by Mac Haque
"Be honest about what you do not know, modest about what you do,
Stick with what you know today, the tried and true, is the best for you" Anon
RAMADAN, the month for practicing sawm (seyam in Bengali) or abstinence and restraint has commenced. As many of us go on a diurnal fast routines that last fourteen hours or more, depending on which part of the world we live, the stereotypical understanding among Muslims is: it is the month of compassion and benevolence showered on us by Allah and only appropriate that we ‘please’ the Creator by all means possible.
Therefore, other than fasting, the list of rituals we go through are quite extensive. Pre-dawn sehri, prayers all five, recite the Qur’an and the special taraweeh prayers at night. In between, just at dusk the sumptuous iftar when we formally break our fast. The concept of fasting and abstinence, other than ‘pleasing’ the Creator, in general perception is also about ‘feeling the pangs of the poor’.
However, fasting is not an anomalous phenomenon, and there are hardly any religions, or belief systems in the world that does not include it as an incorporated rite of faith. In Buddhism it is a ‘penitential discipline’ not limited to particular days or months, but an ongoing act of faith that has far-reaching significance than those that meet the eye. Some monks for instance fast not for days, but months surviving just on water!
It is believed that in fasting, humans reach a level of meditative transcendence that is otherwise impossible to attain. That in turn leads to contemplative bliss and ‘sparks’ a nearness to the infinite Creator — the Supreme Being. Scientifically stated, wilful yet systematic starvation does more to provoke metabolic reactions in our system that helps us gain insight into avenues of ‘access control’ — and a new beginning in a life full of discoveries. Those discoveries, however, are not limited to our physical being, but are also mind-specific.
Fasting, if done with the right intention and earnestness, changes our mindset. Its effect on the brain has, therefore, manifold importance, and practices of ascetics and mystics dating back thousands of years only reaffirm the same. For Muslims, sawm is an ascetic practice that is virtuous and, other than cleansing the system, is in theory meant for believers to rise above human pettiness and intolerance — in other words, to attain ‘God consciousness’ or taqwa.
Ramadan is the month when the Qur’an was revealed to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), yet little is known about his contemplative, meditative or penitential practices in seclusion at Mount Hira. We may, therefore, surmise that the practice of sawm passed on to us some 1,500 years ago is a snapshot of the extensive physical and mental conditioning that the prophet endured in the scorching hot, barren and impassable deserts of Arabia.
His proximity to the archangel Gabriel came because of his penance that prepared him to handle the burden and preaching the complete message from God — meant not just for Muslims, indeed for all humanity. Yet fasting was nothing new. For all monotheistic prophets from Abraham, Moses, Jesus and their respective followers, fasting and other rites of penance was an integral and, in fact, overriding aspect of faith. Preceding them, fasting was common even in pagan rites and rituals.
The baffling question is why? Why should a group of men and women starve themselves for the abject purpose of ‘pleasing’ such a difficult to explain or define entity called ‘God’? In addition, what are the immediate evidences available to validate that the act of ‘pleasing God’ benefits us in any way? Also, what conclusive proof do we at all have that ‘Allah is pleased’ after a month spent literally on a ‘hunger strike’?
Without the need for implied, overt or covert pontification, researching lofty volumes of religious books, theological texts, or running to the nearest hujur or pir sahib for clearer understanding, if we can simply put the faculty of our common sense to appropriate use — the answers are closer at hand. While we are doing that, it may actually be a good idea to dispel the thought of ‘pleasing God’ and start looking at more human and ‘humane’ answers.
Since the Qur’an was revealed for the guidance and benefit of mankind, the emphasis is surely on humans, ashraful makhlukat or closely meaning the ‘best of His creation’. What is of no benefit to man cannot be the focus, criteria or prerogative of any religion whatsoever and there are precisely three things that are undoubtedly ‘acts of God’ in our existence.
Firstly our birth (hayat) or the times we live, secondly death (mauwt) and third sustenance (rizik) — and life, as we know it, revolves around these unfathomable realities. These realities are again ‘time critical’, yet it is a time that is beyond the calculative faculty of man. It is the third element, i.e. sustenance or how a square meal will be placed on the table for us and our families, and under what circumstances shall we be fed, is an equation that has of course to be worked out by humans.
We may well place our open mouth faced skywards and pray all day long, but the truth is Allah is unlikely to drop a morsel of food from ‘heaven up high’, regardless of whether we are saints or sinners. Human have to labour for food both physically and mentally, and call it work, call it profession, the exact ratio as to how much labour will result in amount of sustenance is unknown to us.
