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Ramadan: Significance of Praying and Fasting in Today’s World


Since the beginning of time, throughout the centuries and in all traditions, from the archaic ages of human civilizations up to the present times in the contemporary world, praying and fasting have always been the privileged instruments of the contemplative and spiritual life, and the mainstay of every discipline and inner search. This article is about the history and significance of praying and fasting and finding out how much is left of the original understanding of these practices in the contemporary world.

In the USA: A day of humbleness, praying and fasting
Offers and sacrifices devoted to deities – to win or regain their favour –  have always existed and were practiced in ancient and modern societies in moments of great difficulty and extreme danger.
Most likely, only a few of my readers will remember the news that appeared almost ten years ago about a decree unanimously approved by the Congress of the United States of America for a national day of austerity and humbleness, the 27th of March 2003, dedicated to praying and fasting. The official motivation was quite surprising: to propitiate the divine protection of the American troops engaged in Iraq. The sole precedents of such resolution date back to 1883, during the Civil War, when President Lincoln asked for a day of atonement for the national sins, and to 1776 when the Congress voted for a day of prayer to beg for God’s inspiration and guidance in the anticolonial war against Britain. These previous decrees connected a modern, nominally laic country like America to the purification and spiritual practices of archaic societies, and to millennia old traditions, which never became extinct.
The central idea for this article was born last month on the occasion of my stay in Istanbul during that special time of the year, the holy month of Ramadan, when millions of Muslims in Turkey and elsewhere in the world, were praying and observing the month of day long fasting. Not only did I feel irresistibly attracted to learn more of the history, meaning and significance of this important event, but I made the decision to observe it myself and fast for all the time of my stay. Ramadan is a beautiful tradition of the Islamic faith, though some of its effects on individuals and society are unknown, hidden or forgotten for most of the people. To understand it in more depth, there was no other way than to practise it.
Ramadan, when observed in its strictest form, lasts for a month, the ninth in their calendar. While enduring intentional food fasting, day after day, I felt an ineffable feeling of being a part of a planetary event, and of an extensive purification process across geographical and political frontiers, that was healing men and even entire countries. After few days, I noticed that fasting, which I learned to be a crucial practice, one of the Five Pillars of Islam, together with spending more time praying, was revealing itself to be an exercise of the will and a moral discipline able to create in me a salutary feeling of humbleness and moreover of kinship and solidarity with all men.
During my time of fasting, I heard different opinions from westerners, and also some unproven, superstitious beliefs about this obligation which binds all adult Muslims. This requirement sounded so absurd to the westerners – even subversive to the natural order. They knew of practices and periods of ritual, asceticism and religious fasting, mostly connected to cultures and traditions of the past, but they had never thought, or even imagined that such discipline could be applied by an active man, with the commitments and pressures of modern business. They react to fasting with an immediate and radical sense of revulsion. This demand appeared to most of them to be unjust, cruel, and even dangerous for one’s health. Out of my personal, brief experience throughout the fast I felt myself to be detoxifying and getting rid of the effects of so many poisonous habits.  The voice of the Muezzin announcing the Iftar time, the light and the colours of the Ramadan’s lanterns and the taste of the first black olive which broke the long fasting hours will stay with me in the treasure chest of my most beautiful memories and experiences.
Not Just a Food Fast
I have realized that respecting Ramadan does not mean just to abstain from food, drinks and sexual activities, but also from negative behaviours and emotions. Humanity thinks and feels negatively; the life of ordinary mankind across the planet, is driven by fear, unpleasant emotions and negative imagination. In this respect, Ramadan is the expression of the utopic vision of a healed world turning mortal enemies into close friends, in sharing food, eliminating hunger for the poorest, caring about family, friends, and getting closer to oneself and to God. Families and friends get together after sunset for Iftar which is the meal that ends the fast and is the main meal of the day.
The real meaning of Breakfast
Breakfast does not mean a fast break, as most people all over the world believe, but to break the fast. It is like the Iftar. It gives a special meaning, almost a sacred significance, and an occasion for celebration to the moment of breaking your fast and it asks for your awareness. In this regard I have a suggestion for Turkey to turn every morning into a celebration, to propitiate the start of a new day, to give intention and bring back the real meaning to the morning habit of taking in food. The Iftar is the meal which ends the fast. Instead of using the word Kahvalti, which has a very trivial meaning, I would suggest to substitute for it with a new beautiful, meaningful expression: oruc bozmak. Though we may not realize it, these word will make one alert and aware. Attention, you are now entering in the sacred area where you are losing the blissful condition of the body when it has been free from the burden  of any food.
