Observing a Day of Ramadan as a Non-Muslim

In today’s vitriolic social and political climate, it remains increasingly important for people from all walks of life to reflect on the ideas and biases that divide us, and refocus our attention on each other and our common humanity.

In the spirit of this goal, the DC Office of Human Rights hosted a one day campaign last week for non-Muslim Citizens of Washington DC to observe a fast for the annual Muslim festival of Ramadan; A festival to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad, Ramadan is observed for one month by Muslims around the world and, as one of the Five Pillars of Islam, is an obligatory act. From sunrise to sunset, Muslims must abstain from food and drink as a reflection of self-discipline, purification of the mind and body, and commitment to give in to temptations.

I joined over 300 non-Muslims in the DC area to observe a one-day fast from sunrise to sunset to better understand the act of fasting and to gain a new perspective on what my Muslim friends and millions of devout Muslims around the globe admirably practice every year.

As the campaign gained social traction, different people came together for the practice of Ramadan — Catholics, Christians, Buddhists, Jews, and even Atheists came forward in solidarity and, quite frankly, curiosity. We all received a button from the DC Office of Human Rights to indicate which group we identified with and some quick facts about Ramadan to better explain the intent of the festival to others. On social media, the hashtag #FastWithDCMuslims opened the gates to some profound sharing:

As someone heavily dependent on morning coffee and afternoon mint tea to fuel waves of energy loss, I was already apprehensive about how to bypass the impending fatigue that the day would bring.

Setting an alarm of 3:30 am, I woke up and chugged two bottles of water with a small bowl of cereal before going back to bed and waking back up after the sunrise at half past 7. I ran to catch a late bus and, out of breath, wondered if I could survive without water. The morning was a constant stream of temptation; it offered a piece of leftover chocolate cake from a co-workers birthday, a new food truck full of Crepes and multiple wafts of Pumpkin flavored coffee. Even as my stomach roared around noon, I silently balked at them all.

As each new temptation arose, I focused my mind on the millions of people who were unfazed by such temptations and instead took the month to exercise control over their thoughts, embrace patience, and realize how their spiritual survival was not dependent on such things. I focused my mind on the millions around the world who observed Ramadan in the heat or intense activity — fasting at a desk in an air-conditioned office suddenly felt so trivial. Similar to how Ramadan inculcates the idea of generosity and giving to the needy, I also thought about how people all around the world were experiencing hunger and often not by choice. It was a poignant reminder yet one that, under the privilege of full stomachs and constantly accessible nourishment, rarely gets acknowledged.

While afternoon meetings kept me distracted from hunger, I still looked forward to each hour that brought the sunset closer. As evening came, I joined my friend’s family for Iftar dinner, a special meal to break the fast. During the last minute before the sun fell, we ate a date and made a wish. I suddenly felt goosebumps. Across the entire east coast, thousands in the same hour were making their own wishes and indulging in that same beautiful tradition. It was similar to celebrating a collective birthday.

While I saw a full restraint from food as a triumph once the sunset finally hit, I quickly learned that this was a small part of Ramadan. To complement the fast, Muslims are also expected to put more effort into following the teachings of Islam by refraining from anger, envy, greed, and gossip and to rectify any fractured relationships. In the words of my friend’s mom, “It doesn’t matter how many hours you spend without drinking water if you are not filling those hours with good thoughts.”

In environments where Muslims face often unwarranted discrimination, it’s important to remember that the narrative we see of Muslims by demagogues is rarely representative of the reality. Violence, discrimination and murder isn’t a “different type of Islam” or a “small part of Islam”. It has no place in Islam, period.

When you think of Muslims, create yourself a new narrative. Remember the millions that practice self-awareness, refrain from evil thoughts, and focus on kindness and generosity by observing a fast during the daylight for an entire month. Remember the millions that aim to dissolve anger in the world and strive to forgive others out of genuine desire.

If you get a chance to observe Ramadan even for a day, end your day with a Muslim family or at a local mosque. This will not only bring perspective to how Iftar is celebrated but remind you of the warmth with which Muslims invite others to experience their faith and pride with with they celebrate it. Contrary to what one may believe, Muslims don’t see fasting as a challenge to overcome. They see it as a spiritual awakening to welcome with open arms. Fasting is, in itself, a physiological challenge. The fact that it’s only small part of the motive makes it all the more impressive.

Experiencing Ramadan as an outsider showed me just how much strength, tenacity, and discipline it merits — it showed me what is really important to those who practice Islam. While it was only day, it gave me immense admiration for the Muslim community. More importantly, it showed me that Muslims are just like any other human beings — stuck in the tumultuous journey of life and trying to grow as each day goes by. In this, it’s easy for any of us to find our common humanity.

Eid Mubarak to all those who are celebrating Eid Al Fitr!

Kushaan is an IBM Consultant based out of Washington D.C. His interests are rooted in strategy consulting, entrepreneurship, social media, and the intersection of technology with social impact. He enjoys blogging about life, career insights, social technology, and hacking the corporate environment. If you liked this post, follow him on twitter: @kushaanshah or click “Follow” at the top for more posts on Medium.

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