Fasting in Ramadan: an altered state.

I pause to steady myself as blood rushes to my head.  My muscles are cramping, my head feels like a hot air balloon floating among the clouds, my stomach has shrunk from the size of my fist to the size of a walnut, and my mouth has forgotten what water tastes like.  No, I’m not crossing the Sahara on the back of a camel, I’m fasting Ramadan in the comfort of my own home.

“How are you?” my husband asks.

“Not great” I croak.

I’m not complaining though, I know that in a few hours, I will give my body a little of what it needs, a date or two, and several glasses of ice cold water, downed in a gulp.  Then, as the sugar hits my blood stream, I’ll go into a bit of shock, but things will even out, and pretty soon I’ll be in a completely different state than my current pitiful one.

Why am I having such a hard time with the physical challenges of fasting?  Every Muslim man, woman and child over the age of 12 is fasting with me here in Marrakesh, and all over the world.  I walk by construction sites and marvel at the workers fasting in the 100+ degree heat.  An old beggar woman walks by, she is small enough already, her back hunched over as she trudges by, and I know she too is fasting (although her normal diet is probably close to a fast anyway).  I see teenagers loitering in front of their apartment buildings in the late afternoon, wiling the hours away, and I know that they too are fasting.  My own 8 year old daughter surprised me by fasting 8 days of this month.   Why then am I so challenged today?

I look out over the city at sunset, and it’s turned into a ghost town, save a few speeding mopeds and cars zipping through red lights made irrelevant by the lack of traffic.  When I hear the call to prayer at sunset, I begin to weep.  I weep because it’s been a particularly hard day, and I feel weakened and humbled.  I weep because I now have a choice that thousands do not have, and that is to fill my belly.  I weep because I am feeling the joy described by the Prophet Muhamad, peace and blessings be upon him, when he said “the fasting person experiences two joys, one when he breaks his fast, and the other when he meets his Lord”.  And if this first joy is so intense, what about the next one?

Nothing in this world tastes as good as the first bite taken after fasting.  Never have I been so excited about water!  During the day, I pass through hunger to the next phase, where my appetite, puzzled by my not responding to it, decides to take a break.  I am no longer attracted to food, I see a plate of delicious fruit with the same amount of desire as I have for a plate of rocks.  For me, a usual snacker and a bit of a “gourmande”, this is such a relief.  I am excused from my mindless snacking, tasting of this and that, grabbing food “on the go”, refrigerator gazing and grazing, and all other forms of unhealthy consumption. Instead my meals for the day are carefully selected and prepared, eaten slowly and peacefully in the company of my family.

Not all days are as hard as today.  Most days I skip along with buoyant energy, keeping up with even my three year old.  I chalk it up to three days of international travel, a seven hour time difference (going east, the harder way) and our new clingy companion, the heat.  Tomorrow will, God willing, be easier, but in a way, I don’t want to forget today.  It’s these hardest moments that are the teaching moments, the moments of complete breaking and surrender.  I am reminded how weak I am, as a human, despite my illusion of control.  Take away food and water for 14 hours and I remember that I’m only a few breaths, a few bites, a few sips away from being, well, nothing.

“All of a humans actions are his, except for fasting, it is mine, and I reward it”.  These words are reported by the prophet Muhamad as God’s teaching about fasting.  Pondering them makes my fasting like climbing into a Zen Koan.  Why fasting, I wonder, why a whole month dedicated to this practice?  What are we to learn, and to experience?  The answers come in fragments.  Islam relies on pattern interruption to discipline the desires and re-orient the soul towards God.  On a daily basis, the five prayers call me away from the world, from my favorite distractions, from endless conversations, from my beloveds, from sleep, precious sleep!  Come to success! call the muedhins from the minarets, God is greater!  And I come, whether reluctant, elated, sleepy, distracted, reflective, no matter my state I do come and hold a few minutes of praise, of thanks, of remembrance of God’s blessings, and invariably, I leave feeling cleansed, subdued, centered.