Sadly, it is in this one explicit duty to Allah that we have failed Him, i.e.to guarantee sustenance for mankind. The issue at the end of the day is food, and hence we have been condemned to our penance and punishments, as quite clearly all our depravities began here, when we decided to deny others what was ‘common property’.
Imagine the first humans on planet earth; let us put aside the gender-biased tautology associated with who came first, Adam or Eve, and instead ask ourselves who or what gave them sustenance. Did the earliest of humans purchase food? No they did not, because quite simply there was no ‘well stocked’ departmental or convenience store available anywhere in the near vicinity!
Planet earth as a biological laboratory had more than enough to sustain life during the times of the first humans, as much as it is today. The Creator’s food chain was created evenly to balance out sustenance for every living creation; animals, plants, insect, beast as well as humans. Yet, somewhere down the line, things went terribly wrong. Whether it was an act of God, i.e. natural extremity such as drought, flood, storms or pestilence, the balance of the food chain was severely challenged and compromised.
What makes us the ‘best creation’ of Allah is that He blessed us with ‘consciousness’, the understanding of right from wrong, the difference between moral and immoral, the uniqueness of being fair as opposed to being unfair, the propriety in being just from what is unjust — for these are the quintessential and compassionate traits of the Creator, that of ‘reason’ passed on to us.
However, the difference between man and beast is also very thin, and ironically, it was man that acquired territorial traits of beasts and not vice versa. Creativity too is one of the most important blessings on man from the Creator. Man used its creative faculty and acquired skills in agriculture, in hunting down animals, but on the flip side also went on to make food a ‘commodity’ for profit.
It resulted in the God-given natural food chain to be stretched thin, and whether it was hoarding by criminal intent or sheer bad luck, food shortages and hunger threatened humanity. Yet animals, plant life, insects and others continued to thrive and still do. The foreboding yet humiliating realization we have is human’s are the only species on planet earth that have to ‘buy’ food. When that happened, the terms ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ entered mankind’s vocabulary.
A reminder: food like air and water came free to mankind from the Creator.
Today in these so-called ‘enlightened times’, we talk about ending the ‘vicious cycle of poverty’ and therefore patronisingly extend ‘credit to the poor’, while some of us even want to ‘condemn poverty to museums’ without considering that by so doing, we only demonstrate the depraved poverty of our own souls. We ourselves are responsible for our own fate — in that our Creator is neither vindictive nor evil. In our ritualistic attempts at ‘pleasing’ the Creator the attributes of benevolence, compassion and mercy eludes us.
Man therefore is man’s biggest enemy and extending ‘credit’ as a birthright or even ‘human right’ to end poverty is not only a farcical supposition but also an affront to human dignity. ‘Credit’ is not charity and credits are extended today to as a lien to the marginalised, as a means to an end, as a tool of commerce, which leads to lewd profiteering and exploitation that spirals up to usury that no known religion or belief system on earth permits.
So what are the lofty ideals of Ramadan and the practice of sawm that Muslims are supposed to aspire for? Is it merely going to be fasting all day that ends with gluttonous binging on food in the early evenings until night? If it is the ‘pang of the poor’ we are supposed to feel, do the so-called ‘poor’ have the luxury of indulgence of a kind we the ‘well-to-do’ or affluent most arrogantly tend to believe is an act of faith that ‘pleases’ our Creator?
Our so-called ‘religious sentiments’ are more easily ‘bruised’ than our human sentiments when rational questions are asked. Islam condones blind faith and superstitions, yet there is no denying that very few who indulge in the penultimate rites of penance sawm have even the faintest notion about its significance. All we get to read in newspapers, and all we get to see in discussions by alems and ulemas on television are about the dos and don’ts of rituals that have anything at all to do with Islam or the injunctions of the Qur’an.
It is all about finding excuses about how not to fast, about health implications and complications, or as bizarre as whether or not, whether we can break wind in public, whether it is permissible to copulate with one’s partner during the month etc, etc. In fact, our enquiries, and even well-meaning curiosities, are meant to address anything and everything that is sickeningly carnal, as opposed to the spiritual. And it is here that we commit our gravest sin during the month of Ramadan. It is the display of our wanton greed that leads to consumerism and avarice of an unimaginable magnitude is the crux of our dilemma and we have no business to blame Allah for the same.
