Suha and Leon by Hamzahinsancita
Adil has some beautifully put advice about the month of Ramadhan here…but from this writer, don’t expect the run of the mill ‘feel good’ Disney advice you usually get…
What drives a fifth of the world’s population to voluntarily deprive themselves the luxury of food and water during daylight hours for one month of the year?
As a lay-Muslim, I cannot give a explanation with scholarly rigour, but I have instead outlined some reflections on why I personally find keeping fasts fulfilling. My hope is that other Muslim readers might resonate with some of these reflections and that non Muslims might better understand what some of us get out of fasting.For those only vaguely familiar with what fasting generally entails and why Muslims do it, and short but excellent explanation can be seen from Shaykh Hamza Yusuf here.
Fasting me realise how helpless I am and dependant on something greater
From my interactions with others and my limited acquired knowledge, I tend to think that many of the people (from any faith) who become irreligious do so, not because they have been presented with knockdown counter evidence or specific arguments, but because they believe, or rather *feel* that God is unnecessary. One such reason is the complete feeling of independence from any provider or sustainer that is greater than ourselves (though there are others, such as materialistic paradigms passed off as being ‘scientific,’ but this is another story). In developed countries, few people die of ‘unnatural’ causes, people rarely go hungry against their will; they are not deprived of drinking water and they seldom die of easily curable diseases. These are wonderful realities that should be extended throughout the world, but they can also create a trial for people who do not consider the opportunities to discover medicines and bring food security to be blessings initially bestowed by something greater. I am in no way discrediting the resourcefulness of the human beings who developed science or pioneered systems welfare (‘Humanists’ tend to get very strident if you give God credit for anything), but they did not create their own blessings. They just used them well (we could debate to what extent).
When a person fasts, they may realise just how easily those blessings can be cut off, and the impossibility and absurdity of the notion that a person can be truly independent of other agents, and self sustaining in the truest sense. When one cannot eat and drink, he or she realises that our most basic needs do not spontaneously create themselves and just appear not matter what; yet without them we will suffer terribly and eventually die. This struck me most when manual doing farm work in the middle of summer last Ramadan; I could not have felt the real value of the bottle of fresh juice that I brought back home if I were able to just drink it there and then. The value that such things have is hard to convey unless you have been in a situation where you desperately want them yet they are inaccessible. By comparison, the other things in life which are not conducive to our most basic survival and health seem far less meaningful; or perhaps they just fall back into where they actually should be placed in terms of importance.
The practical realisation that we are not our own creators and sustainers should lead to two things; God consciousness and human consciousness. God consciousness because we now realise how dependent we are on something greater, and human consciousness because we have now had a preview of what hunger and thirst is really like. Let us not make martyrs of ourselves however; millions of people would kill to have our Ramadan diet in place of their regular one (even assuming that we follow the true spirit of Ramadan and do not binge eat or eat junk for either breakfast or dinner). Nonetheless, we should still have greater empathy which should lead to make helpful changes in our lives; whether it be monetary charity, or helping out with homeless shelters (or something similar) or even doing researching which foods we eat most sustainable and conducive to food security. Whatever it is, we should strive to do something.
Fasting Reminds me to be well mannered and helpful
This is somewhat a paradox given that being hungry makes people (especially me) prone to being irritable yet the feeling of hunger simultaneously reminds me not to act as such. I do not claim particularly good manners, but I can safely say that Ramadan makes me far far better. Depending on various interpretations, swearing and violent speech breaks ones fast or at least minimises the reward from it, which serves as a motivation to be gentler and well mannered in our speech. When annoyed or angry, my state of being when fasting (usually) forces me to swallow whatever ugly phrase being conceived in my head before it is unleashed. I am also usually milder towards people who themselves are being aggressive and argumentative; even just by saying ‘I’m fasting, and this is getting quite angry and personal, and I don’t want to say anything I’ll regret,’ an otherwise ugly dispute can become surprisingly less acrimonious, especially if the other person is fasting too.
