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Dharma Cowgirl Does Ramadan

July 17, 2012

Families sharing Iftar during Ramadan in Istanbul near the Hagia Sophia. Photo by Carmen Alonso Suarez via

Chaplain first, Buddhist second is what a classmate told me early in this program.  Chaplains serve whoever is in need of care, regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof.  Moreover, chaplains serve those people as they are – meaning using they truths they hold dear to help them cope with whatever stress they are experiencing or, when necessary, helping them determine what those are if they are uncertain, even if their conclusions are radically different from ours.  I would not walk into the hospital room of a devout Catholic and begin chanting in Pali.  I would not tell a Mormon to pray for a better rebirth in their next life.  I would not extort a Hindu to recognize the truth of anatta (that they have no enduring soul or atman).   This would be heaping pain upon pain and entirely unethical.

To help people from within their own worldview, it would be helpful to understood a little bit about that worldview, even if, in the end, I do not adhere to it personally.  Therefore, I resolved to participate in some of the common religious practices of other faiths.  I am starting with Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, with the help of a good Muslim friend to guide me.  I also hope to participate in Lent in the Christian tradition, Passover in the Jewish tradition, Diwali in the Hindu tradition, and many other such experiences.

However, I do not do so without reservations.  After all, is it right for a Buddhist to claim to practice Ramadan?  Is it heretical for someone who cannot even recite the Shahada, the first of the Five Pillars of Islam, to participate in the fourth?  I do not know.  My friend was happy when I told her I would join her in Ramadan, even if only for a day or two per week, although she knows I am not Muslim and do not particularly believe in God.  I know of Christian friends who have been welcomed into Ramadan in Muslim countries and communities.  I wish to experience the spiritual aspects of fasting, prayer, and community that are part of Ramadan, so that I may know even a tenth part the impact they have on the Muslims whom I would call friend.  Even a one-hundredth or one-thousandth part I would judge a success.

So, what exactly is Ramadan?

As I understand it, Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, one of five things all Muslims are called to do.  These are:

  1. Shahada, the declaration of faith, typically “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger” recited in Arabic.
  2. Salat, prayer five times daily.
  3. Zakat, charitable giving freely offered.
  4. Ramadan, a month of dawn to dusk fasting for healthy adults.
  5. Hajj, pilgrimage to Mecca for all who can afford it.

These pillars are understood slightly differently in different traditions of Islam, but these are the essentials.  Islam itself is the way of submission to the will of God, and that submission is put into practice through acts of obedience, particularly these five.  Islam has an elegant simplicity to it.  The will of God is for justice, for no evil or wrong deeds to ever befall His children (that’d be us).  Submission to His will is a commitment to do good and prevent evil.  Unfortunately, because humans are flawed, we are often ignorant of what precisely is good or evil and often do wrong.  Therefore, God is also characterized as merciful.

In theory, I can fully support the teachings of Islam (minus the occasional radical fundamentalist who has lost sight of God’s will).  However, I do not believe in God.  On a particularly optimistic day, you might say I believe in the possibility of God, but not the likelihood or the necessity.  To me, intellectually, emotionally, physically, and spiritually, questions of God simply do not matter all that much.  Therefore, I could not in good faith say that I believe there is one god or any god or that any person, Muhammad or otherwise, is his or her prophet.

Nevertheless, I fully believe in the power of spiritual practices to radically affect one’s worldview and life.  What we do matters.  Often it matters far more than we think it does or believe it will.  Actions are not merely caused by beliefs; they actively shape our beliefs.  So, am I practicing Ramadan to engender a belief in God?  No.

I’m participating in Ramadan to engender a belief in humanity, in empathy and compassion, in shared spiritual experience.  By necessity, my experience of Ramadan will be different from the experience of a Muslim.  I imagine Ramadan is different for every Muslim, when it comes right down to it.  Yet enough is shared to serve as the foundation of a religion for millions of people all over the world.  I’d like to know what that is.

As a Buddhist, I will not be fully participating in Ramadan, largely because I lack the communal infrastructure of a Muslim community.  Instead, I will participate in Ramadan at least one full day each week, possibly two.  What does this mean?

It means getting up at five o’clock in the morning for prayer and breakfast.  My prayers will not be Muslim prayers, but rather Buddhist meditation.  The predawn mean is called Suhoor (or a variation of that), and is usually hardy but simple.  Mine will most likely be herbal tea (no caffeine), oatmeal, a hard boiled egg, nuts, fruit, yogurt, and all the water I can drink.  Then, because I’ve chosen Tuesday as my day for fasting, I’ll get on the train and head to work.  During the day, I’ll meditate or pray twice more.  Then in the evening, after dusk (around 8:00 pm) my friend and I will break our fast together in a meal called Iftar.  This meal generally includes dates, which were much praised by the prophet for their nutritional content, meat, and other staples.  In the evening, I’ll meditate or pray twice more, perhaps together with my friend, and read parts of the Qur’an, or Muslim holy book.  The copy I own came from the library of my dear mentor and friend, Dr. Kenneth Locke, who passed away this past March and whose sister is now kindly helping me practice Ramadan.  I imagine that given the early mornings, I won’t last long after Iftar and crawl into bed quite happily.  I may continue my fast on Wednesday, at least until I return home to have dinner with Colin (who is not fasting).  We’ll see how it goes and how well I hold out.

I’ve been doing some research and found a few resources with tips on “how to” do Ramadan:

Ramadan 2012 starts at sundown on Thursday, July 19, with the first full day of fasting being this coming Friday.  It lasts until sundown of Saturday, August 18.  It is followed by Eid, the holiday that celebrates the end of fasting.  Eid often lasts up to three days and includes communal prayer and extra charity to the poor.  Oh, and they eat.  Not only do Muslim eat during Eid, but fasting is forbidden.  Eid is the time to demonstrate one’s happiness, love of God (prayer), and love of humanity (charity).  Sounds like a good deal to me.  Eid will occur just as I get off to spend a week camping (and eating) in Big Sur with Colin’s family.  A wonderful way to celebrate the ending of Ramadan.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 17, 2012 2:12 pm

    Best of luck during your time, fasting is not easy, trust me, I know. Spend that time doing something that will totally occupy your attention, will help. Generate a task that involves others, being around others that can keep an eye on your activities and say “Oh that’s right you’re fasting” helps. Also, ensure when you go camping, not to overdo it, you body will go into a mild form of shock if you consume to many calories at once. Again, good luck!

  2. July 5, 2014 1:46 pm

    I am a practicing Buddhist and nominal Muslim and am profoundly interested in how others who are not orthodox Muslims conceive of the place of Ramadhan in their lives and practices. Ramadhan kareem!

    • July 20, 2014 9:36 am

      Upasaka, well met! I have not been able to participate in Ramadan again since that time, but I greatly enjoyed the experience. It was trying, but also deeply satisfying and I encourage every spiritual seeker, regardless of path, to try the practice at least once in their lives.

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