Why I'm Fasting This Ramadan

The Red Mosque in Colombo, by Sandeepa Vithanage

I've been fasting for Ramadan, so 23 days now. What this means, practically, is that I don't take food or water from around 5 AM to 6:30, despite it being the hottest season in Sri Lanka. What this means, personally, is I have a better understanding of my Muslim friends, who I've seen doing this for years. What this means, spiritually, is that I pray to Allah 4-5 times a day (despite being a Buddhist) and I find it a moving experience (despite perhaps putting my soul in danger, since I've clearly been told now). I've found it a difficult but rewarding experience. These are my experiences, insomuch as I can communicate them at all.

Literally Why

My father, a pretty devout atheist, told me to read the Bible when I was young. You simply have to know the Bible to understand modern literature and the modern world. For this reason, I try to read as many foundational texts as I can, and the Quran is obviously foundational for much of the world.

Lately I've been feeling this big gap in my knowledge because Hamas, Hezbollah, Ansar Allah, etc, make references that just go over my head. And they're great references. They talk about 'weak as a spider's web' and 'it was not you who threw, but Allah who threw.' There's obviously a big and rich literary world out there that I'm just missing without the Quran. But this is only the most literal reason to experience Ramadan and, I think, the most superficial.

The Quran is not just a book, it's a holy book. One of the proofs of the Quran is the Quran itself. As the book repeatedly says, “do they claim, “He made it up!”? Tell them ˹O Prophet˺, “Produce one sûrah like it then, and seek help from whoever you can—other than Allah—if what you say is true!”

The Quran as revealed and recited by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is a work of magnificent poetry and power, and I'm reading it in translation, a pale imitation of the original Arabic. To me, the Quran is definitely divinely inspired, and I felt it from the beginning, in just the way They describe it. Allah—through his messenger—says,

“˹It is˺ Allah ˹Who˺ has sent down the best message—a Book of perfect consistency and repeated lessons—which causes the skin ˹and hearts˺ of those who fear their Lord to tremble, then their skin and hearts soften at the mention of ˹the mercy of˺ Allah”

and I have felt this myself.

When I first read the Quran—in Dubai, before it became a Shaytanic playground—I 'literally' felt my heart tremble. I felt, for lack of a better word, scared, though I think the better word would be godfearing. I could feel that whatever was in there was definitely real, and definitely powerful. I sincerely believe that the Quran is the word of Allah. As the book says, “Do you not see how Allah compares a good word to a good tree? Its root is firm and its branches reach the sky.” That's how it feels to read the Quran.

And yet I never finished it.

I got out of Dubai (I was just stuck there on a layover) and had other things to read and do. That book is still on my bookshelf, gathering dust. A few years ago, however, I was walking down the street in Oxford and someone just handed me another Quran. I've been carrying that copy around and trying to get through it for months now. My daughter makes fun of me because she finished Fantastic Mr. Fox in a day and I've been carrying this smaller book around for like 15% of her entire lifetime. Ramadan was a good opportunity to just finish it (the Quran is divided up into 30 juz for this purpose), so I thought I'd take it. Again, however, that's the least of the reasons. The Quran is not a book it's a holy book, and there's much more to it.


To me, the proof of a religion is not in textual nitpicking but in the sort of person it produces. And I've seen Islam produce some really good people. When I was in university I was friends with an Iraqi (all I remember is Muhammad, so I'm never finding him again). Muhammad was not a student, I met him cause he was randomly Michael Jackson dancing at a party, and he liked going out to nightclubs. But he just danced and talked to people. He never drank, he never did drugs, he never slept with anyone or even dated. This was very incongruous for me because I was still in a culture where that was all the point. At 'freshers' week the university gave us all free-flowing beer and threw co-eds together like, get at it. Honestly, God knows what happened, it wasn't good and in an unconscious way I wasn't feeling it. I was painfully insecure at the time and Muhammad helped me get out of my shell without getting wasted, which I appreciated.

After university I was travelling around Sri Lanka a lot and I went with my friend Halik. Halik would frequently stop to pray, including literally on rocks in the ocean. I'd meditate while he was doing it but I was always curious as to what exactly he was doing. Halik was also a deeply ethical person and in a way that wasn't coincidental. He might have inclined that way naturally, but Islam was clearly how he structured his life. He really followed Islam. It made him who he was, and he was a good person.

As someone who grew up in America all you know about Islam is the same shallow lies repeated over and over again. That Muslims are terrorists, that they hate women, that they're backwards and savage. I honestly thought those things once, but meeting actual Muslims quickly disabused me. The people I saw were good, and Islam was a big, obvious reason for it. It literally structured their days and, during Ramadan, their entire month. Colombo is pretty evenly split between Sinhala (me), Tamil (my wife), and Muslim (a race here), and the latter is the one community I have the least experience 'being'. And I wanted that. I've worked with and known people who were fasting for years, and I was always curious. What was this experience, and why? So this year I called Halik and just tried it.


This is a roundabout way of getting to what seems to interest most people about Ramadan, which is the fasting. Fasting is really the means and not the meaning. It's putting God first and putting worldly desires literally aside, at least in my experience. And it's a long enough experience to be habit-forming.

