The holy month of Ramadan is marked by a well-known 30-day fast from sunup to sundown. When the sun goes down, the fast is traditionally broken with water and three dates.
To unpack some deeper meaning behind this rigorous and difficult ritual fast, Beliefs producer Jonathan Woodward sat with Dr. Hussein Rashid, Islamic scholar and educator.
This transcript has been edited for clarity.
BILL BAKER: Breaking the fast and drawing together: The iftar at Ramadan.
HUSSEIN RASHID: You will hear people talk about generating empathy and purifying oneself—the things that have accumulated from the world on us. The desire for food, the desire to spend money, the desire to entertain ourselves. Because, as you pull back from the calls of the world, you're making space for God to enter your life more fully.
Ramadan is the sense of literally it means “the burning.” And so, something about that burning really purifying—like smelting when you purify metal—it really feels like that process is happening.
BILL BAKER: This is Beliefs. I'm Bill Baker.
The holy month of Ramadan is a 30-day fast from sun-up to sundown. It is a remarkable testament to faith performed by millions of Muslims every year. The fast is traditionally broken with water and three dates.
To unpack the deeper meaning behind the fast of Ramadan, Beliefs producer Jay Woodward sat with Dr. Hussein Rashid, Islamic scholar and educator.
JAY WOODWARD: Hussein Rashid, thank you for joining us on Beliefs.
HUSSEIN RASHID: Thanks for having me on today.
JAY WOODWARD: So, I wanted to start by asking you if you could tell me anything that you remember about the first time you went through the fast of Ramadan.
HUSSEIN RASHID: I think, rather than the first time I went through the fast for religious purposes, is thinking about the first time I did it on my own away from family, which was when I was a college because then I actually had a choice to do it. And I remember thinking, “Why is this so hard?”
It's very hard to do it by yourself, and you realize how important community is in what is essentially a very private act—to eat or not to eat.
JAY WOODWARD: Had you had much experience doing the fast for religious purposes inside your family?
HUSSEIN RASHID: My father had done it since I was young. I remember him doing it every year. I hadn't completed a whole month until I got to college.
JAY WOODWARD: What made you decide that you wanted to tackle that fast finally on your own?
HUSSEIN RASHID: You know, my parents were very understanding in terms of whether I chose to practice particular ways not. For them, it was very important that I find my own path.
For me, I was struggling what it meant to be somebody of faith by myself and what would I practice as a result? I needed to do it to find out for myself what I believed and how I would express that belief.
JAY WOODWARD: What was the ecosystem like for a Muslim at that time? Was there a lot of support for this? Were there others?
HUSSEIN RASHID: So, when I was a Columbia which was in the ‘90s—and I want to try very hard not to give you a year—but when I was a Columbia in the ‘90s, there really wasn't an ecosystem for this. There was a moderately functioning Muslim Students Association that got together for prayers and that was about the extent of it. When I was there, it was whatever we could do with your friends to get it going.
JAY WOODWARD: So, it was just it was a pickup game.
HUSSEIN RASHID: That's a great way [to put it]. It was a pickup game, right. There was lots of bad pizza and lots of bad diner food—and I don't mean bad that the food itself was bad, but that's not the best thing for breaking fast.
JAY WOODWARD: A lot of our listeners will know that Ramadan is a 30-day fast. But tell me: what the significance of that is? How did the fast come to be?
HUSSEIN RASHID: What it does for Muslims is—you find all sorts of different theology on this—at its core, you will hear people talk about generating empathy and purifying oneself—the things that have accumulated from the world on us. The desire for food, the desire to spend money, the desire to entertain ourselves. Because as you pull back from the calls of the world, you're making space for God to enter your life more fully.
Ramadan is the sense of literally it means “the burning.” And so, something about that burning really purifying—like smelting when you purify metal—it really feels like that process is happening. And in the winter, the fast is shorter and so it feels like if we are much more thoughtful and intentional.
So right now, the fast time for me to break is around 8:30- ish. By about 4 o’clock— about 12 hours later —I am feeling it. And I think what that does is it makes you realize that we have these components as human beings—we have our body, we have our mind or intellect, and we have our soul and our spirit. And all these have to work together to nourish each other and you can't find balance by only focusing on one.