Furthermore, when fasting, it becomes very difficult to choose to be unhelpful; I have interrupted writing this article to help my brother with the shopping, something I was not ‘obliged’ to do, nor would always bother with (even though I should), but when fasting, the month where we try to get closer to God, being wantonly unhelpful would feel like hypocrisy of the worst kind. I am in no danger of turning into a saint even during Ramadan (as those who know me would be happy to testify), but I am certainly better than usual; or at the very least, less bad, and most Muslims I know will exhibit a similar, or greater improvement in their temperament too.
Ramadan and Health
Before I discuss Ramadan and health, allow me to indulge in a mini rant regarding many of the claims of ‘scientific’ miracles which the Islamic traditions are allegedly replete with. In short, I feel it is a futile escapade which can actually undermine Islam as it plays into the hands of secular reasoning and also creates online ‘debunking’ cults which, for all their stupidity still recruit gaggles of online disciples to participate in anti Islam activity as opposed to anti *inset World of Warcraft denizen here* activity. Furthermore, claims by apologists like ‘Pigs are uniquely spiritually and actually filthy animals who live on a diet of their own faeces and it is a scientific miracle that we cannot eat them’ is just complete nonsense. When irresponsible apologists make such arguments, and the arguments get shot down, it just damages the faith of people who based any of their views on anything that the apologist in question said. Contrary to what ”Dr” Zakir Naik claims, pigs do not generally practice coprophagy, yet animals that are not usually considered haraam (like rabbits and some poultry) do. One could also buy pork from wild, outdoor reared pigs which would be far healthier then the steroid bloated battery farmed chicken which is regularly sold as being ‘halal.’ Going by the logic we are given, if it were possible to obtain clean and healthy pig flesh (which it is), Pork should now be permissible! The ‘pigs are filthy and have a filthy nature as will people who eat them’ is also plain insulting and forms part of the ‘dirty uncivilised kuffar’ rhetoric that extremists so love; how would one give Dawah to someone who farmed pigs and raised them to the highest possible standard? This rant will be continued; but below are some more intelligent and academic insights into
Having said all of this, I think some of the conclusions made by scientists which seem to attribute benefits to fasting are actually sound; there really does appear to be health benefits in terms of:
Note that these sources come from independent scientists, not the ‘famous Western ones’ which were quote mined so that it appeared that they assured us that the Qur’an was replete with ‘scientific’ miracles. Contrary to intuition, though, weight loss tends not to be a common occurrence during Ramadan, sadly in part due to the fact that some Muslims not only insist on eating a revolting excess of saturated fat for both meals, but in vast quantities. Apart from making an utter mockery of the spirit of Ramadan (it never fails to amaze me how stupid God is considered to be by some ‘practicing’ religious people) such binge eating is self defeating and actually makes the fast harder because the stomach is stretched and thus feels emptier when food leaves it. Worse, this habit just makes the whole idea look plain stupid in the eyes of non Muslims who can understandably see little of spiritual value in binge eating at dawn, sleeping all day and then binge eating at night. Do this, and despite your feelings of hunger in the day, you will pile on weight like mad, I guarantee it.
On a health related note, I think it is also important that people do not abandon doing physical exercise during Ramadan; living in Britain this has never been a problem in autumn or winter. In summer it gets a little trickier, I usually like to hit the gym just before Iftar because the adrenaline and prospect of replenishment sees me through. Exercise too early in the day and you are more likely to feel a real low as your immediately available blood sugar is low. An hour or so after dinner I like to do some more exercise before bed, which is perfectly tenable if you don’t stuff yourself.
Fasting brings people together and can make otherwise irresponsible people tidy themselves up for a month
One of the great things about Ramadan is that it brings people together; families with busy day to day lives who might not even usually eat dinner at the same time now spend two meals a day with one another. Friends see each other more (usually for Iftar; breaking the fast) often too.
