I have been writing about the Muslim month of fasting known as Ramadan for 20 years.
I have interviewed scores of Muslims to learn what it is like to go without food and water from dawn to dusk for 30 days. I've asked athletes how they deal with it during football or basketball seasons and high-school students how they found ways to remain alert in class. I've explored the after-fast feasts. I've seen how Muslims habitually follow this religious duty and have heard about the spirituality of the practice.
Now, as an exercise in empathy and solidarity, I am going to try to find out what it's like for myself.
Starting Jan. 1, I plan to follow Ramadan guidelines for the entire month.
I will fast as prescribed by Islamic teachings, pray five times a day, do good deeds and give alms to the poor, and read through the entire Quran (the best I can) as Muslims do.
OK, I know that Ramadan really starts in July in 2012 the starting date follows the lunar calendar, moving from month to month each time. I also know that Muslims have no choice about when to observe Ramadan. If the moon says it starts in the hot, sweaty days of summer, so be it.
But I'm a wimp and don't think I could fast at a time when the days are at their longest. So, even though Utah Muslims are not doing Ramadan right now, I'm trusting that those I know will act as guides for me, sharing their experiences and helping me navigate through the obstacles of daily American routines.
"I live my life as I normally would," says Maysa Kergaye, a Muslim mom in Holladay. "If I go to an event that includes lunch, I participate but don't eat. I don't plan lunch dates on my own, and I don't do extra zumba classes."
My son, who is studying Arabic at the University of Utah, cautions me against trying to read the Quran without books or teachers who can provide context and interpretations.
Kergaye agrees and recommends a particular English translation that is more accessible to non-Muslims.
She tells me that I might get caffeine headaches and bad breath (no gum or breath mints allowed). She also suggests my morning meal be high in protein, rather than sugary cereals, to have enough energy to last through the day. She says Muslims typically break their fast with dates and water, then pray and wait five minutes before eating a full meal.
In the end, though, Ramadan is meant to be a spiritual discipline, not just a physical one. It teaches followers to control their appetites and to more fully grasp what it means to be hungry.
"We can become better enlightened only when we rise above the flesh and recognize the force of our spirit, our human will," writes Yahiya Emerick in The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Islam, a book Kergaye recommends I use. "It is through this action that the real transformation takes place."
Good deeds during Ramadan count for multiple times their worth any other time of the year, Kergaye says, but the fast's benefits come undone by any hint of crankiness, anger or irritation.
"Perhaps a fasting person will get nothing from his fast save hunger," the Prophet Muhammad said, "and perhaps the one who stands to pray at night will get nothing from his standing except sleeplessness."
In other words, Kergaye says, fasting and prayer won't help if you don't "do it with the right attitude."
The reward for the "successful completion" of Ramadan, Emerick writes, is "forgiveness of the individual's sins."
I'd settle for 30 days without grumpiness and a little more appreciation of Muslims. As for forgiveness, that's up to my family members and co-workers to bestow after they've put up with me for this month.
Follow Peggy's progress
See how religion reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack is faring in her Ramadan quest at her Following Faith blog, http://www.sltrib.com/Blogs/faithblog.