Tripping Up Mechanical Habits
Last but not the least, Ramadan is a powerful way to break habits and routines. In this respect, it could well be defined as a tripping up of mechanical behaviour, and a divine stratagem for breaking mechanical patterns composed of apathy and repetition. The kind of displacement it creates is an ambush of self-repetition or self-deception; it is a trick we play on our routines and habits to get around the iron defences behind which we protect our calcified mentality, which I think should be done as frequently as possible, even outside of the month of Ramadan. Finally, every Muslim is also required to give to charity a set amount of money called “Zakat Al Fitr” at the end of Ramadan. This money is meant to be used to help those less fortunate to buy new clothes and food so that they can celebrate Eid.
Ramadan also conveys the hidden belief that one meal a day is more than enough for adults.  When the body is free of food, our features become more refined… the mind is clear, ready… quick… the cells are grateful and they regenerate. The healing process is underway, and a rebirth of the Being starts and manifests itself first in the body and then in the external world.
The secret is that when organs have no food, they start again to perform their real and natural function: they dream!… and through the power of dreaming, every day they produce whatever a man can desire.
I Admire Ramadan’s Tradition 
All these reflections about Ramadan bring me to the full conviction that it is a beautiful tradition of the Islamic faith, though its ultimate results and purpose are unknown, or too frequently forgotten for most people. After experiencing it, my proposal would be to extend Ramadan to twelve months a year and spread it to the entire world, beyond the barriers of culture, traditions and religions. It is for me a great discipline for soul and body. The whole of mankind would benefit from it. I personally admire the Ramadan tradition, and stick to the habit of one meal a day – after sunset, of course.
A Brief History of Fasting
Studying and experiencing Ramadan brought me to a desire to enlarge and extend my research beyond ritual fasting in order to comprehend intentional deprivation and every effort by man which has been made towards humbleness and frugality throughout the centuries, and in all traditions. I explored the archaic ages of human civilizations up to the contemporary world, in search of the original understanding of these practices, the secret intelligence that has created them and their real purpose. At the same time, I wanted to find out how much was left of that intelligence in the contemporary world, because too often purification and spiritual procedures have been reduced to empty rituals, and when not symbolic, become little more than superstitious acts.
Pursuing my quest, I met ancient schools of initiation and extraordinary men who belonged to the great mystic traditions. The abstinence of the ascetic, the solitude of the hermit and the frugality of the monk revealed themselves to be expressions of a single School – different aspects of one, timeless quest based on the unfaltering faith that through special efforts a man can change himself and the conditions under which he lives. As a constant, their quest for self-mastery required practice and discipline, and was intended as a means by which to obtain the highest level of responsibility, and to turn an ordinary destiny into a great adventure. The quest had the power to turn their lives into the lives of a heros,  and to accomplish for them the transition from an incomplete Being, mortal and conflict- ridden, into one who is harmonious and whole.
Man is generally incapable of understanding the signs that announce success and accompany an act of purification. Ordinary men read these in reverse and see them as signs of sickness rather than healing. The pain involved in the effort required is something no one wants to face, which is why, according to Lupelius, we abandon every act of abstinence just when it is starting to have a positive effect. I also discovered that where they are still practiced, fasting, deprivation and every such effort seem to survive only as a remote echo of the ancient significance of the purification technique that was intended to propitiate the individual and collectively transition him to a higher level of the Being, and was used as an overall solution to overcome difficult or even desperate situations.
It is claimed that Pythagoras went to Egypt to gain entry into the Mystery Schools at Diospolis, but the school authorities told him that he had to go through a particular training of fasting and conscious breathing, or else he would not be allowed in. After 40 days of fasting and breathing – aware, and attentive – he was finally allowed to enter the school. Once he was in, his personal legend recounts that Pythagoras said: “It is not Pythagoras that you have let in because now I am not Pythagoras anymore but a different man; I am reborn. Through this purification, my centre of being has changed. Before this training, I could only understand through the intellect – through the head. Now I can feel. Now truth is not a concept to me, but a life.”