to follow since you see it in nature.—you know when the moon is full or waxed or waning. Today, of course, my phone shows me both the dates. During Ramadan, Muslims fast from dawn until sunset, abstaining from food, drink—yes, no water or hydration—in addition to denying other physical needs as a way of purifying the soul and practicing self-discipline. Hakeem Olajuwon, the Houston Rockets basketball player, was known to fast even during games and was an inspiration to many to do the same even during heavy work days. All this before fasting became such a health craze among celebrities! Recently, the NCAA Final Four UConn MVP candidate Adama Sanogo and his teammates Hassan Diarra and Samson Johnson, all are fasting during this season. Another inspiration, as they went on to win the tournament.
Every Muslim looks forward to this time of year. Many start their countdown early and wish each other luck to reach the holy month. Some dread the early days of fasting. They want to shop and be prepared to make their favorite foods to break the fast, a meal known as iftar, at sunset. And a few, such as myself, don’t do much preparation. I’m able to just switch the Ramadan mode on, having done so since my teens. The only thing I miss in the early days of Ramadan is my two cups of black coffee, which I crave and slowly enjoy every morning other than Ramadan. My wife thinks I have an addiction, (which I have to deny!).
Because Muslims come from diverse backgrounds, iftar foods may differ but what you see in common everywhere is dates with water. Dates were the major food relied on by Prophet Mohammed and his followers who came from the deserts of Arabia. In the middle eastern groups, you see more falafel, hummus, olives, and greens. People from the Indian subcontinent, which includes India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, generally have a good serving of fried foods such as Samosas or Pakoda (fritters made from chick pea batter). Some from Pakistan and North India cannot break fast without a rose flavored super-sweet drink called Roohafza. In Hyderabad, the south Indian city where I grew up, the most desired iftar food is Haleem, a tasty, slow-cooked stew of meat, grains (like barley), lentils, and spices, garnished with lemon juice, ginger, cashews, coriander, and fried onion. Just writing about it makes me salivate. People invite each other to their homes for Iftars and many mosques have community iftars to break fast and continue praying late into the night.
While iftar foods are well known, the Suhur, or the meal before dawn, is open. Most people end up eating hastily and hurry to drink enough water to sustain themselves. Among younger Muslims born and brought up in the U.S., it has become a local tradition to go out for meals before dawn. IHOP is popular for most of us. NPR recently did a program on how IHOP is catering to this group of customers including adding halal (the Muslim version of kosher) in southern California. In Austin, Kerby Lane is my family’s favorite for this meal.
One downside everyone agrees on is how much less sleep we get during this month. Between praying late in the night to getting up early to eat a meal before fasting, it breaks the sleep cycle. Some who can take a nap during the day do so, but others just power thru with sheer will.
During Ramadan, many Muslim charities approach donors. Charity, also known as Zakat, is one of the pillars of faith for Muslims. The amount of charity is prescribed based on assets you own and most people religiously donate large amounts of money to charities locally and internationally to support Muslim communities.
Even with so many community events, it is a very spiritual time. Some of us emphasize the inward search for meaning and seek to achieve a deeper understanding of our faith through reflection, personal experience, and spiritual practices during Ramadan. Some spend the last ten days of Ramadan in retreat at the mosque; this is known as I’tikaaf – meant to indicate a person who is in constant association with the creator.
This inward search leads me to Rumi, the famous 13th-century Persian poet and Sufi mystic. For most western audiences Rumi was introduced by translations from Coleman Barks and then popularized by pop culture icons like Dr. Deepak Chopra or even Madonna propagating a very westernized, free-spirited mystic.
My version of Rumi is a little different. Rumi was an expert in Quran and Hadith, and was a Maulana—a religious scholar. His poetry is seen as an extension of religious thought using common metaphors observed on streets and in nature. Growing up, my mother was constantly quoting Urdu or Persian poetry from the likes of Iqbal and Ghalib and they all referred to the Maulana as the fountainhead.
Rumi wrote extensively on a wide range of spiritual topics, including the practice of fasting. In his poetry, he often emphasizes the transformative power of fasting as a means of purifying the soul and drawing closer to God. In his words, “Fasting is a way of purifying the heart and mind, of shedding the excesses of the ego, and of turning one’s attention inward toward the divine.”
One of Rumi’s most famous poems brings out the essence of Ramadan. It is called “The Month of Ramadan” or “The Great Fast.” This poem speaks to the transformative power of the month of Ramadan and encourages the reader to use this time as an opportunity for spiritual growth and self-reflection. Here is an excerpt from the poem:
O moon-faced Beloved,
the month of Ramadan has arrived.
Cover the tableand open the path of praise
O fickle busybody,
it’s time to change your ways.
Can you see the one who’s selling the halvah
how long will it be the halvah you desire?
Just a glimpse of the halvah-maker
has made you so sweet even honey says,
“I’ll put myself beneath your feet, like soil;I’ll worship at your shrine.”
Your chick frets within the egg
with all your eating and choking.
Break out of your shell that your wings may grow.
Let yourself fly.
The lips of the Master are parched
from calling the Beloved.
The sound of your call resounds
through the horn of your empty belly.
Let nothing be inside of you.
Be empty: give your lips to the lips of the reed.
When like a reed you fill with His breath,
then you’ll taste sweetness.
Rumi uses vivid imagery to describe the month of Ramadan and the powerful transformation made possible through fasting. He encourages the reader to let go of distractions and desires, to empty themselves and open up to the spiritual nourishment that comes with the fast. Deep. You can find more of Rumi on Ramadan on the Dar Al Masnavi.
Learning about and celebrating each other’s holidays is a great way to appreciate our diverse cultures and faith traditions. I feel blessed to be invited by friends to celebrate on their holidays, whether it is a latke party to start Hanukkah, lighting lights at Diwali, or sharing a brunch on Easter. Some of my close friends who know about my sweet tooth send me Indian sweets via mail too. Blessed, no doubt.
May we celebrate each of our holidays with the same reflection that Rumi emphasizes for Ramadan, that we may come out as more compassionate, inclusive, and understanding human beings.