Fasting is a discipline that I found makes me more disciplined in general. Regardless of how much I don't want to, I just get up at 4:45 because I have to. I have to get any water and food for the day in by then. But that's not the point. The point, really, is that I start my day with prayer, that's the real discipline.

Once I'm up I'm usually up, so sometimes I get my work done before anyone else is even awake. My golden hours for writing are in the morning, and this forces me to use them. At the same time, waking up early forces me to sleep early, otherwise I'm just wrecked. Now, I will note that many Muslims in Sri Lanka become nocturnal during Ramadan and seem to stay out later than ever, but I just can't do it. I end up being early to bed and early to rise, which, as the saying goes, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise by default. A lot of the spiritual injunctions of Islam are, in fact, just good practice and hygiene. With the ritual washing, for example, my hands and feet have never been cleaner. I just wash them at least four times a day, again by default.

The downsides, however, are that if I do anything (especially in this heat) it's very draining. By afternoon I usually need a nap, which I don't usually. Being tired, thirsty, and hungry can also make me (more) cranky with my family, even though the injunction is to be on your best behavior during Ramadan. I'm often not. Also, as my mother says, I'm not Muslim and I'm not from a Muslim family. Islam is a social religion and fasting alone is profoundly anti-social. I end up missing Easter lunch and can't keep sil on Poya, which are the religions my family actually follows. Ramadan is supposed to bring people together, but for me it's mostly isolating, except when someone invites me to something.

That isolation, however, is also good for meditation, albeit in the Muslim form. The Muslim prayers took me a while to understand, but now I can go through the motions without checking WikiHow. I dunno if it's the blood going to my head, but I feel quite moved when I bow and say subhaana rabbiyal a'alaa, and I mean it when I say rabbighfirli (forgive me). At the end of the prayers I say salaam to the angel on my right shoulder (counting my good deeds) and to the one on my left (counting my bad), and they're real to me during Ramadan. The discipline around basic functions makes the higher functions more disciplined by default, and I'm more aware of when I do wrong. And I simply do less of it.

Before Ramadan I would eat, drink alcohol, or take ayurvedic cannabis out of boredom more than else, plus the grief of just everything. But now I can't do any of those things, so I just... don't. Instead I go to prayer for relief and it's actually more relieving. It speaks to the pain rather than just numbing it. And that's quite a reset. Ramadan gives you a month when you commit to just trying, and it seems to work. A month is both short enough to actually do, and long enough to be habit-forming. To form good habits, with good people, and a good book. It's quite practical.


What I learned as a young man was that faith is a practice. I learned that through Buddhist meditation, which changed my life. I'm a bad Buddhist, but I'm a Buddhist. I still take refuge in the Triple Gem. Paradoxically and incongruously, however, I also believe in Allah, I also revere Jesus, and I also venerate the Hindu deities. These are all the gods of my island home and I feel at home with all of them. I understand that the first commandment of the monotheistic faiths is don't do this, but that's what I'm doing. I hope I'll be forgiven.

At these times, which sure feel like end times, I find that Islam really speaks to me. People say Islam is a religion of peace, but that's the white man's word. Islam is a religion of justice. The Quran constantly repeats the fact that those who believe and do good works will be rewarded, and those who spread corruption throughout the land and set up rivals to God will be punished. In these days when the corrupt and faithless are doing so much evil, when people worship money, I honestly find this comforting. Allah very clearly says that 'this world' is nothing and the hereafter is everything. The Quran says, “This worldly life is no more than play and amusement, but far better is the ˹eternal˺ Home of the Hereafter for those mindful ˹of Allah˺. Will you not then understand?” I don't know if I understand, but I really want to. This can't be all, because this is awful.

There's a strange pedantry in not believing life after death, but what do people do with all this smartness? So what? Someone who truly fears the hereafter behaves quite differently in the here and now, and that changes their soul irregardless. A truly godfearing person would help the poor and strive for justice and try and live a better, cleaner life, so nothing is lost. And potentially everything is gained, in ways we cannot fathom. I won't get into this because it's like describing the color red in words. It's just not possible. I remember asking Bhanthe Gunaratne about rebirth and he simply said he'd experienced it, but didn't ask me to believe or explain one way or another. To me, the afterlife is literally what it says on the tin. You can't understand it in this life, but you can fear it. The feeling they call godfearing. And I definitely fear God, and worry for my 'soul' above all things.

That's why I like Ramadan, because it devotes a whole month to God, and almost all of your waking hours. Ramadan is, for me, a reset from the demands of 'this world' and a remembrance of the demands of something higher. It's easy to forget as we go from meal to meal and distraction to distraction (sometimes the same thing) and it's good to have a structured way to remember, not through reading and knowing, but through doing and understanding.

I won't say that I 'get' Ramadan and I have, in fact, been reluctant to write this piece. Faith is a practice, it's an experience, and though it may use books, it cannot be contained in books at all. This was my experience as a Buddhist growing up, praying with Jews in Montreal, taking my kids to church in England, or praying with Muslims now. Some things can't be put into words at all. You have to just do them, and you can't necessarily bring that much back to communicate. That's been my experience of Ramadan. I don't know what to tell you. All I can say is that I've been told, quite clearly.