Ideally, sawm is meant to bring back the balance of the food chain which man has indeed compromised and reduced to a farce. It is corrective penance for mankind’s first collective crime against humanity and one that continues, and has therefore been deemed mandatory on Muslims for one month of the year. If billions of Muslims realised for once while fasting that more than ‘pleasing’ the Creator, it is a simple act meant for the welfare of mankind — of humanity, I think many of our shortcomings on faith and religion would have been addressed.
In fasting if there is any way at all we may ‘please’ our Creator, is to understand that the savings on food, due to our fasting and penance will lead on to food being stockpiled somewhere else on earth or ‘food security’ as we know it today. That in turn will guarantee that deserving humankind, whether they are Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Buddhist, Christians, whether they are theist or ‘atheist’ may live without the pangs of hunger, without any man-made famine.
Thus, if there is anything at all that ‘pleases’ the Creator — it is in the continuation and survival of the human species. The Qur’an (5:32) states unequivocally ‘killing one human is killing of all humanity’; therefore, in annihilation or killing, nothing can compare with one who is killed for want of food, or ‘starved to death’ as we call it.
It is not only abstinence in food that results in sawm becoming a complete cycle, the lofty ideals of restraints is correlative and comes in forcefully. Simply put, sawm exemplifies the earnestness in practice of ‘see no evil, hear no evil and commit no evil’. All three injunctions are addressed to control not just of our ‘carnal desires’ as is the popular misconception, but also put a check to greed, and the most hazardous of all, gluttony. It is perverse overconsumption of food that creates the initial conditions of greed to seep into our beings. What happens thereafter is a vicious cycle that turns to envy, lust and corruption.
For instance, much as sawm emphasises on fasting, if we just take a stock of the amount of food we consume during iftar, (even those lavish ‘parties’ sanctioned by the government and the opposition) the food and money we waste is more than enough indicator to the state of institutionalised vulgar corporeal ‘zombies in faith’ that we have been reduced to.
It is only in our desire to go on unrestrained food binges during Ramadan that results in price of food to skyrocket. It is evidently the sole reason as our demand for food actually outstrips supplies during the month, which is otherwise not the case in the eleven months that we do not fast! In fact, more than contributing to food chain, we create more diabolical pressures, which indeed leads on to more food shortages. Ideally, sawm is meant to bring back the balance of the food chain which man has indeed compromised and reduced to a farce, and not the other way around.
All of the above happening in a month that we are supposed to be ‘feeling the pangs of the poor’ is not only laughable, but is indicative of the innate ‘hypocrisy of modesty’ we indulge in while practising sawm. We quite shamelessly do the opposite of what we are directed by Allah to acquire. The virtues of modesty, of being able to survive and to do with the bare minimum, are lessons from Islam we conveniently forget.
The idea of ‘pleasing’ the Creator is a notorious misnomer for in reality we aim to please our olfactory and sensual desires, which translates to nothing more than greed, lascivious conducts by individuals, foul mouthing and a wanton display of the superiority of our social status. All of this contributes to downright demeaning the ideals of the piety, plurality, restraint and tolerance that Islam teaches us. The objective of attaining taqwa therefore is narrowed and boxed-in to meaningless and insensitive cultural rituals, which have absolutely no connections with Allah, the Qur’an or Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).
Moreover, how more ruthless we are in our pursuit of ‘pleasing’ the Creator is all the more demonstrated during the maniacal shopping spree we jump into in the last days of Ramadan. Anywhere else in the ‘infidel West’ or even in neighbouring ‘Hindu India’ whether it is Christmas, Easter or Puja the discounts offered at retail shops and departmental stores before any major religious festival is heart rendering. These are perhaps the only times in the year, when ‘Godless profiteering’ is never the foundation of any commercial transaction.
Yet it is quite the reverse in Bangladesh. Like price of food, everything else quadruples. The latest ‘Eid fashion’ will compel or cajole you to buy dresses and accessories at insane prices and yet none seems to object or even think once that its neither dresses, nor our caps, nor the Essence of Arabia attar, or our flashy sandals that ‘pleases’ Allah. If there is anything at all that Allah will be ‘pleased’ and will judge us, it is in our intentions.
Let our intentions therefore be pristine and pure.
With that, here is wishing everybody a rewarding Ramadan. Happy fasting and sensible feasting please!
New Age Op-Ed Thursday 18th July 2013