Days of Deprivation

Fasting is a learning experience for everyone, regardless of religion

Nearly everyone has at some point in his or her life experienced hunger. I’m not referring to genuine, involuntary starvation—a real concern in many parts of the world—but rather something along the lines of the pre-Sunday brunch munchies, when an unpleasantly grumbling stomach signals anticipation for that bite of Veritaffles at noon.

Few people, however, seek out the feeling of hunger on purpose. For the past 20 days, hundreds of Muslims on campus, including myself, have done precisely that—deliberately shunned food and drink from sunrise to sunset in observance of the Islamic month of Ramadan.

It’s all done for good reason. Fasting has great spiritual importance in Islam; a blindingly vast corpus of religious tradition, scholarship, and run-of-the-mill ritual accompanies the month of Ramadan. Leaving all of that aside, however, fasting also offers important secular lessons. Whether or not one is religiously inclined, it offers considerable personal benefits. Few other methods are so effective in teaching discipline and humility coupled with an awe and respect for the human spirit. Islamic virtues, yes—but hardly exclusively so.

The virtue of “self-discipline” is perhaps most obvious. Without doubt, it takes some degree of control to avoid sneaking a Coconut Congo Bar after 11 hours of not eating. However, the benefits of discipline in this context trickle down to multiple aspects of our lives. Speaking personally, it has helped me overcome the urge to open a new Gchat window every 45 seconds or so.

But fasting can lead to profound self-reflection as well. Those few hours before the sun sets and one is allowed to eat are precisely the time in which one realizes just how easy it is to succumb to temptation. The idea that all it takes is a candy bar to bring a man to his knees is a supremely humbling idea. This weakness rightly serves to remind us of how fragile we are as individuals.

At the same time, fasting also provides a fascinating form of reassurance, if only because our discomfort is self-imposed. As such, we can readily take it away, but yet choose not to. It is this ability to make such a choice that defines who we are as human beings. Indeed, what other creature acts in a manner that initially seems so detrimental to its own well-being, with the sole purpose of achieving a higher, perhaps not readily comprehensible goal?

Therefore, I ask all Harvard students to consider fasting—not as an experiment on religious grounds, but rather to improve as a person and learn something about oneself along the way. Tomorrow, skip the scalloped potatoes and reflect a little instead.

Bilal A. Siddiqui ’11, a Crimson editorial writer, is a molecular and cellular biology concentrator in Winthrop House.