Fasting for Ramadan: Notes from a Spiritual Practice, by Kazim Ali

Food is one of the essential requirements for existence.  One cannot go about one’s daily business without caloric intake.  However, beyond the needs food fulfils, one takes pleasure in eating.  That is why people read restaurant reviews or watch No Reservations.  Food also represents a mirror of a specific place, culture, and personality.  Why a book entitled Fasting for Ramadan has recipes in the back also requires explanation.

Fasting for Ramadan: Notes from a Spiritual Practice by Kazim Ali is a stunning literary jewel.  An extended meditation on the Muslim practice of fasting during the month of Ramadan has appeal for the practicing faithful, those curious about the Muslim religion, and to those with or without faith.  Faith is not a requirement for the enjoyment of this book.  In fact, one of Kazim Ali’s frequent refrains is, “I’m not sure what I believe.”  This is less an example of alleged agnostic fence sitting (a caricature lobbed by zealous theists and atheists alike), but a cri de coeur against the tyranny of dogmatism and certainty.  But before we place Ali within the spectrum of Muslim theology, it is important to elucidate what Ramadan is and isn’t.

Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam.  These pillars (Arkan) are as follows:

1. Shahada (The profession of faith): There is only one God and Muhammad is his messenger.

2. Salat (prayer): Traditionally, the five prayers recited at specific times during the day.

3. Sawm (fasting): The obligatory time of fasting during the month of Ramadan.

4. Zakat (alms-giving): The act of giving to those in need by those who are financially capable.

5. Hajj (Pilgrimage): A Muslim must visit Mecca and perform a specific battery of rituals.

Ramadan is not a hunger strike or torturous asceticism.  Ramadan involves the withholding of food from dawn until sunset.  Since the Muslim calendar is lunar (like the Jewish calendar), Ramadan is measured in terms of the moon’s waxing and waning.  In his journal, Ali tells how his first Ramadan fast with his mother was during the month of July.  July’s long days made for an arduous experience.  But the fasting isn’t without celebration, since Ali discusses his fast-breaking meals with fellow students.  Even with the fasting, there is still food and joy.

Kazim Ali is unique in relation to other devout Muslims in that he practices the Ramadan fast, but not the daily prayers.  In the book, he also explains how he practices yoga and is a vegetarian.  (While Muslims are forbidden from eating pork, they can eat other meats.)  For Ali, the vegetarianism and yoga make sense, since he was born in India, a nation with a massive Muslim population.  Ali is also a self-described Shi’a Muslim, the minority sect that has sizable populations in Iraq and Iran.  Ali works as a creative writing teacher at Oberlin University.  Ali is also gay.

Fasting for Ramadan is comprised of two main sections.  The first “New Moon in the Western Sky: Ramadan Essays” are free-associative essays first written for an Oberlin University blog.  Ali discusses his thoughts on Ramadan, dinner gatherings, and matters literary and personal.  The former blog entries give the essays a semi-public feel, not necessarily confessional, but definitely for public consumption.  (The essays pique this reviewer’s interest in seeing what the comments board revealed, since blog posts can act as one half of a public dialogue.)  The second section is called “Absence of Stars: A Fasting Notebook.”  Written years earlier, this is Ali’s personal journal during the Ramadan month.  The tone is more confessional, the feelings more naked, and the impressions more immediate.  In both sections, Ali’s calling as a poet are revealed.

Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, is a religion of the word.  Ramadan celebrates the Prophet Muhammad’s injunction from God (Allah, al-Ilah, literally “The God”) to write the Quran.  Ali writes:

It’s a sacred month, regardless of fasting, because it is said to be the month in which the revelation of the Quran began.

When Gabriel came to the prophet in cave and said, “Read.  Read in the name of the One who created you, made you from a clot of blood.”

And what night of the month was that?  Complicated question.

Supposedly: An odd-numbered night in the third week of the month.  Cryptic.

(NB: Spacing and paragraph spacing in original text.)

Ali’s writing wavers from the ruminative to the epigrammatic, the text a dancer making split-second turns and unexpected reversals.  The hunger for food becomes the engine of his writing, propelling him forward and inward.  The inwardness yields to questions about his faith, his world, and his writing.  The inwardness remains even as the prolonged nature of the fast allows his gnawing hunger to fade away like so much fog on his morning runs.

Amidst the meditations, epigrams fly out and beckon second looks: “Fasting is first to abstain and then to embrace emptiness.  Then to give emptiness back.”  (How can one not think of Beckett?)  “But since I am not sure what the nature of god is (or God if you prefer, or G-D, or whatever) I don’t know how to speak.”  (Shades of the Daoist; serenity in uncertainty.)  “Eden is over, if ever Eden was real.”

The reviewer hopes to gain further pleasure from the text with the recipes in the back.  The emptiness of Kazim Ali’s experience gives back again, this time with the sensations of the tongue and the nose, the eye having been sated on the words.  This is literature to be savored by a writer that bucks the usual stereotype our culture has given the faithful Muslim.  On a rudimentary level, Fasting for Ramadan gives the reader an understanding of the physical and spiritual efforts involved in this month-long practice.  On another level, the book gives a double portrait (one public, another private) of an individual’s attempt to understand himself and his world.

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