Fasting is a quiet exercise; an intimate reach toward the divine that opens the soul to humility without and enlightenment within. Forgoing food and drink for 14 hours, day after day, requires a mastery of self that simple logic can't explain.
But true faith has never been based in mere logic.
So as Muslims worldwide prepare to finish their annual monthlong period of daily fasting known as Ramadan next week, there will be rejoicing, sharing and feasting both physical and spiritual.
Next week's celebration of Eid-ul-Fitr one of the two main festivals of Islam, scheduled at the South Towne Expo Center will be a highlight of Ramadan for Faisal and Sofia Ahmed, as the fast comes to a close.
The siblings have eschewed the path away from their faith that many college students nationwide pursue. Instead, they have sought to be true to the teachings of Islam, fasting daily from about 5:45 a.m. to 7:45 p.m. since early September.
This year, the lunar calendar that determines when the celebration will be held dictated that Ramadan would coincide with the start of their classes at the University of Utah. And though they are quiet about their personal religious observance, they admit it can be challenging to keep one's mind focused on academics as their blood sugar dips, while others are free to fill both their heads and their stomachs.
"The first week was the hardest," says Faisal, a new student at the U.'s Medical School. "Most people don't know what you are going through. You don't walk around and tell people. But it's OK. Some people do know, and it's kind of reassuring that they do so you can talk about it a little bit. You kind of get over the difficulty of watching other people eat."
Sofia, who is in her last semester as an undergrad in psychology, said while the daily fast is difficult, "it makes you more patient. I think the busier you are, it's less difficult to deal with." At times when the hunger pangs hit, "I think about people who are dying of hunger and what they go through," and knowing she doesn't suffer like they do eases the longing for food, she says.
Hundreds of millions of Muslims worldwide have focused their faith on abstinence and self-denial in the past several weeks. But that reality can seem far removed from believers along the Wasatch Front. Still, several thousand Muslims in Utah often perform their five-times daily prayers alone in their homes or offices during the day. Breaking the fast each evening at sunset is usually a family or community affair, as they gather strength from each other to persevere the next day.
The fasting is the same, but the challenges differ from year to year, Faisal says. "In high school, I made the basketball team one year, and I would run and I couldn't drink" after a workout. Yet in the past, he's usually had a friend to talk with. As a new medical student in a class of 102, "nobody knows but one close friend." It's much easier to stay focused if you have a friend going through it too, he says.
"I've never been offered so many free lunches in my life," as he has this month. "I think the class is too big for the professors to pick up on" the fact that he isn't joining in with the other students. "In many other medical schools, you'll have five or six (Muslim) students all going through it together. But when it's just one person in the class, it gets kind of lonely."
Sofia agrees, though she says that as an undergrad, her experience is different because she can depend on the camaraderie of those in the Muslim Student Association at the U., who gather at the Union building daily to pray and talk about their experience.
Faisal says he tries to find a quiet place for prayer each day at the medical school, but it's tough when people don't know or understand. He was in the middle of a prayer the other day when a group of students walked into the social lounge and began calling his name. "I couldn't respond because I was in the middle of my prayer.
"It makes you wonder 'What am I doing? Am I doing something wrong?' But when you get the chance to teach people about yourself and your faith, you learn more about them, too."
Despite the challenges, the siblings say achieving their personal goal to fast each day "makes a person humble. It makes you appreciate things more. You know you're trying to better yourself to become a better person," Sofia says.
Faisal agrees, adding that for him, self-reflection plays a big part in his dedication to a personal goal. "I see it as personal improvement. As a kid, you are just doing it as part of our religion," but now, "it really gets you thinking."
The two have been fasting during Ramadan at least for part of the day since they were 7 or 8 years old, they said. Children are usually encouraged to begin fasting only half a day until they can make it from sunrise to sunset.
"If I really didn't want to, I really wouldn't have to do it," Faisal says, but he sees himself becoming a better person as a result of the self-discipline required. The fasting during Ramadan not only includes abstaining from food and drink, but from any kind of gossip, backbiting or other evil actions, thoughts or words.
Faisal said during a recent dissection session at school, he found himself being annoyed by a fellow student. Though tempted to join in vocal criticism along with other members of the group, "I kept thinking to myself, 'don't say anything.' I'm glad I didn't. That's the kind of small lesson you learn from it."
Sofia says older Muslims who keep the fast have become her mentors. "If they can go through it, so can I. The environment that you make yourself a part of makes a difference," she says. Unity of purpose in doing the will of Allah through the fast becomes a motivating force and draws the community together.
As a child, both she and Faisal said they were part of an extended family that nurtured a love of their faith and a desire to retain their cultural heritage. Yet Sofia sees the reality of challenges ahead with her family's determination to hold fast to Islam and its teachings. She began wearing a head scarf earlier this year. As she was waiting for a friend at the U. recently, a woman approached and asked if she spoke English, though both she and Faisal were born in America and are U.S. citizens. "People have never assumed I was Muslim before," she says.
Both welcome the chance to explain their reasons for the fast and to boost understanding of their faith in a culture in which they find themselves a religious minority. Faisal says any chance to dispel misconceptions and stereotypes opens the door for greater unity with the larger community."If we weren't raised in a place like this, maybe we wouldn't be as observant of our faith. But sometimes it's easier to practice my faith here because I am different."
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