Reflections on Ramadan’s Many Gifts
[First published in the Sun, November 6, 2004]
To many, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, Ramadan means fasting, and only fasting. This narrow obsession leads to such strict but silly rules like closing restaurants during the day and jailing those not fasting. Recently a Malaysian religious official suggested that Muslims caught eating during the day be paraded around town in a hearse. This cruel and punitive streak, alas all too common among the religious establishment, is the very antithesis of the spirit of Ramadan.
To me, Ramadan means much more than just fasting from sunrise to sunset. This holy month is a time to pause and to ponder, to be forgiving and to seek forgiveness, and to be generous not only to others but equally important, to oneself. It is also a time for self-restraint and self-discipline.
Unlike the other pillars of Islam (shahada, praying, tithe, and pilgrimage to Mecca), fasting is a very private and personal act. No one but Allah knows that you are fasting. You may not be eating but that does not mean you are fasting. Those silly rules serve nothing more than to discourage people from eating in public during the day.
Living in largely secular and predominantly non-Muslim America, I am thankfully spared of these bullying religious functionaries. Nobody forces me to fast; there are no religious police wandering around looking for sinners. I fast because I want to, and for that reason it is a much more meaningful act.
In today’s harried and hurried world it is easy to be caught up in the maelstrom. Ramadan forces one to pause and reflect; in short it is a “time out.”
The drastic change in my daily routine during Ramadan forces me to view matters differently. The quiet of the morning, with ample time now available that was previously consumed with preparing and eating breakfast, is ideal for such contemplation. Such moments alas are too rare during my regular day.
My lunch break is now my most productive time as I am alone and uninterrupted. It is amazing how much time we idle away at lunch. I can also count on losing five to ten pounds during Ramadan. It is flattering to hear comments on how fit I look at the end of the month!
Today, fasting has been “modernized,” with evenings now consumed with never ending feasts. I once attended an iftar (break fast) in Malaysia hosted by somebody important. Far from enjoying it, I was offended by the display of crass commercialism. It was in a luxury hotel, hardly the place for pious reflection, and the culinary extravaganza was matched only by the guests’ gorging appetites. No wonder many Muslims gain weight during Ramadan; they simply rearrange their gluttony from daytime to nighttime. Where is the spirit of restraint called for during Ramadan?
The traditional teaching is that fasting would remind us of the hunger pains endured by those less fortunate. It is hard to empathize with the poor when you know that your own hunger will be satiated – no, indulged – come sunset.
We would remember the poor best and empathize with them more were we to pause and contemplate their fate. Then we would realize how much good we would do for them if only we were less extravagant in our desires. Imagine how many of the poor could be fed with the leftover food from one of those lavish feasts.
This preoccupation with fasting distracts Muslims from other equally important elements of Ramadan. Consider charity. While Muslims are familiar with giving tithe, more important is the generosity of spirit. I have yet to see a formal amnesty program for our prisoners during this blessed month. Nothing would demonstrate this charitable spirit more were the government to release some prisoners, especially those held under the Internal Security Act. That would be far more meaningful than all the rhetoric on Islam Hadhari.
Praise be to Allah, this Ramadan I am blessed with health, peace and prosperity. I am also mindful that millions of others are less fortunate, which makes me even more thankful of my blessings.