To Fast or Not to Fast

To Fast or Not to Fast May 22, 2018

“It was in the month of Ramadan that the Quran was revealed as guidance for mankind, clear messages giving guidance and distinguishing between right and wrong. So any one of you who is present that month should fast, and anyone who is ill or on a journey should make up for the lost days by fasting on other days later. God wants ease for you, not hardship. He wants you to complete the prescribed period and to glorify Him for having guided you, so that you may be thankful.”

~The Qur’an, Surah Baqara (the Cow), verse 185.

I expected to feel a sense of accomplishment at fasting 12-17 hours a day for an entire moth, but I never expected the pure rejoicing of spirit that occurs. Similarly, community isn’t a big thing to me most of the time.  I’m a introvert who dislikes crowds and is happy as a clam with a “village” that consists of my family and a very small circle of friends, so I was totally floored by how intense  the communal aspect of fasting Ramadan was, and how important it was to me.

And while it may seem equally crazy, I was totally devastated nearly eight years ago when I was diagnosed as hypothyroid and put on medicines that need to be taken with breakfast and at midday, one of which needs to be taken an hour before eating or four hours after eating. A few quick calculations and it was clear there was no way I could fast. With Ramadan falling in late summer at that point, eating for the day needed to end around 5 am, an hour space between end of eating and taking pills, three quarters of an hour to put together a meal and eat it  —  I was looking at getting up between 3 to 3:30 am. Evening prayers ending at 11 pm, giving me a max of 4 hours sleep. And while I could potentially go back to sleep for a hour or two  before I had to get ready for work, I was going to severely sleep deprived after a few days, let alone a entire month. Simply stopping the meds was not an option either as my legs and feet swelled horribly, I was exhausted all the time, my blood pressure and body temperature were exceptionally low,and I could gain as much as ten pounds a week without them.

So I stopped fasting. After all, the Qur’an even makes an explicit exception for people who are sick. Nonetheless, it felt like a huge blow. Not only did I lose the personal joy, I lost the sense of community that went along with Ramadan. When I went to friends’ houses or the mosque to break fast, I felt like a fraud since I wasn’t fasting. It was worse because I have friends with hypothyroidism who only need to be on one med and can fast. But hypothyroidism has many different causes and many different manifestations. In my case, the one med wasn’t enough.

I tried maintaining my spiritual connection to the month by praying more, reading more Qur’an, postponing my evening meal to eat with my kids who were fasting, and none of it was a spiritually uplifting as fasting. I tried making up the fasts in the shorter months and found it to be a tough slog fasting on my own for thirty days in November or December when no one else was fasting. It wasn’t uplifting like Ramadan is. It didn’t make me feel closer to God or the community. It just felt like an awful burden I was struggling to fulfill. Instead of being an act of worship, it became an act of resentment; I was grumpy with God and everyone else on the days I was making up fasts. After a while, I gave up on it. There’s no point to carrying out an act of worship, if all it’s doing is making you angry at God.

So instead of making up the days, I took the other compensation as mentioned in Surah Baqara, verse 184:

Fasting is prescribed for a number days. Then, whoever among you had been sick or on a journey, then, a period of other days. And for those who cannot fast is a redemption of food for the needy. And whoever volunteered good, it is better for him. And that you formally fast is better for you if you had been knowing.

So I gave charity and helped host iftars at the mosque.

But I still pined for my own fasting during Ramadan, so I started thinking about adjusting the times of fasting, making the day shorter. I had spent some time one summer in Norway where darkness lasted for all of an hour and a half.  I knew no one could fast that long. They had to adjust the times for fasting. Doing some research, I found that fatwas had been issued for Muslims living in the far north as well as in areas with long summer days, such as The Netherlands, allowing them to shorten the fast. While there were some variations, the fatwas that made the most sense to me was for people in those areas to follow the times of fasting in Mecca, as the prophet had done.

The length of the day in Cincinnati doesn’t vary like it does in Norway, nor even as much as it does in The Netherlands. But it does vary significantly: in winter, we fast less than 11 hours, while in summer it’s up over 16 and half hours. During summer fasting for nearly 17 hours is challenging enough that some of my friends become nocturnal, sleeping after breakfast until mid afternoon and then staying up all night. It’s the only way they can cope.  In fact, imams in the Netherlands reported doing the same thing.

Meanwhile, in Mecca breakfast is around 4 am and dinner at 7 pm. It seems a lot more doable. And yet, no one I know in Cincinnati is suggesting we follow Meccan timings. Where exactly, I wonder, do you draw the line? And who gets to decide. It seems like when the day is long enough that people are reversing their schedule it should at least be a consideration.

But with no one else in the community observing altered timings, it felt fake to me. It didn’t sastify the same way that actual, full-on fasting did.

This year, I have begun to think about altering the fast in my own unique way.  I need liquids to take my pills — and indeed, they come with a warning about drinking a cup of water before and a cup of water with the pill as it can get stuck in your throat and are then hard to dislodge even with lots of water… a warning whose veracity has in fact been borne out many times when I didn’t drink enough. But I don’t need food, in fact, they are best absorbed without food, thus the warnings to refrain from eating for an hour after taking it, or to take it at least four hours after consuming a meal.  Perhaps refraining from food alone during the daylight hours will be adequate for me to regain that feeling of a true fast, and reconnect me to the community and the spirituality of Ramadan.

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