JAY WOODWARD: Tell me a little bit about the logistics of breaking a fast. The fast has got its significance, but breaking a fast can be just as significant as well, right?
HUSSEIN RASHID: Absolutely.
So, breaking the fast is one of the most wonderful things about the month, and it is not just about getting to eat again. It’s also about that sense of community, of coming together, because it is a specific time so everybody has to do it at the same time.
You know we get lots of questions: “When it’s fast, you can’t even drink water?” And the answer is no, not even water. But nobody asks about what it means for us to break the fast. And the Prophet Muhammad—peace be upon him and his family—his tradition, his custom, was to break with a date and some water. And so that is how we do it still to this day—emulating whom we believe to be the person God sent as the mercy of mankind, the Prophet Muhammad.
We eat a date and we drink some water, we offer our prayers, and then we get into the full meal.
JAY WOODWARD: Is there a prayer that goes right at the moment?
HUSSEIN RASHID: So, when one breaks the fast, there are different communities of Muslims so depending on which community you belong to, there are different prayers that are uttered. But there is always a thankfulness to God, there is always a request to accept the fast—that God accepts the fast that we are offering—and to be thankful for God for the ability to fast, and the thankfulness for the food that we eat. We call it our “daily sustenance.”
JAY WOODWARD: Using that moment as a springboard: A lot of faiths talk about the personal relationship to the divine and how that informs theology, it informs behavior, it informs the structure of a church, of a liturgy What's the relationship to Allah, the divine, in the moment?
HUSSEIN RASHID: When Muslims engage in any act, the ideal is that you are always doing it with intention. And you're saying, “Oh God, please accept this.” You're doing it not just for yourself but you're doing it for the sake of God, because God has told you to do this. And so you are making an offering to God.
In Muslim thought, the believer has direct access to the divine. At the same time, you know, the Quran talks about God being closer to us than our jugular vein. There's a real intimacy to that relationship. And the Quran also talks about God as a light—the light of the heavens and the Earth.
If you think about trying to describe light, trying to hold light, trying to taste light, you can't do it. So, God is both described as imminent and intimate and transcendent.
And if I were to think about the things that are commanded in the Quran or the prayers that are given to us in the Quran, they're always about bettering oneself, but not for the sake of oneself. You better yourself in order to better help others.
It's always thinking about reflect and learn, reflect and do. In other words, think about something and then do something about it. Don’t just collect all these degrees so you can sit in an ivory tower. But go out into the world and say what is happening there. Don't fast just for the sake of fasting, but fast to think about what are you doing for the sake of God.
Is this the best community that you can create?
One of the things that we're constantly told in the Quran is [to] compete with other people in doing good works. And that that is a very different way of seeing the world than just saying, "Go be the best that you can be," right? It's what is a good thing I can do as I'm making myself better? If I get a better job and I have more money, what is the good I can do with that extra money?
JAY WOODWARD: I love that. You're iterating.
HUSSEIN RASHID: Yes. [laughter] I love it. We're iterating.
JAY WOODWARD: Iterating. I mean, it’s iteration, but it does seem like it stands in contrast to a Western idea of, do good for your self’s sake, and the community comes later. Can you tell me a little about that?
HUSSEIN RASHID: I think when you engage with the faith tradition—Christians and Jews—and I get into their scriptures and I think there's a real consistency in messaging, which, for a Muslim, that makes sense because we consider the Torah and the gospels and the Psalms as part of the same revelation as the Quran.
That is always about being held to a higher standard and obligations to God and those obligations to God are expressed in obligations to other people, to community. And I think that what has happened in the Western philosophical tradition and its attempt to get away from any sense of religiosity, has elevated the human being to such an extent that the person is the greatest object of veneration that we can have.
JAY WOODWARD: What do you feel is the most misunderstood element of your faith or your beliefs?
HUSSEIN RASHID: I think what people misunderstand are the things that they don't necessarily want to ask of themselves.
So, one of the things I try to encourage people to do is if you're going to ask a Muslim a question—“Why do you do X?”— ask yourself the parallel question first: Why do I do X for me?
I think it gives you a better question because you're a little bit more reflective, and it helps you understand that maybe what Muslims do isn't so foreign.
