By Noha Amer, Unsettled Bali Alum
Every year, Muslims around the world observe the holy month of Ramadan, a month-long physical and spiritual cleanse characterized by daily fasting from dawn until dusk.
Raised in a conservative Muslim family, I, too, observed Ramadan year after year growing up. I often described the practice to my non-Muslim friends as "just something I do for my religion”. I assumed it would be difficult for them to fathom why anyone would willingly refrain from food and drink.
When Ramadan began last year in May 2017, I was in Bali on a month-long Unsettled retreat dedicated to self-discovery, part of a sabbatical from my demanding job in tech (i.e. quarter-life crisis). Away from family, friends, and work, I used this time to look for stillness and balance I felt I had lost in the grind of recent years. Like other visitors to the island, I dabbled in yoga and meditation, sampled raw food, tried sound healing, considered getting a colonic, and backed out of getting a colonic. My pledge was to experiment without judging.
In my time living Unsettled in Ubud, the spiritual epicenter of Bali, I met fanatic yogis, celibacy advocates, intermittent fasters, colonic enthusiasts, and silent retreaters. As well as Muslim, I'm a wide-eyed girl from New Jersey in USA with a thing for Eat, Pray, Love and plenty of curiosity. I asked these enlightenment seekers why they did what they did.
"I eat one meal a day a couple of days a week. It keeps my blood sugar levels in check," an intermittent faster shared.
"I'm refraining from sex for a year. I'm engaging in physical starvation of external gratification to boost my self-worth," an abstainer told me.
"I do a colonic once every two months. It rids my colon of toxins and triggers a full-body detox," a colonic enthusiast explained.
"I'm sorting through my inner dialogue to find peace," a silent retreater wrote.
Sign me up, I thought, I need all of it. And so I spent the first 27 days of the retreat trying out other people’s practices, until the 28th day, when Ramadan started, and like clockwork, I sprung into my yearly routine: no food, no drink, less talk, more reflection. Suddenly, this East Coast girl in Bali was piquing interest.
"Why do you observe Ramadan?"
"It's a spiritual cleanse, a detoxification of all senses, a starvation of bad habits, a time to reset, a time to self-reflect," I found myself answering. In the heart of this little island where people from around the world migrate for their self-improvement journeys, I had the floor.
This time, rather than call Ramadan “just something I do for my religion,” I explained: Ramadan begins in the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar and is marked by the visual sighting of the last full moon of the year. It's a month to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran, Islam's central religious text, to the Prophet Muhammad. From dawn until dusk every day this month, Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, smoking, having sex, and generally gratifying physical desires.
The word Ramadan is derived from the Arabic word ramada, which means "to get hot" or "to burn”. It is believed that Ramadan is an opportunity to burn sins with good deeds. Ramadan is not just a display of piety, though. It’s a cleanse of mind, body, and soul. In addition to refraining from food, drink, smoking, and sex, Muslims also refrain from emotionally and spiritually toxic habits such as lying, cheating, gossiping, and displaying anger. We pause. We reflect on our behavior and our values. Ramadan is considered the ultimate exercise in self-discipline.
"I went to Bali convinced that to improve myself, I needed to abandon my old practices and replace them with more “enlightened” ones. Instead, I was reminded of the power of practices I already had."
I knew all of this. But it took a new setting to rediscover it. During an early morning practice one day during Ramadan, my yoga instructor exclaimed that "Islam is one of the most Yogic religions in the world," and to my surprise, his words made a lot of sense to me.
In physical practice, Islamic prayer, or salah, consists of four main movements prevalent in many yogic practices. For example, sujud, a position that brings knees, palms, and forehead to the ground, is a whole lot like balasana, the restful yogic position commonly known as “child's pose” (my personal favorite yoga pose). From that day, I started using my time in yoga as an extension of my own spiritual efforts. I'd swap out traditional Sanskrit mantras, which often commemorate Hindu gods, for the similar recitation of dhikr, short phrases or prayers expressed in devotion to my god. Cultural and religious practices were merging to bring me closer to humility, devotion, and remembrance of purpose.
As usual during Ramadan, I also increased my time in salah, reciting verses from the Quran with insistent focus. At this point, I had spent weeks reading books about mindfulness and meditating daily, growing frustrated with myself when my racing mind continued to wander. While praying one particularly noisy day, I noticed something: I would recite one verse, and a rooster would crow; I'd recite another, and the sound of drums would vibrate in my room — but during prayer, I acknowledged the sounds, gently brought my attention back to center, and continued.
Afterward, I couldn't help but laugh to myself. Over the retreat, I had started losing hope that I would ever be able to control my unruly mind, and yet here I was in daily (successful!) practice of mindfulness through prayer. It was the first time I had ever connected my quest for mindfulness with the prayer practice I already had.
And walking through the streets of Ubud one sweltering afternoon during Ramadan, I felt not only hungry and thirsty but keenly aware of how lucky I was. In the U.S., when it’s hot, I can retreat to air conditioning. When I’m not fasting, I can eat until I'm satiated, which is not the case for many in both Bali and the U.S. When night comes, I can sleep in a bed secure in the knowledge that I’ll be safe until the next morning.
Observing Ramadan outside of my comfortable U.S. routine, I was reminded more than ever to be grateful for my blessings, and to remember — and help — those who have less than I. Feeling hunger and thirst can inspire empathy for those who suffer without food and clean drinking water all year round, and Islam teaches that this empathy should translate into good deeds: At the end of Ramadan, Muslims give charity, or zakat, a compulsory donation to those in need.
After I returned from Bali, I observed the final days of Ramadan at home in New Jersey. I soon realized that how for over two decades, I viewed the holiday as if it were in a holy silo, separate from my other attempts to better myself. But as I observed the parallels between Ramadan and other traditions and looked at old practices in a new light, I returned to what this month can and should be. It’s an opportunity to reflect on our values; a chance to shed toxic habits; a reminder to be grateful for what we have. Ironically, what I flew 10,000 miles to find is what Ramadan had already taught me.
I went to Bali convinced that to improve myself, I needed to abandon my old practices and replace them with more “enlightened” ones. Instead, I was reminded of the power of practices I already had. In seeking the new (and new-age), I rediscovered the familiar. It was exactly what I’d been looking for.
This article was first published by Noha on Allure.