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Why I Observed Ramadan as an Aspiring Muslim/Buddhist Jew Why I Observed Ramadan as an Aspiring Muslim/Buddhist Jew
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Why I Observed Ramadan as an Aspiring Muslim/Buddhist Jew

by Kevin Witkow

August 17, 2013

I recently spent two months living in Ibri, Oman, learning Arabic. I was there as part of the Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) program run by the U.S. State department. Having just graduated from college, this seemed like the perfect reason to postpone the job search and flee the country. In doing so, I felt that I may be able to find answers to some of the questions that have evaded me up until now.

For those of you who have never heard of Ibri, let alone Oman, here's a brief background. Oman is located in the Arabian Gulf, surrounded by the UAE, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia. It is an extremely conservative country. Almost the entire Omani population (excluding immigrants) is Muslim—Ibadi Muslim—an especially conservative sect of Islam. Additionally, Ibri is a small rural town (although up-and-coming—they recently acquired a Lulu hypermarket!) about three hours from the capital of Muscat, almost completely void of expats. In fewer words, my summer was spent in an extremely conservative town in an extremely conservative country, surrounded by 27 fellow American students, and many Omanis.  

The halfway point of my summer coincided with the beginning of Ramadan. To aid my Arabic studies and cultural experience, I decided to observe the Ramadan fast. I had done similar projects before; when studying Sufism in school, I underwent a month-long meditation experiment. For a different class on Islam, I observed the prayers five times a day. And anyhow, to insert the obligatory cliché—when in Rome (Oman), right?

One of the most appealing aspects of the observance of Ramadan was the idea that during this month—the holiest month—not only do you fast and pray more so than you normally would, but you also strive to be as pure and clean as possible. As good as possible. For Muslims, this is focused upon Islam (understandably). Prayers are more potent than normal. During the day, not only do you not eat or drink, but you also abstain sexually. You do not drink alcohol. It is a month of cleansing, and it this is achieved communally.

The idea of a moral cleanse, compounded by the communal character of such an effort, is deeply appealing to me. I was raised Jewish—and liked it. I was then educated in a liberal arts setting, effectively destroying much of the love that I once had for my beliefs in a higher power, a deeper meaning, a pursuit for the answer. But I have always thought myself a spiritual being. After studying Islam, I saw a complex beauty in something that had always been inaccessible as a Jewish American—too foreign, "Eastern," different. After studying Buddhism, I saw a pursuit that I had almost no quandaries with. A method of being that was truly understanding and wise. Some would call me religiously confused. Spiritually lost. An agnostic Jew turned Buddhist with an adoration for Islam.

Yet all of these things came together in my observance of Ramadan. My efforts may have lacked the traditional focus, but my ideals do not lack potency. Throughout my observance, I was more meditative and thoughtful. Suhoor (the meal before dawn), was spent discussing Bible stories with friends over Nutella. I was a generally nicer person. A better person. My experience brought me back to the pursuit that had been lost on me for many years now. The communal pursuit for morality. For kindness, love, and community. Something that I had not been a part of for many years and had almost forgot existed.  

Our lives are rapidly evolving. We joke about the intelligence of technology—the dwindling need for human connection and morality. But these things are essential. They cannot be traded for our beloved television shows, our video game consoles, the internet. As the world is made smaller, we are being forever cut off from—separated—from that which is beautiful in the world, in life. And that is the connection that we have with each other when sharing the hunger that overcomes us with one hour left until Iftar. When sharing the joy of Nutella and debating the consequence of God’s spurning of Cain. So I implore you: worship human interaction. Friendship. Love. The internet is not going anywhere. Wikipedia will be there when you get home at night. Seek out other human beings. Discuss your beliefs. Wrestle with inconsistencies, paradoxes, contradictions. The greatest divide separating individuals is the inability to see the similarities between us. If anything can save the human race, this is it.

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