By Khaled Diab
Ramadan possesses a certain secular appeal but fasting requires the non-believer to square the philosophical circle.
30 August 2009
Summer Ramadans are the toughest. In northern climes, the yawning chasm that separates dawn from dusk makes the long, meandering days feel less like a pleasant stroll and more like an epic marathon. Further south, the days may be shorter and the hunger less palpable, but the intense heat makes the faster feel lost in a desert of thirst.
Although I no longer do Ramadan, the first time I ever fasted, when I was seven, happened to be one of those endless English summer days upon which the sun never seems to set. Muslim children are not obliged to fast and my parents thought I was too young, but I've always been up for a challenge. Besides, there was a mysterious and exotic appeal to those rituals which transformed life within the confines of our home, but hardly caused a ripple in the routines of the outside world.
That first day, Palestinian friends hosted us for iftar. As our mothers prepared a delicious Middle Eastern banquet to mark the start of the month, the kitchen became a torture chamber – teasing and tormenting me with an array of delicious, mouth-watering aromas.
The last couple of hours were sheer hell: it seemed that time itself had become so hunger-stricken that it could no longer function properly, and crawled from one second to the next like a snail on tranquilisers. All the adults commended me for getting so far and urged me to break my fast, but a stubborn streak inside me insisted that I would eat and drink only when the grown-ups did.
With practice over the years, fasting got much easier physically but much tougher philosophically. Ironically, I took up fasting in a non-Muslim country as a child and abandoned it in a Muslim land as an adult. Even before I lost my faith completely, I was never really a practising Muslim: I've never prayed regularly, nor have I ever read the Qur'an in its entirety, let alone memorised it. In fact, fasting Ramadan – but not the marathon prayer sessions and Quranic recitals associated with the holy month – is the only aspect of Islam that I have ever stuck to religiously.
I'm not entirely sure why that was. Part of the reason could be the special spirit of solidarity that marks Ramadan. The short fuses, ready tempers and irritability excepted, there is the camaraderie, unison and communalism of the season, the festive air, like Christmas for a whole month, the enchantment associated with the partial reversal of night and day, the bubbling late-night waterpipes, the pre-dawn beans on a Cairo street corner.
More profoundly, another explanation could be that, beyond the religious duty, Ramadan carries a secular appeal. Praying would involve expressing devotion to a being – or creator – and a belief system which have always raised doubts in my mind. In contrast, fasting is not just a ritual for its own sake but is also about self-discipline, exercising control over your body and empathising with the predicament of the less fortunate.
But despite my secularised version of Ramadan, certain tensions between Islamic norms and my a-religious outlook were increasingly thrown into sharp relief. Could girlfriends and later cohabitation mix with fasting? How should I handle my fondness for alcohol? Did I want to be like those non-practising Muslims who seek salvation for their ‘sins' through seasonal devotion, especially as I did not see what I was doing as sinful? As a free-thinker for whom the questions and contradictions in religion multiplied with time – rather than resolved themselves as confident believers assured me they would – could I continue to hold on to an artefact of a faith which clashed with the reality I observed?
Increasingly unable and unwilling to square the philosophical circle, I eventually abandoned this last vestige of my religion because, in the end, I seek food for thought and not for the soul.
This column appeared in The Guardian newspaper's Face to faith series on 29 August 2009. Read the related discussion.