Tomorrow millions of Muslims around the world will go hungry. They will do so intentionally, with no sustenance from dawn till dusk for a full month. This is challenging, particularly for Muslims in the northern hemisphere, where the days will be long and dry. In Britain, fasting could be as long as 19 hours.
This looks impossible to some and frightening to many outside the religion. However, when it comes to Ramadan, most Muslims – including even the most casual worshippers – utterly change their daily habit and lifestyles once a year.
In this month Muslim children are encouraged to control their temper and show a higher level of respect to their teachers, Young children usually show an added level of respect to their parents and elders, traders traditionally become extra welcoming to their customers, employees more committed to their jobs, and ordinary Muslims go out of their way to help others around them – whether Muslim or not. Observant Muslims might engage in additional prayers at night, spend more time on self-reflection, and in pursuit of spiritual enrichment, calculate every penny of their obligatory religious dues (Zakah) to the poor, and generously donate more to charity.
This visible change in behaviour brings a new community spirit among Muslims that infect others around them. The ethos of share and care, deference to the law of the land and extra generosity become part of Muslim social life. This was demonstrably evident during the 2011 England riots. It was also detectable during last year’s Olympics, that coincided with Ramadan, when Muslim Olympians and Paralympians, Games Makers, torchbearers, performers and spectators showed their best in the greatest show on Earth.
We eagerly await this month of blessings: in this year’s Ramadan Channel 4 is going to ‘provoke’ viewers who associate Islam with terrorism with a live call to prayer. The Channel 4 executive in charge said that the ‘vast majority of people in Britain would not be aware of the mass act of personal sacrifice and worship’. This has already caused a good deal of debate on whether the broadcaster’s decision is for cultural education or exploitation.
The vast majority of Britons may not be aware that their next door neighbour is going through temporary, intentional hunger to bring about change in their character and personal faith. Yet in the midst of a generally depressing depiction of Muslims recently, particularly after the recent horrific murder in Woolwich, there is now a pressing need for Muslims to tell who they really are and what their faith means to them. With similar hopes, concerns, aspirations and failings they are no different from other ordinary Britons.
Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam and its main purpose, according to the Qur’an (chapter 2, verse 183), is to create self-discipline, introspection and God-consciousness among believers. The psychologically challenging and spiritually intense month-long practice is meant to bring a positive change in individual and community life. Behind the natural anguish of fasting lies a unique opportunity for a believer to go through deeper meaning of life – their fleeting existence on earth, spiritual connection with God, mutual relationship with fellow human beings and obligation to the wellbeing of the environment.
Self-discipline is a stepping stone for success and achieving higher objectives in life. By deliberately abstaining for long hours, believers exercise self-control and discipline. This ‘burning’ of one’s desire and ego helps those who want to conquer base instincts in life.
These base instincts – gluttony, indulgence and wasteful extravaganza – have their own pain and emptiness. Rumi, the 13th century Sufi mystic and literary giant, found ‘hidden sweetness in the stomach’s emptiness’. He saw people ‘full of food and drink an ugly metal statue sits where your spirit should.’
Fasting is a great leveller of people. Empathy with others, feeling for the poor and destitute, is all embodied in the spirit of fasting. Whatever one’s background, the process demands the same physical pain and spiritual commitment; it makes us realise how it feels to be hungry and thirsty; it offers a true appreciation of the needs of the poor.
However, fasting is not just about self-chastisement. Muslims are strongly encouraged to replenish themselves between sunset and dawn (albeit with good grace). And whatever the mental and physical demands, believers should carry on their life as normal in Ramadan.
In a world of unprecedented wealth, a staggering 870 million people have no food on their plate. Sadly, Muslims in many countries are among the highest number of these dispossessed and internally displaced people. The Qur’an describes a unique concept of giving: it is not a favour, but poor people’s right: ‘And in their wealth there is a share of the poor and the dispossessed as their right’ (chapter 51, verse 19). British Muslim charities, inspired by this ethos, have already embarked themselves on raising funds for poor and dispossessed.
With enhanced fellow-feeling, heightened spirituality and festivity across the Muslim community in this month, Ramadan should really be able to challenge perceptions about British Muslims. In the hype of the post-Woolwich media blitz can we expect a fair deal?