In a world of consumerism, I did not consume. This past month, Muslims across the globe similarly did not consume. They relinquished the pleasure and nourishment of food from sunup to sundown. It is what Ramadan requires: abstinence from food.
This is not, however, the essence of Ramadan. It is both a physical lack of consumption and a metaphorical one that is required. We live in a time when mankind is at its most advanced state in history, yet the news cycle is filled with the stories of Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, and countless nameless others who found a lack of life to be better than living. Despite the modern age I live in, I find solace in a religion and philosophy codified over 1,400-years ago.
Ramadan captures the essence of Islam. The Arabic word Islam means “peace” and “submission to God,” and what would be a better way to submit to God’s will than to endure the crucible that is Ramadan? “Not even water,” is what my friends and colleagues usually exclaim when I tell them the requirements of Ramadan. But that is what the spirit of Ramadan requires — to truly test one’s spiritual body by taking away the one thing we need. We live in a world where we consciously or subconsciously feel a need that is driven by validation — to have the latest iPhone, to post the wittiest of Instagram posts, to have our lives appear to be more interesting than they are. In reality, this desire for validation creates a self-imposed prison.
Ramadan and Islam’s philosophy counters this by recognizing and embracing the fragile human state. The Prophet Muhammad said that the world is a prison for a believer and a paradise for a nonbeliever. For a Muslim, this life is like a prison; their hands shackled from eating certain foods, their eyes lowered when with the opposite sex, and one of their entire months is spent in fasting. It is through this prison, however, that one is liberated. Even after nearly 16 hours of fasting, the food one eats is not nearly as satisfying as the desire one creates to eat it. And if one eats as much as one desires, one feels the consequences of gluttony quickly.
Instead of focusing on those qualities that inhibit spiritual growth, Ramadan fosters those qualities that nurture spiritual growth. When you take away the one thing you think you absolutely cannot live without, you gain the strength over yourself to control what you think you “need.” An excess, whether it be of food or validation or any other material substance, only leaves us empty. The Holy Qur’an speaks of this in 33:73 in which God states, “[v]erily, We offered the Trust to the heavens and the earth and the mountains, but they refused to bear it and were afraid of it. But man bore it. Indeed, he is capable of being unjust to, and neglectful of, himself.” Mankind is capable of handling the “Trust” given to us; but if we do not nurture our spirit, we become unjust to ourselves.