As for Ramadan helping people to get their act together for a month; I do have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I intensely dislike (to put it mildly) the Asian ‘rude boy/gangster’ culture which many young Muslims follow; usually entailing irresponsible driving (probably in a shared BMW or a hired Ferrari), playing idiotic music, curb crawling, and a bling fetish; yet during Ramadan they fast, stay at home, pray Taraweeh and generally stay out of trouble. Inconsistent compartmentalising to say the least. On the other hand, I can’t say I have any more love for the perpetual cynics (often middle class Pakistani liberals who write off every other Muslim as an extremist as promiscuously as many Wahhabis will excommunicate other Muslims for their ‘modernism’) who think that it is actively a bad thing that these young people fast and by and large stay out of trouble during Ramadan due to it being inconsistent. Am I missing something here or is it not better for someone to behave like an ignoramus for 11 months a year as opposed to 12? Instead of scorning the fact that they fast, maybe it would be an idea to gently point out to those who spend 11 months of the year behaving in a juvenile and shallow manner, that they at least know what it is like to stay out of trouble, as they do it for one month, a time period which they could work on extending.
True, the issue is not always this simple in practice; Sadly, many young Muslims after a youth of irresponsibility will think that becoming ‘practicing’ in order to reserve a spot in Paradise means becoming ultraconservative hadith spammers who can’t get through a sentence without saying ‘bidah,’ ‘shirk’ ‘deviance’ ‘Western hypocrisy’ ‘modernism’ or ‘kuffar’ and cannot understand that Muslims are not the only oppressed people on earth either. This is a product of the low level of education and insular, tribal nature of some of our community which only lends itself an appreciation to simple answers, and thus, simplistic apologists and so called Dawah carriers, who are often nothing more than sophists. Nonetheless, we should remain grateful that even seemingly nominal Muslims do choose to fast, a reminder to themselves as much as anyone, that they are indeed Muslims. Coupled with a greater appreciation for more responsible (And more authentic for that matter; more hardline does not mean more true!) scholars and speakers, the community and personal benefits that Ramadan brings could help turn people into better Muslims and better people (two concepts which both secularists and fundamentalists like to keep as separate as possible)
This sums up the reasons which immediately come to my mind when I consider the benefits of fasting; though there are others. I want to finish with an appeal to those of a secular disposition who see any form of religious ritual as inherently pointless and archaic. Without intending any disrespect, I think many such people who claim to be the straight talking tell it like it is advocates of reason and science, are actually using the same emotion driven reason which they criticise, and not thinking which is in any way ‘free.’ If you post silly memes stating ‘Parent starveschild= child abuse. Muslim starves child= Religious freedom,’ you are no open hearted seeker in the disinterested truth; even with a rudimentary knowledge of Islam you would know that Ramadan is not obligatory for children and some schools of Islamic thought actually discourage it; nor is fasting comparable to starvation, even in the longest days.
I like to think that I try (if not always succeed) to empathise with people, and as I recently pointed out to a friend who thought I had a problem with atheists (because I wrote an article criticising anti religious arguments) I always want to find excuses and reasons to show that strongly secular and anti religious persons are arriving at mistaken conclusions in good faith so to speak; perhaps the secularists who think that religious practices like fasting are inherently outdated could show us the same courtesy and try it for themselves; but try it as an open minded inquirer and not a debunker. Being a perpetual skeptic is not a rational nor a default stance, nor does it even lend itself to the philosophical materialism that many skeptics fall back on as their default position. What is the worst that could happen? You feel somewhat hungry for a day, and in exchange take a small step to understanding a fifth of the world’s population. Surely any ‘humanist’ who prides them self on understanding humanity would consider this worthwhile?
I hope I may have given readers food for thought (pun unintended) as to how fasting is a spiritually fulfilling and character building practice; though these are the merely the reasons which I resonate most immediately with, and the Islamic tradition is in no way limited to them. As always, I would be grateful for opinions and constructive criticisms from readers.
As-salamu alaykum (peace be upon you) and take care