On the eighth day of Ramadan, it hit me that I hadn't had coffee in over a week. There's no good time for caffeine when you have to maintain a fast for 17 hours a day. By day 15, I had grown disconcerted by the deliberate stillness of the time. Now, with Eid slowly approaching, it feels like I've been fasting forever.
I'm notoriously miserable during the Muslim holy month. While I manage OK with the hunger and thirst, the mood swings, headaches, and overall physical stress that comes with abstaining from food can be difficult to endure. Sleeping is the worst. At night I'm too awake; in the morning I'm too tired. By day I oscillate between trying to get work done and searching for a flat surface where I can fit in a power nap—with little success at either.
But Ramadan didn't always feel this way. As a kid, it was one of the happiest times of the year. The food was good, the adults were too occupied to scold us, and we got to see our cousins every day. The best thing though was the lingering promise of Eid, and the flurry of white envelopes containing Eidi money that came with it.
I was seven years old the first time I decided to keep the fast. It lasted all of ten minutes. Clad in my Superman pajamas, I proudly told my family that I was going to be fasting with them that year. It fell upon my grandmother, a woman both enduringly elegant and whimsical, to explain to me in her playful way that fasting was more than just an arbitrary choice to go hungry.
"Stop being silly and have your breakfast," she said. So I did: two fried eggs and toast. If every fast is going to be this short, I thought, the whole Ramadan thing doesn't seem so bad.
Three years later, she passed away just as Ramadan was drawing to a close. The final nightly iftar meal of the month served as a celebration of her life, as well as the arrival of Eid. The next year, I decided to keep a real fast, motivated by a desire not to miss out on the best pieces of fried chicken I knew we'd be having for dinner. My teacher thought 11 was too young to be fasting, but then my grandmother had been too young to die at 53. That year, during the pre-dawn sehri, I had fried eggs and toast again, but this time my grandmother wasn't there to lovingly poke fun at me.
When I left for university, fasting alone quickly became jarring. Worst of all was the dismal routine of scoffing down store-bought scones for sehri in the quiet stillness of my communal kitchen. Eventually, I fell into a cycle of keeping an athpera fast—skipping the melancholy pre-dawn breakfast—to avoid having to wake up alone. As soon as the week ended, I dashed home for the company, food, and the rhythms of recitation and prayer only a traditional Ramadan could bring.
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Ramadan has always been about community. There is a particular emphasis on giving to charity, reconnecting with friends and family, and communal prayer. But at the same time, the fast is intensely private—a month-long moment of intimacy between a worshipper and God. Of all five central pillars of Islam—the declaration of faith, the prayer, alms giving, and the pilgrimage of Hajj—the fast is kept for God alone. From an early age, parents and local imams relay this association by sharing a tradition of the Prophet wherein he says that every deed of the son of Adam is for himself, but fasting is for God, and he is its reward.
But you don't just start fasting, you grow into it, just like you grow into the person you eventually become. For me, what made Ramadan more personal was how it helped me chronicle the different stages of my life, firmly anchoring my memories and experiences. In many ways, Ramadan is the great coming-of-age moment in Islam, one that traces the genesis of a Muslim's relationship with God.
Yet as I got older, I struggled with this principle cornerstone of my faith. Fasting for an entire month is arduous, and I wasn't always the keenest participant. I started to ask myself a lot of questions that seemed barely relevant before. Was it right that fasting caused me so much turmoil? Did I find it meaningful, or was it just a habitual ritual I couldn't relinquish? Was I protesting against my faith?
Eventually I came to understand that the answers to my questions lay in the struggle itself. Fasting in difficult circumstances helped me connect to things outside of myself: the hunger and deprivation of others, the awareness of a shared experience, and the course of night and day.
The actual experience of Ramadan can be unnerving. You complain, you moan, you become exhausted by the unfamiliar. Yet once it's over, you realize the hardship is exactly what makes the effort so intense and meaningful. Sometimes, living beyond your comfort zone helps you effectively explore and test the limits of your faith, ultimately leaving you with something more durable and robust when you return.
Reaching God was never meant to be easy, and even though I hate that Ramadan is difficult, I'm happy that it is. As the Holy Qur'an says, "It is better for you that you fast, if only you know."
Usman Ahmad is a British freelance writer based in Pakistan. Follow him on Twitter.