Fasting and Fighting: A Ramadan Reflection

By Anisa Mehdi

Ramadan is a practice that goes far beyond a physical fast.

During the month of Ramadan, Muslims worldwide engage in an annual, focused encounter with the Almighty, testing temperance, patience, and the strength of self-discipline.  The test is in the form of a fast.  You’ve heard about it by now, no doubt.  Much of American society is cognizant of Ramadan just as we’ve become aware of celebrations in other non-majority traditions, like Hanukah, Kwanza, and Diwali.

Those Muslims who practice the fast — and it is a practice — endure a daily routine of not eating, drinking, smoking or having sex from dawn until dusk.  But that’s not all.  Your demeanor during this time is equally important.  You must not lose your temper (no matter how uncomfortable hunger may be); you do not misbehave.

In Muslim-majority countries the workday schedule is often shortened during Ramadan.  People rest during the day and nightlife swells.  For those living in non-Muslim countries, fasting during these long summer days is a fiery trial.  But it is fire for the soul, not of guns.

Right now, in spite of shorter workdays and embellished evenings, in some Muslim majority countries there’s terrible violence underway both day and night.

Think Egypt, Syria, Somalia.  Iraq, Gaza, Mali.  Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and more.  Millions of people are living where hostility and conflict are rampant.  Somehow, some of them are practicing the fast “prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may be mindful of God.”  (Qur’an, Sura 2:183)

Mindful of God?  Where’s the compatibility between mindfulness and combat?  Where does best behavior meet maiming and murder?  How does a person maintain exemplary behavior in the midst of war?  How do you fast and fight?

“The Egyptian authorities unleashed a ferocious attack on Islamists protesters early Saturday, killing at least 72 people in the second mass killing of demonstrators in three weeks and the deadliest attack by the security services since Egypt’s uprising in early 2011,” reports today’s New York Times.

Presumably the aggressors and the victims in this story are mostly Muslim.

Earlier this month, on the eve of Ramadan was the first worst killing: security forces killed 50 supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi.  (Surely that put everyone in a mood for best behavior for the beginning of Ramadan.)

On July 9 —  the first day of Ramadan, a car exploded in Beirut’s southern suburbs, leaving several people dead and at least 15 wounded.  (They say if you die while making the Hajj pilgrimage your soul goes straight to heaven.  I wonder what happens if you’re killed during Ramadan.)

Four years ago during the holy month of fasting, a woman blew herself up in Grozny, Chechnya’s mostly Muslim capital.  Her target? A police car, a symbol of Russian control.  She died; innocent people were wounded.  The Qur’an’s Sura (chapter) 2, verse 190 specifies,” Fight in God’s cause against those who fight you, but do not overstep the limits: God does not love those who overstep the limits.”  Experts agree that overstepping the limits includes fighting non-combatants and disproportionate response to aggression.  Overstepping limits includes starting hostilities; it includes retaliation exceeding the provocation.  Sura 2, verse 195 goes on to condemn suicide: “Do not contribute to your own destruction with your own hands.”

Speaking of starting hostilities, 40 years ago, when the Islamic and Hebrew calendars coincided, and Ramadan and Yom Kippur occurred together, the Egyptian and Syrian armies launched an ill-fated attack on Israel.  Jews were fasting, Muslims were fasting.  Within days the Israeli Army had advanced on both Damascus and Cairo.  It took years for Egypt to get Sinai back; Syria’s Golan Heights are still Israeli-occupied territory.  (That didn’t turn out too well.)

It would seem that aggression during Ramadan does little good.  Maybe that’s because the rules stipulate hospitality, manners, basically making your mother proud.

I appeal to my fellow Muslims to stop the madness.  Use these rules to your advantage.  Best behavior during the day: read the Qur’an, rest, pray, practice self-discipline and self-control.  Use the daylight hours to contemplate the value of your anger and advantage of warring.  Is it working for you?  Is there a better way?

It may not be an easier way but the instruction is clear: “Do not let your hatred of a people incite you to aggression.”  (Qur’an 5:2)

Ramadan is a practice that goes far beyond a physical fast.  Its success is measured not by abstaining from food during daylight from new moon to new moon, but rather by indulging in new heights of dignity and respect for others.  That includes not fighting.

Hey, it’s easy for me to say, from the safety and sanity of New Jersey (some might argue with that description of the Garden State, but I’m just sayin’ compared with other parts of our planet …), that the success of the Ramadan fast “is measured not by abstaining from food … but rather by indulging in new heights of dignity and respect for others.”  I don’t face daily gunfire and bombings.  I don’t live in fear that my government will sic its troops on me.  Fasting here, challenging as it may be, is luxurious compared to what it must be these days in Aleppo, Baghdad, Cairo, and Darfur. I don’t have the answers on how to ban bloodshed in Egypt and civil strife in Syria; I can’t stop the bombs in Baghdad or Beirut.

But I still have hope.  A narrative from that same tumultuous region rises like the proverbial phoenix from smoldering hostility, reminding me that there are heights of dignity and respect born and bred right in those parts.  The progenitors of the present day fasting and warring peoples include the triumphant examples of Moses, Jesus, Mohammad, and the primary unifier, Abraham/Ibrahim, father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Today the spirit of Abraham lives on in that strife-torn region.  If you visit villages along the historic route of his journey you’ll receive repeated invitations to come and sit, to share tea and olives; you’ll learn that it’s only natural to turn strangers into friends.  They’ll tell you that 4,000 years ago Ibrahim el Khalil / Abraham, the Friend of God, wandered through the tormented region we now call “the Middle East,” leavening hospitality wherever he went.

Abraham’s route is being dusted off by what Christiane Amanpour calls “an unprecedented initiative” in her December 2012 ABC News special Back to the Beginning.  The Abraham Path Initiative is an actual route of cultural tourism with 400-plus kilometers of marked walking trails.   The Initiative was founded by William Ury at Harvard’s Global Negotiation Initiative.  The Path is non-profit, non-religious and non-political organization.  I sit on its board of directors.

Stories of Abraham abound from Ur to Urfa, Ahwaz to Harran, Jenin to Jericho, and Memphis to Mecca.   Oral tradition has it the Biblical Abraham walked through the part of Syria that became the city of Aleppo — later built by King David.  There, Abraham milked his flocks; more importantly, he shared the milk with the local people.  Indeed, the name Aleppo comes from the word halab, meaning “milked” in Aramaic, Hebrew, and Arabic.  Abraham opened his tent on all four sides to see people and to practice the moral obligation of hospitality.

The Abraham Path already brings economic benefits to the 40 villages it connects, especially to women who make lunch for walkers on their way and to families who host these cultural tourists overnight.  The route passes through historical and holy sites, like  Göbekli Tepe, the 11,000-year-old standing stones in Anatolia, Turkey, the Roman decapolis city of Pella in northwestern Jordan, and Hebron/Al-Khalil where Ibrahim is buried. According to the Lonely Planet guide, “Walking part of this trail shines a spotlight on the cultural and natural diversity of this ancient land.”

When I ask how does a person fast and survive in a culture of fighting I invoke Abraham’s example of hospitality as an antidote to hostility.  We at the Abraham Path Initiative have seen that the simple, personal act of walking can open eyes clouded with preconceived notions, heal wounds of fear and conflict, and refresh souls exhausted by violence.  As people’s lives are wrenched apart this Ramadan, Ibrahim’s ethic may help feed faithful souls who are fasting and struggling now through the first week of August.  Remembering a heritage of generosity and trust, in lieu of a blessed cease fire, may restore some hope for the future.