Today is the first day of Ramadan, the month-long spiritual observation that is the most sacred practice in the Islamic calendar. For the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from dawn until sunset, as well as spending more time in prayer and spiritual reflection, increase their good deeds for others, and pay a percentage of their income to support other Muslims in need.
Since we are studying Islam right now in our World Religion class, we spent last week's lesson on Ramadan. In our class, at least, it has been easier for the students to appreciate the spiritual power behind the often once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca that the annual observation of Ramadan. Maybe because the class was primarily boys--middle school boys who seem to be eating all the time--, they just couldn't seem to get why anyone would volunteer to give up eating during the day. We discussed the many spiritual reasons for fasting, and also talked about other religious practices around fasting or abstinence from certain foods or activities, but they were still dubious about the whole thing.
However, for Muslim children around this age, getting to fast is a really big deal. Children are not required to fast until around puberty. However, when they are officially ushered into the population who are supposed to fast, it represents their admittance into the full-fledged or adult community of Islam, sort of like a bar mitzvah does for Jewish adolescents. So as much as our students don't understand it, being required to fast is something that Muslim middle schoolers really look forward to.
We did do a couple of other things that they liked better than the idea of fasting. They tried some dates, which is the traditional food to eat first to end the daily fast during Ramadan, which some of them liked better than others. And because Ramadan is supposed to be a joyous and celebratory time, as well as a highly spiritual one (or maybe, because of being such a spiritual time), families often decorate their houses for the month.
One of the decorations often displayed is a special lantern named a Fanoos or Fanous. There seems to be lots of different stories behind this tradition that disagree pretty dramatically, so I'm not going to try to give a historical explanation for their connection to Ramadan. But homes display them during this season, so we made some paper versions and hung them up in our class room.
In a land where we have so much, and in a time where we are so driven to focus on the new and the material, I think it is great to expose our students to the idea that there might be value in voluntarily giving us some of what commands our attention the most in our everyday lives, at least for a little while. So I don't think you need to be Muslim to be able to learn a great lesson from Ramadan.