I was excited to try fasting for Ramadan but nervous as the day approached. While Muslims had been fasting since July 8, I was only participating for one day. How hard could it be? Ramadan is a month of strict abstinence and soul searching. That means no food, drink, water, smoking, sex, swearing or angry outbursts from sun up to sun down. As a drinking, smoking, irritable and lustful foodie, I wasn't sure how this would fly, but I was eager to try.
On Wednesday, Aug. 7, I woke before 3:30 a.m. to eat my last meal, called a suhoor. The traditional meal is often something simple - dates with milk and honey, for instance. My last meal was a fried egg with toast and beans, tomato, avocado and veggie bacon. (Muslims and vegetarians don't eat pork.) I drank water - lots of water - then went back to bed with a heavy stomach.
The next morning, I was hoping the suhoor would take the edge off of fasting, but by the time I arrived at work, my stomach was already growling.
At first, I was surprised at how frequently my brain was sending signals to eat, drink - anything! I was starting to feel foggy and weak, and concentration was a struggle. Once my body adjusted to the hunger, I started to feel very inwardly drawn and quiet on the inside.
Ramadan is a meant to be a period of introspection, self-discipline, soul searching, controlling desires and getting closer to God. One must practise patience while fasting, and I soon realized this is the biggest challenge of all.
On an empty stomach, deprived of all familiar bodily comforts, my self-diagnosed hypoglycemia made everything irritating. I wondered how millions of Muslims managed to make it through the holy month.
Driving, for instance, was particularly challenging, when someone cut me off on Lougheed Highway on the way home from work. I focused on breathing deeply and tried to observe the anger, rather than act on it, and let it go.
I spent the evening waiting for sundown, when we could eat again. The plan was to meet some women at the mosque and break our fast together. I arrived at the Masjid al-Salaam and Education Centre on Canada Way around 8 p.m., and Sana Siddiqui, a young Muslim woman draped in a purple hijab and flowing dress, greeted me. The building was quiet, as this was the final day of Ramadan, and everyone was preparing for Eid ul-Fitr, the threeday celebration that follows.
Sana was on Day 28 of her fast and seemed much more gracious and serene than I felt, so I asked her how people keep it together.
"The point of Ramadan is not just to refrain from eating and drinking, it's to practise self-control," she said.
Charity is a key theme in Islam, and Ramadan is also meant to inspire empathy with people who are starving. "We learn to be in control of ourselves, and it's also to develop human empathy," Sana added.
Sana took me upstairs to the women's prayer area, which overlooks the men below. Her father was at the back of the mosque, with roughly 10 other men, who spent the last 10 days of Ramadan camped out in the mosque, praying and reading the Qur'an. There is no pulpit in the mosque, just a rug on the floor for the imam, who leads the mosque.
Islam also has deep roots opposing idol worship, and any visual representations of God or Muhammad are forbidden. So while Christianity is rife with images of God and Jesus, Islam tends to decorate with abstract geometric art or Arabic calligraphy. The designs on the windows, Sana pointed out, are Arabic calligraphy and repeat the word Allah. The entire building is aligned to face Saudi Arabia's Mecca, the direction Muslims face when they pray five times a day. But it's not Mecca people are facing, Sana says, it's the Kaaba, an ancient building in Mecca where Muslims make their spiritual pilgrimage.
Mecca is the birthplace of Muhammad, Islam's founding prophet; Ramadan, which follows the Islamic lunar calendar, is timed to coincide with Muhammad's first vision.
There are variations on this tale, but it goes something like this: Muhammad often visited a cave outside Mecca to reflect on the sorry state of the world.
Muhammad was about 40 years old when the angel Gabriel suddenly appeared to him in the cave, commanding Muhammad to recite from a scroll. However, Muhammad was illiterate, and Gabriel kept insisting he read the scroll. After the third command, Muhammad was suddenly able to read, and the scroll said that God made man from a clot of blood - words that later formed the early verses of the Qur'an. When Muhammad returned home from the cave, he told his wife he had either gone mad or was a prophet. She chose the latter and became his first follower. Muhammad began preaching on the streets of Mecca, declaring that there was only one God and criticizing others for worshiping idols, which was big business at the time. Muhammad was ridiculed and persecuted, but his movement grew and eventually formed an empire that spread as far as the border of China and Spain.
Today, there are roughly 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, making Islam the second largest religion after Christianity.
Islam is generally split into two groups: Sunni and Shiite, which differ in their opinion on who the true successor to Muhammad is. The majority - roughly 85 per cent - of the world's Muslims are Sunni.The Burnaby mosque is Sunni, but Sana says they are open to all.
Once the sun dips below the horizon, we are allowed to break our fast. I gather with Sana and Hazra Ismail, the women's chair at the mosque, in a side room where the women eat together.
The meal is simple and small: two pieces of fruit, a plain pancake, some pakoras, dates and a glass of bright-pink sweetened milk.
Start with the dates, Sana says, that's how Muhammad did it, and the sweetness will help regulate our blood sugar levels. After a day without food, the gooey dates taste divine.
Then the call to prayer sounds, and the women head upstairs, removing their shoes before entering the prayer room.
Sitting at the back, I observe as the women bow towards Mecca, some touching their foreheads to the carpet.
Once the prayers are over, and Ramadan has come to an end, people greet each other by saying "Eid Mubarak," which translates as blessed feast.
I told Sana and Hazra how I had looked up Ramadan on Twitter the night before and noticed that many Muslims were posting messages of sadness, now that Ramadan was coming to an end. Many saw the holy month as a gentle guest that would be missed, and they were eager to carry forward with the good habits they formed.
For Sana and Hazra, Ramadan brings a deep spiritual awareness but there is a bit of sadness.
"I feel a little bit sad because I'm going to miss the closeness. I feel like God was really close to me," Sana says.
"For me, Ramadan is an opportunity for personal growth and spiritual enrichment. I try to reflect on my life," Sana adds. "It's been a transformative experience, and I've felt some deep emotions, and I've come out a better human being."
Hazra describes a feeling of satisfaction with life and a closeness with God.
"We try to adhere to the Koran, and we want to better ourselves," Hazra adds. "If you follow it properly, you won't make any mistakes in life."
We say our goodbyes, and I drive home, reflecting on the past 24 hours. My brief stint with Ramadan taught me selfcontrol, introspection and the importance of helping others, while striving to be a better person - valuable lessons wherever your faith lies.
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