Every year the month of Ramadan arrives, and everywhere millions of people take to fasting and give up on the luxury of food from dawn till dusk for the sake of God, whilst standing for nearly 2 hours in the night in prayer, before retiring to sleep and waking at dawn to gather in the mosques to stand once again for prayer and begin fasting. An arduous chore. So why do it? For what purpose? For what reason do these millions observe this fasting for a whole month consistently every year and for what reason was such a practise ordained on people?
The answer will not be exposed through looking at the act of fasting, but rather the character traits that become exposed throughout this month.
The denial of the basic necessity for our existence naturally induces a greater awareness of our surroundings and of our own limitations. In other words, man is naturally dependant on others for his own existence. Here we see the rememberance of God and our reliance on him. However, there is another aspect to fasting. Why is it that the Muslim is most generous during fasting? Why is it that people from all over the world suddenly sit together in Makkah, Madinah, Tunis, Algiers, Abu Dhabi, New Delhi, Kabul, Lagos, Singapore, Indonesia…(I could go on…), and insist on feeding each other and extending their hand even further? Why is the one observing the fast more likely to return home at sunset to sit with their family to break their fast? Why are they more willing to seek out others who are fasting?
The answer is not so far-fetched. Instead, it is a perfectly logical and rational response to fasting. It is the commonly shared experience. The understanding of the hardships of the poor, of each other through this month. We can begin to understand this more by observing the relationship between siblings. Since Islam prides itself on Brotherhood, it is not a far-fetched example. Let us ask why an elder brother loves his younger brother, or vice versa. Or an elder sister loves her younger sister, or vice versa. Or why the mother of a criminal will still be found taking in her son or daughter when he or she has nowhere to go. Taking the last example in particular, we cannot say it is mostly character which forms the foundation of the love that exists between brothers or family members.
It is almost impossible for any brother to count the number of arguments and fights they have had with their siblings on one hand. Therefore it must be something other than character. Something more lasting and unshakeable. And this foundation is the common experience. The fact that these siblings have been through very similar situations; if not, the same, means that each sibling understands the formation of each others characters. This understanding leads to tolerance. This leads to acceptance. This acceptance leads eventually to a powerful and unbreakable bond that we see between siblings. The bond that evokes rage upon seeing your sibling abused or insulted, the bond that evokes tears when they are hurt or distraught, the bond that evokes joy when glad tidings come to them. The bond that is entirely selfless. This is the taste of Ramadan. The revelation that such characteristics expose the way man was meant to live by, if only for a month.
So here we can understand the excess generosity that prevails during Ramadan amongst the Muslims. However, this concept of experiences extends not only to refraining from eating. One of the only reasons it is so noticeable when it comes to food is because it is an immediate necessity. Therefore its absense is easily noticed. Therefore food becomes the priority. We forget our nationalities, our political views, our football teams, our universities, our company allegiances etc…in the search to satisfy our need. In doing so, we recognise our limitations, and are humbled. Through this experience, we understand that the brother or sister has gone through the same hardship.
But lets change the scenario slightly and apply the lessons of Ramadan outside of this month. Lets take food out of the equation and look at, (what may feel like), a less immediate necessity. The necessity to live amongst people; a necessity that we take for granted. The necessity to interact with people. The necessity to deal in economic transactions with people. The necessity to obtain medical information from people, to sustain your own health. The necessity to engage in debate and discussion, to prevent the destructive force of ignorance, that gives way to racism and discrimination. Without these, we endure hardship.
And this is not hypothetical. We look at Israel-Palestine. We look at Iraq. We look at the Tamils in Sri Lanka. We look at the Black civil rights movement in the USA not so long ago. We look at Libya against Italian colonial oppression. Algeria against French oppression. Afghanistan by the Russians. The list could go on! And it is the oppressed who came together during this hardship and shook hands, acknowledging, and understanding, the hardships that were taking place, and to this day, has resulted in a spirit of brotherhood between the peoples. These experiences have taken place all over the world. However, we have seen cases where people do say ‘never again’. We look at the French and the Germans who decided that World War II was one step too far, and therefore tied their economies together; ensuring that they would endure the same economic experiences (which define the strength of a nation).
These are not lofty ideals or principles. This is man’s innate nature. The generosity that appears so forcefully during Ramadan is based on understanding and trust. Understanding of ones hardship throughout the day, and trust that through generosity you will create a powerful foundation on which to build society. If we understood each others hardship, there is no doubt that only acceptance can arise from it, as it does between Muslims during Ramadan. The understanding of hardship humanises man and exposes the individual, creating an image of the individual rather than the nation or the race. We learn to appreciate character traits, rather than races and civilisations. And then ultimately, we understand when the Qur’an says that ‘Man was created as one community’.
Views expressed in articles are the author’s and do not represent Comment Middle East
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