Why are more non-Muslims fasting this Ramadan?

aAlexander Sless, 26, from Texas, has been fasting for Ramadan since 2021. But unlike the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims, for whom fasting during the holy month is a central pillar of the faith, Sless is not Muslim. . In fact, he is not particularly religious at all. “I grew up relatively open-minded to different religions and cultures,” says Sless, an agnostic who was born in Israel to a Russian-Ukrainian family before eventually moving to the United States. After a Muslim friend told him about Ramadan, he decided to make a comedy TikTok about fasting, which he then challenged.

“Bro, you should try fasting for a day,” said one user. “Challenge accepted,” replied Sless. “I’ll vlog it.” He’s been doing them ever since. And while Sless doesn’t post as much as he did the first year, he says he still fasts most of the month.

Sles is not alone. A growing number of non-Muslims around the world have begun documenting their own experiences of observing Ramadan. These persons do not participate as Muslim converts. Some, including Sless, like the self-restraint that Ramadan instills. Others choose to celebrate the month to learn more about Islam and the spiritual fulfillment that the month encompasses. Many cited supporting a Muslim friend or the wider Muslim community as reasons for taking part, while others said they were inspired to do so because they live in a Muslim-majority country.

Whatever the reason, the fact that so many non-Muslims seem to be gaining an interest in one of the world’s most popular holidays provides an opportunity for more people to better understand what Ramadan is all about. While the holy month is perhaps best known as a time of fasting, during which those who are able to fast abstain from food and drink (yes, even water) during the day, the month is much more. Ramadan marks the ninth and holiest month of the Islamic lunar calendar, during which Muslims believe the Koran, Islam’s holy book, was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.

read more: Why do not all observant Muslims fast during Ramadan?

While fasting is certainly a component of the month, it is hardly the only motivation. Ramadan is a time of spiritual discipline devoted to prayer, charity (Muslims are encouraged to give charity, or zakat, during the month) and self-expression. Indeed, Muslims are not only expected to fast from food and drink, but also from worse habits such as cursing, gossiping, and holding grudges. Ramadan is also a time of celebration and community gathering, whether it’s for the morning breakfast (known in Arabic as suhoor), parties after sunset (iftar), or special night prayers in the mosque, called taravih.

Although their experiences are undoubtedly different, these types of benefits do not bypass non-Muslim participants. “When you fast, you gain tremendous clarity of mind and become less anxious,” wrote Ruth Mejber, an Arab-Irish photographer from a Muslim and Catholic family who recounted her experience of fasting during Ramadan as an atheist. 2021 for the piece Irish Times. ‚ÄúDuring the month of Ramadan, I have to slow down. I just don’t have the energy to keep working at my full, frenzied speed.”

“I really like the experience because it’s a good discipline, like a refresher for the year,” says Sless. As he sees it, “You have 11 months to do whatever you want, and it’s just a good cleanup.”

While Sless has sometimes drawn criticism for his Ramadan videos, including some who suggested that non-Muslims fasting Ramadan were a form of cultural appropriation, he says the overwhelming majority of feedback has been positive, especially from other Muslims. And while some Muslims rightly warn against trivializing Ramadan or making it “just another weird health charm,” others argue that the inclusion of non-Muslims in the holy month should be encouraged, if not brought closer to the faith. , then at least to instill a greater sense of familiarity and understanding of Muslims and what they stand for.

And it is very necessary. Anti-Muslim sentiment is a common form of hatred. this year, both the European Union and Canada appointed officials tasked with dealing with the issue. While the US House of Representatives passed legislation in 2021 that would require the State Department to appoint a special envoy to monitor and combat Islamophobia (not anti-Semitism) worldwide, that legislation has languished in the Senate.

Introducing more non-Muslims to Islam and its holiday traditions, such as Ramadan, could give them a more positive view of the religion, said Muhammad Abdel Halim, director of the Center for Islamic Studies at the London School of Oriental and African Studies. “It’s good like this,” he says.

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Write Yasmeen Serhan at yasmeen.serhan@time.com.

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