The word 'Muslim' is a label. According to the dictionary, a Muslim is an adherent of Islam.. According to Fox News yesterday, a Muslim is someone who isn't allowed to express an opinion on anything else in the world. I read about Reza Aslan's interview with Fox News with some interest. According to the news anchor, he isn't qualified, despite having four degrees, to write about Jesus because he's a Muslim. That's just how divisive the label can be. However, we'll put that down to Fox News being Fox News, and move on.
Over the past week I was struck by real humility after two people said they would try fasting in order to gain compassion and understanding for what millions around the world are undertaking. Their label? Non-Muslims.
The first was a friend of mine, Lisa Moretti, a Digital Sociologist who spends her time exploring how people integrate the Internet with their every day lives. The second was BBC Radio One DJ Nihal, who spends his time playing the best in British Asian music on the airwaves.
After I got over the surprise that they had decided to forgo food and water for 18 hours, I wanted to get their take on the experience so I asked them some questions. Looking over the comments on previous blog posts I wanted to share that there's more to Ramadan than 'religious indoctrination'; there are actually some lessons broader than religion that can be gained from this month.
So why did you choose to fast?
Lisa: One evening after thinking about what you [Asad] must be going through, I decided to fast for 18 hours. I thought it would be a good lesson in empathy. I wasn't expecting to come away from the experience with much other than a serious case of hunger and thirst and perhaps have an inkling of an idea of the sacrifices that get made by many every day for 30-days during this time.
Nihal: I chose to fast because every time my Muslim friends asked me to join them for Iftar I felt really honoured. They had gone without food and water for eighteen hours and yet they wanted me, a non-Muslim, to share that meal with them. I then decided that I wanted to experience what they experienced and see what it felt like to want to eat and not be able to, to be thirsty and go without water.
How did you find the experience?
Lisa: When I told friends and colleagues what I was doing I got mixed reactions. Some said: "Wow, good for you!" But I also got called "boring" and told that what I was doing was "ridiculous." I was pretty stunned that I received any attention at all and to be honest, as silly as it may sound, I felt a little bit insulted at the negative comments. This is what it feels like to be judged on your religion. It stings.
In the morning I could feel that I was slightly dazed. Blood sugars, let me tell you, they were low. By 1pm I was completely restless and needed a distraction. I went for a walk. By 3pm, I thought I was going to keel over if I didn't have any water. I breathed. Deeply. I focused on my emails, and somehow, kept on going. I never realised just how much I rely on food to break up my day. Coffee picks me up. Tea chills me out. Lunch keeps me energised. All of these things also get me away from the stress lurking at my desk. Food and water make my day more bearable.
Nihal: It was a a really positive experience. The hardest part was the thirst, not the hunger. My rumbling stomach I can deal with, but a dry mouth in hot weather was easily the toughest part of the day. It really surprised me the feeling of a shared experience. The fact that so many people on my Twitter timeline were going through the same experience really gave me strength to see it out to the end. I can now understand why Eid is such a carnival of accomplishment relief and joy.
How did you feel at the end of it?
Lisa: I learnt I have more willpower than I thought I did. I know my 18 hours without food and water sounds like a drop in ocean to what many Muslims experience during this time, but that landed up being precisely the biggest lesson of all. I have so much that even when I go without something for a short time, there is no need to complain. I have my health, my family, wonderful friends and a job that keeps a roof over my head and allows me to live a good life. This wasn't just a lesson in empathy. It was a lecture in gratitude.
Nihal: At 9:08pm when the fast had to be broken I felt a small sense of achievement, which isn't really keeping with the spirit of Ramadan as I believe humility is encouraged. I was with two very good friends of mine at their house and when I ate that date I felt instantly full and then out came the Biriyani, the chapatis, the chicken curry etc. Afterwards, I felt that I ate too much in my life.
I really wanted to ask them if they would do it again, and looking at Nihal's Twitter feed he's fasting again today (Sunday), which is really humbling. For me it's been the first year that I've met anyone who has decided to fast voluntarily, so it's amazing that the controversy of Channel 4 airing the call to prayer has brought such an open dialogue with it from Muslims and non-Muslims alike. You don't have to be labelled Muslim to understand the ethos and meaning behind sacrificing food and water for hours on end.