So too is fasting a yearly type of pattern interruption.  Relinquish food for a while, relinquish even sleep, for this is a month in which you will enter an altered state.  Delve into the vast sea of the Quran, let the verses guide you, open secret chambers in your heart, remind you of things you knew once and have forgotten, turning faith into quiet certainty.  I see everyone around me in this altered state.  No matter their starting point, everyone is boosted up a notch in faith and practice.  I saw two men walk away from what could have been a heated argument.  “It’s Ramadan” they said, and went on their ways.  I see people giving up their addictions, the very disease that controls them, whether alchohol or addictions “of the flesh”, for a whole month.  I see whole families pouring out onto the streets, prayer mats in hand, headed for the mosques for Ramadan night prayers, Tarawih.  I know a man who sets an extra table for evening break fast, but never knows who is going to fill it until he goes to mosque, and invites a handful of poor people to come home with him.  I know friends who have given up, well, social networking for heaven’s sakes, because deep down, we don’t want to waste a single minute of this precious month on Facebook.  I know people who do not pray all year, but bank on going to the mosque Laylat al Qadr, a special and powerful night towards the end of Ramadan that is “better than a thousand months” of worship.

And while this may seem hypocritical, it is nontheless faith that pushes us all to try harder for God’s mercy and forgiveness this month.  Maybe some of it will rub off, and we won’t “lose it all” later on.  Maybe that is just our human state, that our faith and practice mark a certain fluctuation.  After all, a Saint, a friend of God, is one who is always in that spiritual high, and that is what distinguishes her from the rest of us aspirants.

With that said, my dearest readers, those of you who got through another long winded post, I will retire, for in a few hours, it’ll be time for 4 a.m. s’hour. If you are fasting as you read this, may your fast be amazing.  Ramadan Kareem!


25 thoughts on “Fasting in Ramadan: an altered state.

  1. Fortunately, I’m nowhere near as hot as Morocco, but I empathize with the feelings you have for fasting. They’re part of the Ramadan experience, and judging from what you’ve written, they’re working as intended.

    We should empathize with others and be grateful that we do have cool water to drink down, delicious foods to break our fast.

    Alhamdulillah, I’ve not broken my fast but the first week or so, it was on my mind every day. May Allah (swt) accept your fasts and grant you and your family peace.

    • Saladin (if that is your real name, lol), I’m glad you made it through. It is hard, it’s okay to admit that. Sometimes though we fear it more before we’ve actually done it, and then when we start fasting, we just push on through.
      I like your blog, it’s interesting to hear things from the perspective of a convert.

  2. Ah….thank you SO much for taking me so deeply into your spiritual journey. I live in a land where your faith is so misunderstood, and I am grateful to be drawn into the beauty of your practice.

    I have been thinking of undertaking my own ‘fast’ and devoting myself more deeply to my yoga practice, and to less indulgences of food and drink.

    Your post not only inspires me, but I must admit, almost brings up a sense of envy. I wish for the bond that your spiritual community experiences as you share this profound time of year with one another.


    • Thank you Laura. You know I had a lot of hesitation when I first started this blog about wearing my faith on my sleeve, so to speak. But blogging is helping me find my voice, and this is what I’m saying 🙂 I’m happy that it’s interesting to you.
      You mention a sense of envy, and that made me smile, I never imagined that fasting would make anyone envious. But I understand your yearning to be part of a spiritual community, I really do.

  3. Hafsa says:

    Soooooo beautifully said Nora….haven’t read anything from you for sometime, I thought that you took Ramadan off from blogging. thx for making the time to write and post this! Despite the fact that it’s been a particularly hard day for you, your words couldn’t be more vibrant and penetrating! I really enjoyed reading this blog…though I promised myself not to touch the computer for anything other than checking my email! it’s past midnight here. Alarm is set for 3:30 a.m for a pacific time Suhour and hopefully a few extra prayers before “Fajr” comes in. That is hoping that little Zayn doesn’t add an extra wake up call in between!

    Have a blessed last 9 days of Ramadan!


