What Happens When You Practice Ramadan as a Non-Muslim?

In high school, one of my best friends was Muslim. So at a young age, I experienced second-hand a culture that observed customs I would have otherwise been oblivious to. This was most obvious every Ramadan, when my friend, Raza, would join us at our lunch table, but not eat. He skipped soccer practice, too, because he could not drink water. And, though we were relentlessly cruel to his cultural differences — as high school boys tend to be — I admired his commitment to the traditions he was born into, even though he never expressed any personal love of Islam.

I always thought it would be an interesting experiment to try Ramadan with him. I was impressed that he had the will power to make it through a typical day of high school, extra curricular activities and all, without passing out or caving in to a snack or drink of water. How could he do it? At that young age, I suspected that it was nothing short of impossible. And indeed, I didn’t push myself to try the ritual until this year.

There are various reasons that trying Ramadan interests me, not least of which that some of my friends are Muslim. Perhaps there is a feeling of solidarity, but also, I see it as a way to experience what a significant population of the world experiences every year. And fasting is a religious tradition which hasn’t been unique to Muslims until recently.

My first fear, however, was that “trying” Ramadan could be considered disrespectful. The implication in the act of “trying” is that, if I found it too difficult, I could skip it. Of course, by not trying it, I had already exercised my position of privilege. One of the main things keeping me from it was getting up so early. I remember Raza telling me that the summer Ramadan months were the hardest. During our high school career, they tended to be on winter months, when the sun came up later in the morning, and set much earlier. Imagine waking up at 5 a.m. to start eating.

I researched the topic cursorily and found that a few Muslim writers had written helpful etiquette guides for non-Muslims during Ramadan. The articles said that practicing Ramadan would be welcome, and it was, on the other hand, disrespectful to invite a Muslim colleague to a work lunch, for instance.

Just as I wanted to try Ramadan to see what Muslims experience, fasting itself, I read, is a way to understand what the poor experience every day. That is, that they don’t know when their next meal is coming. Hunger, a true hunger, which I have not known since I was young, if ever, is something unfortunately that they know well. Ramadan is a time that asks you not just to fast, but to give to the poor and be respectful.

So, this morning, I set my alarm for 5 a.m. Today, the sun rises at 5:25 — in fact, just as I write this. As I expected, my first thought about Ramadan was that it was brutal to have to wake up so early just to eat enough for the full day. As I quickly turned my alarm off and rubbed the sleep from my face, my heart went out to all Muslims who have done this their whole lives.

I remembered the story my friend Ahmed had recently told me when I asked him about Ramadan with his family. Tunisian by background, he grew up in a big family in a suburb of Paris. Did his mother cook a big breakfast for them? She used to, he told me, when they were younger, but now, no longer. You see, like me, she enjoyed sleep too much. Or, as it was put to me, she hated to wake up so early. Now, whenever they enjoyed Ramadan breakfast at their parents’ house, the children ate a breakfast that took the minimum amount of work required to cook it so that she could sleep longer.

This story, I reflected, showed how Muslims themselves struggle with their own traditions. Even later in life, it doesn’t get easier. And yet, still, they put up with it. Perhaps it was this difficulty that erased the act of fasting in other religions still practiced today. How have so many Muslims been able to keep it up, where others had failed?

My second realization as I woke up this morning to eat breakfast was that the light outside looked exactly as it had the night before when it was time to eat. Muslims around the world — for centuries — had been treated to two identical sides of the day, joined by food, community and ritual.

As I began to wake up, I realized that waking up so early is not so bad. How could I think it was? I have to be at work at 10, so the past couple of years, I have been able to wake up at a leisurely pace. But other times in my life, I have had to wake up this early for work or school, and I have managed. How easily I have forgotten that it was possible!

We went to a Catholic high school and Raza was one of the only Muslims that went there. I wasn’t Catholic either, but we all had to observe the traditions unique to that faith: mass, reading the Bible, and other religious instruction. As I mentioned, looking back, we were cruel to Raza given his, to us, obscure religion. But at the end of the day, we were good friends, and I learned a lot about Islam through him.

As cruel as we were to him, the cruelest act that I witnessed came from one of our teachers. One year, Raza had told our religion teacher he couldn’t make a religious retreat we had to go on because it was Eid, the end of Ramadan. Obviously, it was the first time this teacher had heard of Eid. Raza had taught me that it was as important a holiday as Christmas, and he always took it off. The teacher looked at him after he told her he couldn’t come to the retreat because of Eid. To her, the retreat was much more important. And I’ll never forget her answer, “Well, can you celebrate it on a different day?”

Raza had been conditioned to deal with intolerance like this. He was surrounded by it. But I was not, and I still am not. Even now, I can feel the same horror and disgust I felt toward her on that day. How could she suggest such a thing?

I am convinced that the world will be a better place if only we practice various forms of empathy. This requires us to take it upon ourselves to research and learn about traditions and view points which are practiced and yet foreign to us. It asks that we see the world in others’ eyes, from time to time. And, like travel, perhaps experiencing Ramadan as a non-Muslim can be just as rewarding.