Why do Muslims pray five times a day? If you're a believing person, well, why do you pray on Sundays, let's say if you're a Christian? If you're Catholic, let's say, what does prayer mean to you? Then you can ask the question then not why do you pray—because if you ask the question, well, I pray because God tells me to, you’re not going to get a different answer from a believing person. But what you can then ask is, “What does prayer mean to you?” That's a much better question. It's a much richer conversation and it allows you to recognize that the Muslim you are asking of is also human being who's not so different from you.
I think the one bit of information I would want, the pure factual information that I want somebody to know—reading the Quran two nights ago, we read the chapter on Mary, Mother of Jesus, peace be upon them. It's the only chapter named after a woman in the entire Quran. Mary is also the only woman mentioned by name in the entire Quran. She is mentioned more than Prophet Muhammad and is mentioned more in the Quran than she is in the canonical gospels.
And I think that people just don't realize how invested Muslims are in the traditions of the prophets who came before, whether that's Jesus, Mary, Moses, Isaac, Ishmael, Abraham, Adam—that these are part of our tradition as well and the deep love and veneration we have for these individuals.
You know when I ask people to reflect themselves, what it is they want to ask, it is not a question of knowing what you don't know because you don't know what you don't know. And I am always open—I tell my students this and when I go to community gatherings I say, “Feel free to ask me, but ask with the intention to learn.” I think good learning is always, “Can I answer this on my own, myself, without others? Just because I see somebody there, am I off-loading the hard work of intellect?”
Don't start with the assumption a person who is unfamiliar to you is different than you. Right? There is something about the commonality of human experience. And so, I lead with the question of prayer because I think for believing people, why we pray is often very similar. Because my divinity demands it of me. I shouldn’t say that. I can say that my divinity asks me and we always have the choice to reject that ask. But my God asks it of me.
And assume that there is some commonality there. That’s a conversation ender: Here's a question, here's an answer. But we haven't spent time any time together. If you ask me what does prayer mean to me, well, it depends on the day of a week. It depends what prayer, it depends what's happening in my life. And now all of a sudden, we can have an interesting conversation where maybe the questioner or the interviewer can say, “Oh, I never thought about that,” right?. Going to Mass around Easter means something very different to me than going to Mass in the middle of July. It’s just a different feel that's a different understanding.
So, I think that what I ask for when you ask a question is, is it a question that invites you to create a relationship? Or is it a question that you haven't spent enough [time] thinking about yourself and the meaning in your own life, that you want to put on somebody else?
JAY WOODWARD: Are we asking the right questions these days?
HUSSEIN RASHID: I thought the questions around Islam were particularly bad after 9/11, in part because we don't take religion seriously in this country. We consider ourselves very religious and don't want to talk about religion at all. And then I felt the questions were getting better for a while, and then you had this whole push to say Islam isn't a religion, which comes out of interesting very anti-Semitic tropes of Judaism not being a religion.
And the questions got really basic again. I don't believe that they're bad questions, but I feel like as a society we should be moving forward in our knowledge, not always retreating away from knowledge. Unfortunately, it feels like the last decade at least we have just been running away from learning about the world, which saddens me in many ways as an American.
JAY WOODWARD: Is there any hope that it's a pendulum swinging instead of a general tectonic shift?
HUSSEIN RASHID: You know, we are a country that has produced amazing educational systems. Mandatory universal education for kids, amazing public university systems, the SUNY system, the CUNY system, obviously the Ivy Leagues and the whole range in between. So, I believe as a country we want to know more. But I think right now we're so afraid of the world and we're so afraid of the economy that everything's become about the dollar. And I understand that. I mean, people need to survive, but I think we stopped investing in the future and I'm hoping we can get back to that.
JAY WOODWARD: Hussein Rashid, thank you so much for joining us on Beliefs.
HUSSEIN RASHID: Thank you so much, Jonathan.
BILL BAKER: Our guest was religious scholar and educator Dr. Hussein Rashid.
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Beliefs is brought to you with the support of the Bernard L. Schwartz Center for Media, Public Policy and Education at the Graduate School of Education at Fordham University. Jay Woodward is our producer. The theme music is by Edward Bilous.
I'm Bill Baker. Thank you for listening and tell a friend.