    • Hafsa! Thank you! I didn’t blog much this summer, just because I was travelling.
      I remember all the night wakings with my babies. I know Zayn is extra wakey. Is he getting any sleepier? How was Ramadan with him?

  4. Abdurrahman says:

    Dear Nora,

    Thank you for this. It is good to share the personal experience of the Divine — because fasting is (or can be) that experience. This is one of the many meaning of the Sacred Hadith (hadith qudsi) which you quoted and which Muslims believe are the Words of God, “All of a person’s spiritual practices belong to that person except fasting. It is Mine, and I am the One Who rewards it:” which can be understood to mean: It is Mine and nearness to Me is its reward,” which another hadith explains, Whoever belongs to God, God belongs to that one. (Man kaana lilLaahi, kaana lLaahu lahu).

    • Thank you, or rather, you’re welcome. The hadiths you mentioned are so cryptic to me, in a good way. I like to have something to mentally chew on. And the knowing comes from the doing.

  5. What a wonderful detailed,vivid description of Ramadam.
    Gosh, I did try ( a little) when we lived in Morocco
    since our friends invited us to join them.
    I agree it is the most special month
    but I did worry a lot about people who work outside in the very strong sunlight
    but completely understand why they are doing it!
    A super essay.
    Ramadam mubarek!

  6. Sara Morgan says:

    What a blessing your words are! You make real that which is unknown to many. You name a preciousness which can’t be named. My heart softened with divine love simply reading your words. All Love to you. Ramadan Mubarrak.

    • Lovely Itto, wa alaykum salam. Eid blessings to you and your family. It’s one of my goals for this year, insha Allah, to visit you. Until then, I’ll just have to be there through your blog.

  7. Fasting is alway a very difficult time, but one that I look forward to when I know that I am going to do it. I fast when I desire to draw closer to God. We as Christians have times in the year that we fast but it is alway voluntary. I will fast at times just to hear from God better. So many distractions get in the way of seeing the Lord’s will and there is no better way than to fast.

    You mentioned, I weep because I am feeling the joy described by the Prophet Muhamad, peace and blessings be upon him, when he said “the fasting person experiences two joys, one when he breaks his fast, and the other when he meets his Lord”. I believe that whole heartedly.

    Just to know that when you fast and find yourself in the presence of the Lord is awesome. Just to hear his voice! I can’t wait until we are before Him one day. Thank you for sharing. Peace be to you and your house.

  8. ummsalma says:

    alhamdullillah.. I found your blog. I was feeling similar today (and many days this month) and wondering why, everyone is doing it why am feeling like this.

    May Allah Accept from you and from us. Your blog is beautiful Masha’Allah.

    • Thank you Umm Salma. Some days it’s just plain tough, and there’s no denying the very physicalness of the fast. Sure it’s spiritual, but sometimes the hunger is pretty intense, and you have to come to terms with that.
      But now that it’s over, it will be missed!

  9. Lenka says:

    Assalaamu alaikum sister,

    I just want to say simple thank you for making me cry while reading your thoughts on fasting. This Ramadhan was my fourth after converting and Alhamdulillah every year I felt closer and closer to Allah. An altered state! This is just it, I hope you don’t mind if I borrow this expression for whenever I should talk about fasting. May Allah bless you and your family sister.

    • Wa alaykum salam dear Lenka,
      Thank YOU! Thank you for reading and for feeling so deeply what I was trying to express. These connections are precious to me.
      By all means, use my words if they help you convey a little of the fasting experience is.
      Congratulations on completing your fourth Ramadan. May we all be granted many more Ramadans insha Allah.

  10. Dear Nora
    Promped by Sarallah I have come to your site and then “found” this post. Beautifully you convey the magic of the amazingly power of the individual AND the communal practice of Ramadan. I too am left with a deep yearning akin indeed to envy for what I hear is an intense aligning of each heart, mind, and body toward Allah, together with a tangible wordless sharing of the communion through each long hard sweet quiet day. What blessings…enviable indeed!

    Johanan (nee John)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s