Ramadan, the holy month of fasting in Islam, faces a pretty serious PR problem. What’s meant to be a time of reflection is obstructed by the reflection of hundreds of thousands of TV screens across the Middle East, clamoring for the attention of a hungry Muslim audience eager for a distraction from an often long and difficult fast. Cemented as a tradition over the last 6 years, this year’s Ramadan TV series has been obstructed by what’s going on out in the streets. An ongoing Arab Spring serves as not only a disruption to the vacuous entertainment but also a necessary reminder on why we are called to fast.
As Ramadan and a much-looked-forward-to Eid al-Fitr return to us this year, we are pressed to take a moment to pause and consider the true meaning of this period. The fast itself is part of our covenant with God — one that is not fulfilled until after a full month of observance. There is no Eid celebration without a Ramadan coursed with sacrifice and abstinence. Here we’re designed to rekindle our covenant with God, the ummah, and ourselves – a necessary reminder in light of on going Arab ‘Spring’ and a Syrian civil war where, over the last two years, there have already been over 92,000 documented deaths and tens of thousands of lives forever marred.
Meanwhile, wealth and privilege flow like milk and honey through the Arabian Peninsula where Qataris were recently hospitalized for over-eating during the first night in Ramadan. There is an undeniable and disfiguring imbalance within the Muslim world and one in which Ramadan offers a brief respite from with the hope that this time our journey’s end might leave us a little closer to God’s image.
Our fast is a period of meditative focus, where through humility and suffering we’re bestowed a chance to reconnect with God. Here the journey is just as important as the destination. The journey teaches us compassion for God’s less privileged creatures, the hungry and the poor. There is no greater teacher than experience. No amount of education or charity work can foster the same empathy as when we’ve walked someone else’s path. Though our fast lasts just a month, we’re pushed to reach out if we see someone go hungry in the months to follow. Yet easing someone’s hunger cannot be neatly enveloped in a monthly zakat to your local mosque.
Hunger comes in many forms; hunger for freedom, for justice, for opportunity. Hunger is the product of circumstance such as war, poverty, and disparity. As Ramadan encourages empathy and a willingness to help others suffering hunger and misfortune, our outlook needs to evolve beyond just feeding a mouth to curing the disease that leaves millions hungry. When during Ramadan we come to grips with hindered function, distraught from thirst and concaved from hunger, we should be that much more empathetic to the paralysis of our people who suffer the same – not from the comfort of home amidst the security of a free state and the guarantee of a future meal, but from the pits of human struggle. This is our test. It’s not just a test to see if we can last 30 days, mastering the timing of meals and prayers with calculated precision. It’s a test to determine how well we can form a vision and see beyond these 30 days.
Our fast is also a process of purification. Yet a fast without food and drink is no fast at all if our soul continues to feast on this moral decay, such as the aforementioned media indulgence and gluttonous consumption. If we’ve developed a nature that leans towards these vices, then Ramadan isn’t the time to magnify them; it’s a time to cleanse ourselves of them. Each year we’re granted this one month — a length of time even scientists can agree can rewire your brain to think differently.
Today, Ramadan takes on a more significant role and bears a greater burden. Today, it’s the single unifying element that acts as an umbrella for a larger Muslim population. We may differ in how we approach Islam, our politics, and our culture — but here we can come together yearly in unison. While Hajj can attract up to an estimated six million people a year, Ramadan attracts the entire Muslim world – all 1.6 billion of us.
You may disagree with my views, and I with yours but the principles of Ramadan are a common denominator that we can use a foundation for rewiring how we see Islam and ourselves.