An(other) Interfaith Look at Ramadan
Tomorrow marks the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims worldwide observe a daily fast from sunrise to sunset. Last year, I took the opportunity to reflect on how Jewish and Christian friends had helped me understand certain aspects of Ramadan more deeply.
This year, I thought I’d explore what all the faiths in Singapore’s wonderful cultural space might teach me – and what a trove of treasures emerged! There are of course too many traditions in Singapore to document fully here, but I thought I’d start with our ten ‘official’ religions.
In alphabetical order:
I was reminded that under the superficial physical denial, fasting can be a time of deep spiritual plenitude and joy. These words of Bahá'u'lláh, the founder of the Baha’i faith whose followers also observe a fast in March, are poignantly similar to Muslim practices:
“These are the days of the Fast. Blessed is the one who through the heat generated by the Fast increaseth his love, and who, with joy and radiance, ariseth to perform worthy deeds. Verily, He guideth whomsoever He willeth to the straight path.” (The Importance of Obligatory Prayer and Fasting)
I learned that in Buddhism, fasting in a monastic community is considered an ascetic practice, a "dhutanga" which, at its best, can "shake up" and "invigorate" a person in his/her quest to cultivate detachment from physical impulses along the Middle Way. This seems to fit well with one of the core aims of Ramadan: to help Muslims become more deliberate and intentional about how to rise above routines and become more spiritually conscious.
Such spiritual awareness, of things that are core and fundamental, seems to lie at the heart of fasting in Christianity too. Psalm 35:13 notes beautifully that
“…I humbled my soul with fasting,
And my prayer kept returning to my bosom.”
I also love these lines from the Gospel of Matthew (6:16-18), which remind me that fasting is about embracing life in all its richness and expansiveness:
"Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”
The sense of how fasting can nudge us, however tentatively, to higher levels of awareness is explored in Hinduism too. This verse from the Bhagavad Vita (2:59) articulates a state of being that I hope I can realise, even if only in some small measure, during this year’s fast:
“For one who is fasting,
The sense-objects disappear,
Leaving the yearning behind;
But when one has seen the Highest,
Even the yearning disappears.”
There is much to be inspired by in the Jain community too, especially in its holy season of Paryusana Parva, which is spent in spiritual exercises and austerities, studying scripture and fasting. I was particularly struck by one of the practices that a Jain friend told me about: “Samayik”, sitting down at one location for a minimum of forty-eight minutes, without eating, drinking or doing any mundane work. Instead, the time is spent meditating, reading holy books and scriptures, listening to sermons, chanting mantras, or counting rosary beads. This has many parallels to the Muslim concept of “I’tikaf” – the practice of secluding oneself in a mosque, often for at least an hour, for the purpose of renewing one’s connection with God.
There is also something deeply communal about fasting during Ramadan – everyone gets involved (even those unable to fast for health reasons will help to cook!). There is much mutual gifting of food among families for iftar (the breaking of the fast) and sahur (the pre-fast morning meal). These remind me of the following passage from the Hellenistic Jewish philosoper Philo Judaeus of Alexandria:
“On the tenth day the fast takes place which they take seriously – not only those who are zealous about piety and holiness, but even those who do nothing religious the rest of the time. For all are astounded, overcome with the sacredness of it; in fact, at that time, the worse compete with the better in self-control and virtue. The reputation of the day is due to two reasons: one that it is a feast and the other that it is purification and escape from sins for which amnesty has been given by the favors of the gracious God who has assigned the same honor to repentance that he has to not committing a single Sin.”
And then there are the lessons from Taoism. The “Book of Changes” notes that to fast is “to take preventive measures against wrong-doings to reform oneself thoroughly” – the same “self-control and virtue”, I suspect, that Philo Judaeus spoke of. In “The Book of Esoteric Explications of the Three Heavens”, we are told that "To learn Tao, one must fast first. Thus one can keep one's body clean externally and one's mind empty and pristine internally, so much so that one ascends while the Perfected descends” – a wonderfully vivid description of how fasting creates spaces within us to receive the Divine and Its gifts.
Not all of Singapore’s ten official religions involve fasting, of course – my limited understanding is that Sikhs and Zoroastrians do not have fasting as one of their spiritual practices. But what’s interesting is that while the proximate practice of fasting might not feature in Sikhism and Zoroastrianism, the more fundamental purposes of fasting (spiritual intention, cultivating communion with God) are very much present. I found it fascinating, for instance, to learn about the Zoroastrian practice of avoiding eating meat (by some descriptions, a form of fasting in itself) on “Nabor” days, when slaughter is avoided as a mark of noting God’s gifts to humanity.
Exploring these different facets of some of the spiritual traditions in Singapore highlighted two fundamental truths for me.
First, that underpinning our diverse beliefs is a substrate of profound similarities. Sigmund Freud astutely observed in 1917 that humans are inclined towards a “narcissism of minor difference” – where the small distinctions between people who are otherwise alike form the basis of hostility between them. The shared space of our beliefs, whether on fasting or other aspects of living, shows us that a better way is possible. This way is characterised by what I like to call “the kinship of deep commonality”. Such fellow-feeling takes time and intentional effort to build, and could shatter quite easily – but is eminently worth the time and attention to nurture. What better place than multicultural Singapore to start on such a project of encountering and celebrating “Others”!
Second, that while the superficial aspects of fasting involve loss and denial (of food, drink, physical needs, etc), there are also deeper gains and abundances at work here. Emptying ourselves of some things can open up spaces, both literal and metaphorical, for the far more important and intangible – the things that cannot be counted but count because they are containers of deep meaning. This applies not just to macro, abstract concepts like the Divine – but the small, daily manifestations of micro-divinity in our lives: gratitude for sustenance after a long day; meals with families; gifts and mutual understanding among friends. This is a truth that I hope will echo for all of us, rhyming and resounding not just in the next 30 days, but throughout the coming years.