Ramadhan seems to mean being hungry by day, and laying tables full of fatty fried foods and high calorie treats by night. Have we completely missed the month of fasting’s messages of moderation and spiritual liberation?
As the credit crunch takes us into its firm grip, you might be forgiven for thinking that Muslims would be particularly prepared for tightening their belts. I put forward this bold thesis, as we get ready to begin fasting in the month of Ramadhan, a month highlighted for physical restraint and a rejection of excess. With years of experience in control and temperance, Muslims should be well-prepared to exercise moderation and eschew extravagance, but is that really the case?
The Qur’an advises those who believe, that fasting is prescribed for them, as it was for those who came before them so that “…you become of those who are conscious of God.” Physical restraint in all spiritual traditions – which includes but is not limited to Islam – is directly related to a blossoming of the spirit, and therefore a closer relationship to the Divine.
If you listen to any explanation of the spiritual and physical meaning of Ramadhan and why Muslims fast, one of the key reasons that features will undoubtedly be along the lines of… to remember those less fortunate than ourselves who have less to eat than we do. It makes perfect sense as an explanation: Muslims deny themselves food and drink (and other physical pleasures) during daylight hours, which create painful hunger pangs and a parched state of dehydration that offers a mild and temporary hint of the traumas and difficulties that people suffering food shortages, droughts and famines around the world must suffer. But this very weak and brief pain is tempered by the knowledge that within some hours- even if the number of those hours reach double digits – we will be tucking into food and drink again.
It is of no doubt that the hunger and thirst that we experience during Ramadhan is something we would never ordinarily feel. And in that sense it allows us a peek into the lives of those who are truly suffering and can have no respite from the shortages of food and comforts that we take for granted. Our experience is incomparable in magnitude and it would be arrogant and patronising to complain that we now ‘know how it feels’. But it can soften our hearts and at least give us a glimpse of the suffering that others go through, within the parameters of our own lives.
However, whilst we may be living the physical experience – albeit briefly – have we really grasped the meaning and spiritual experience? As soon as the adhaan rings out at maghrib time as the sun sets, we all settle down to heaving tables of our favourite foods. Tables buckle under the weight of specialities made for each individual’s palette. Every child is cooked their favourite, starters are multifarious and highly calorific and main courses include several varieties. Not to mention the many sugar-filled and fatty desserts which slip so easily and pleasurably past our lips. For those from the sub-continent, think samosas, bhaajis, halwa, kebabs, pakoras. It comes as no surprise that many people leave the month of Ramadhan heavier and more rotund than when they started.
This is not to mention the hours and hours that are ploughed into culinary production. You might imagine that the reduced number of meals, and the reduction in appetite might mean that less cooking needs to be done. Instead, the kitchen is on full alert for a greater stretch of the day – and night. It is usually the women who lead the culinary preparation and it is right that the cooks want their families to be well-taken care of. But if we started to look holistically at the purpose of Ramadhan – to free ourselves from our physical indulgences and open up possibilities of spiritual exploration that we otherwise deny ourselves – we might find that all that additional time spent cooking could actually be used to maximise our gains from Ramadhan. By not eating, and by having to cook less, Ramadhan suddenly offers a huge amount of extra time (at least three hours saved by avoiding breakfast and lunch and perhaps more if dinner was a light simple meal) which could be devoted to activities we all claim we do not have time for – lingering over prayers, reading Qur’an, community service, mediation and reflection. If you don’t cook that extra plate of samosas will it really make that much difference to the iftar experience? But if you spent all that extra time to read a few pages of the Qur’an – especially in the month of Ramadhan when the value and merit is so much greater – imagine what impact that could have.
Eating and drinking in the hours of dark becomes a festival of indulgence at the polar opposite of the hunger and thirst we underwent for a few paltry hours. We acquire bipolar disorder – riding high in the daylight hours and then binging at night. What does that say about our understanding of the very meaning of hunger as empathy, hunger as freedom from the physical and release into the spiritual? We have followed the literal rules of Ramadhan, but what about the meaning? Instead of physical restraint and spiritual freedom, we have greater indulgence and have blinded ourselves to the spiritual opportunities. Ramadhan is not only about feeling the pain of those less fortunate, but about being able to distinguish and implement the very concepts of moderation rather than excess.
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