The Quran calls on Muslims to refrain from eating, drinking, smoking and sexual intercourse during the daylight hours for the entire month.
Muslims are also expected to abstain from eavesdropping, gossip and backbiting while spending time reflecting on God and their faith.
In his book "Fasting for Ramadan," poet and essayist Kazim Ali examines the beauty this ancient practice brings to his life and the relevance it may have for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Born in London, Kazim Ali was raised in Canada by his Shi'ite Muslim parents and now teaches writing at Oberlin College in Ohio.
His relatives consider themselves to be traditional and many of them married women who cover their heads. But Ali and his mother were usually the only ones fasting during Ramadan.
He recalls his mother's tap on the door in the dark before dawn when they would share a meal before the sun rose and the fast began.
"It was our special time," he says. "There weren’t other people there. And then throughout the day we would be walking around through our lives, and everyone else was there but that other person was in that same condition as you, so they know what it’s like. And when it comes time for the end of the day, I would sit there and watch her eat. Normally you break your fast with dates and warm water. And she would take a bit of the date and I wanted to see that moment, you know. And it was special.”
Once he left for college, Ali began to find the traditional interpretations of the Quran to be confining and he stopped fasting.
However, as he grew older, he read the Quran with fresh eyes and noticed contradictions that delighted him.
He was also intrigued by a sentence that frequently follows stories in the holy book, such as the accounts of God’s creation of the universe, and His desire for harmony among His creatures. The sentence reads, “there are signs in this for those who reflect upon it.”
“This means, in a way, to be in a constant state of doubt because you are always going to think about ‘What does this mean?’ and ‘What does that mean?’ ‘How does this affect my life?’" he says. "That’s a beautiful, pluralistic form of Islam that I think is very exciting and dynamic.”
Ali took up fasting again. In 2007, he kept a daily journal about his Ramadan experiences and, in 2009, he published a daily blog about it.
He combined the two accounts for his book “Fasting for Ramadan: Notes from A Spiritual Practice.” In it, he says the first hours of each fast are the toughest. Then hunger diminishes.
“It kind of flattens itself out and you pull in a little bit and you just become a little more pensive," says Ali. "In fact, you almost forget about food. I get quieter. I start to realize that it takes energy to be angry or to be excitable, even positively about something. And it takes caloric energy to speak. It actually is taking me caloric energy to think, shockingly."
Ali has integrated yoga into his Ramadan experience. He feels it is useful when the spiritual calm he experiences during the daytime gives way to the emotions and moods he often feels after breaking the fast.
Here is an excerpt from Day Four of his Ramadan journal:
“My yoga study reminds me that the ‘moods’ of the self are not the self that abides. I think there is a self that abides. Like in classical Indian music: there is a plucked melody, but also a drone in the background, a constant note."
Ali stresses that fasting is physical and spiritual, not intellectual.
“Even if you are not thinking that much about it, something is still happening in the cells of your body," he says. "And if it’s happening in the cells of your body, it is also happening to your brain and your mind which are, after all, a part of your physical makeup. So 30 days of fasting will transform you whether or not you intellectualize it in any way.”
The holy month is considered a social equalizer. The wealthy fast alongside the less fortunate and are also expected to donate food to the poor for the break fasts, or Iftars, at sunset. Community is key, and people are expected to break the fast with others while giving thanks to Allah.
“Maybe He is the background to all of this. We often get in trouble when we talk about who He is, what He is like and what He wants," Ali says. "Maybe we shouldn’t pay attention to those things as much as we do. We should just try to be good and kind to people. I hope people will see the benefits of fasting and think a little bit more about how much they have and how much they’ve been given."