HARD WORK AND FASTING FEED THE SOUL
  Published in Chicago Tribune, October 8, 2006
 

My first memory of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting and abstinence, is of the expression of pure bliss on my father's face as he drank a tall glass of ice-cold lemonade after he had broken his daily fast.

At that time, my father was the government physician in a small town called Bhainsa in central India, where temperatures in summer routinely exceed 100 degrees. After seeing patients in the hospital, he and an assistant would get on their bikes and trundle down the narrow, unpaved streets to make house calls.

My father made no concessions to his schedule during Ramadan. When he would return home just before sunset, he was exhausted and dehydrated. He would break the fast in the traditional manner, eating a date, then pouring out glasses of freshly squeezed lemonade until he had drained the jug.

My father was a strikingly handsome and charismatic man. His work ethic was impeccable, and because he understood that the purpose of fasting was to purify his life, he would not change his routine. He never even considered taking any days off during Ramadan.

"The only way to build your spiritual strength," he used to tell me, "is to work as hard as you normally would and keep the fast."

After dinner, he would put on his long white tunic, or sherwani, and we would go to the local mosque to attend the prayer called Taraweeh. During the Taraweeh, portions of the Koran are recited aloud daily, so by the end of the month the entire scripture is finished.

Muslims believe the Koran was revealed to Prophet Muhammad in small portions over 23 years, with the first revelation coming during Ramadan.

The recitation, if done by a special technique called Qirat--which stresses clear enunciation, appropriate intonation and the use of pauses--is a powerful experience. Jeffery Lang, a mathematician-turned-writer who converted to Islam, likens the sound to the soothing voice of a mother consoling a crying baby.

Back then, I was too young to understand what was being recited, yet it felt good. Even now, I do not understand much of what is being recited. Nonetheless, the experience is inspiring. For those who do understand the language, the Koran conveys a tone of grandeur, dignity and gravity.

Special foods are prepared during Ramadan. In our house, my mother made flour dumplings in yogurt (dahi wada), breaded and deep-fried onions and stuffed peppers (bhajiya and mirchi), and rice pudding with nuts (khir).

It is interesting that this time of fasting is associated with so many rich, delicious foods; not surprisingly, I never lose weight during Ramadan.

During my first few years in the U.S. in the late 1970s, when I was doing my medical residency and fellowship training, Ramadan had a strange feel. Few people around me were aware of it, so I felt somewhat disconnected from the world. I wished I could share this experience with others.

In post-9/11 America, more people are aware of Ramadan, but their understanding of it is distorted. It is not identified as a month of self-denial, self-discipline and character building, but as a strange and harsh ritual.

The Koran is clear about the intent of fasting.

"O ye who believe!" says a verse, "Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that ye may (learn) self-restraint."

Prophet Muhammad noted what is truly important during this month: purity of word and deed. "Whoever does not give up forged speech and evil actions, [let him know that] God is not in need of his giving up his food and drink."

So here I am in the middle of another Ramadan. Hunger is not a problem, nor is thirst, but the lack of sleep is. I rise at 4:30 to eat and pray before dawn, then lie down to try to sleep for an hour or so, often without much luck.

I make an effort to overcome the faults in my character--my impatience, my tendency to be sarcastic, my egocentric behavior, to name a few. I realize I need to volunteer more of my time. I will further dedicate myself to the protection of human rights.

Ramadan remains an uplifting experience, with the added bonus that during Taraweeh here in the U.S., unlike in India, I get to stand shoulder to shoulder with Muslims from many different ethnic backgrounds.

To this day, when it is time to break the fast and lemonade is on the table, I am reminded of my father and his motto to keep working hard and to keep on fasting. I am still trying to live up to those words.

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Javeed Akhter, a physician, is a founding member of the Chicago based Muslim American think tank International Strategy and Policy Institute and a member of the Chicago Committee of Human Rights Watch.

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