Today is the first day of the the fasting month for Muslims all over the world, 1 Ramadhan 1425 (15 October 2004). Its quite a humbling realization: devout Muslims all over the world, about 1 billion people, are all fasting simultaneously. Its almost like a super-duper-giant flash mob.
Woke up at about 5 am this morning; bought some banana corn flakes last night and some low-fat milk. Added some honey to that mix and had that for sahur (breakfast).
Dinner tonight (iftar) will probably be a low-key affair. Looking forward to the tarawih tonight; last night, the mosque was packed to the bleachers (its always like that in the beginning of ramadhan, after about 2 weeks, the crowd thins out significantly). I stood in prayer last night beside a man who couldn't stand (he prayed while sitting down) and an old man who looked like his skin was made of worn leather -- i was quite ashamed, because during a particularly long period of the prayer, we were all standing up, and i could feel my knees begin to buckle from fatigue; the old man stood as straight as a rod and never flinched. During another period towards the end of the prayers, i could hear sobbing from someone standing behind me -- it was a very intense experience, and i can imagine someone breaking down in tears as the verses of the Quran read by the imam reverberated through the mosque; normally very long verses, sometimes whole chapters of the Quran are read during tarawih prayers. In past years, i've seen imams themselves break down from the emotional intensity of the effort, and have to be replaced. There are often 2-3 "backup imams" during every tarawih prayer.
A lot of people don't understand the month of ramadhan -- i've had non-Muslim friends ask me whether the fasting month is a type of self-flagellation, or punishment for past sins. Other people think its a type of meditation that puts us in touch with God (??). A few doctors i've spoken to told me that such a drastic change in dietary habits over a period of a month can seriously harm a body's chemistry balance. A lot of misundertanding and misconceptions about fasting, sometimes even by Muslims themselves.
You can find a good ramadhan primer here.
From the point of view of an average Muslim (that would be me), fasting is a religious obligation -- just like prayer or the performing of hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca), its something that Muslims are required to do as an act of faith and obedience to Allah s.w.t. The imams in religious afternoon school i used to attend when young told me that the fasting month allows us to get closer to God, to show us the suffering of the poor (by allowing us to experience it ourselves), and to cleanse the body of impurities from the food of the past year.
Now i'm not too sure about all of this -- the reasons given to me by the imams sound terribly fishy to a rationale mind. But one effect i can testify to is that the fasting month provides a tremendous amount of religious focus. I do become aware of everything i do, from a religious perspective. And it seems as though the intensity of prayers, especially the tarawih prayers is magnified tenfold compared to prayers at other times. Its hard to describe -- but tarawih prayers, being quite long (at least an hour up to 2.5 hours, depending), almost induces a meditative state that can be quite... "enlightening", for want of a better word.
Well, anyway, that's what fasting does to me -- i'm sure the fasting month effects each Muslim in a slightly different manner.