By Zehra Kazmi:
Keeping a roza is not an easy task. You don’t eat or drink anything till the evening. You have to wake up really early for sehari (I cannot possibly fast without that). You have to ensure that you don’t forget that you are fasting every time you see food and gobble it up. You eat way too much for iftaar and feel like a bloated potato for an hour after that. But it’s very superficial to think of Ramzan as something that simply involves fasting for a few hours and then gluttonous hogging in the evening. The ritual of fasting has a much deeper purpose in Islamic tradition.
The most important aspect of Ramzan is fasting from daybreak to sunset in which followers are not allowed a single drop of water or morsel of food from dawn to dusk. The pre-dawn meal before the fast is called the suhoor or sehari, while the meal at sunset that breaks the fast is the iftaar. Ramzan is meant to be a time to develop compassion for the poor so Muslims are required to give Sadaqatul-Fitr at the end of fasting, a form of charity, in the spirit of the month. They are also supposed to stay away from thoughts like anger and envy for the length of the fast. Fasting, thus, becomes a method to bring one closer to our natural state.
The practice of fasting is not unique to the Muslims – it has been practised for by Christians, Jews, Confucianists, Hindus, Taoists, and Jains. Jews, like the early Christians, observe fasting as a form of penitence and purification on the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur. In Hinduism, it is linked with the denial of the physical needs of the body for the sake of spiritual enrichment. According to Hindu scriptures, this exercise in self-restraint helps create a sense of harmony with God by establishing a relationship between the physical and the metaphysical.
Why is this ritual of self-denial important? Most religions stress on the concept of restraint and penance. I, personally, do not believe in an all-encompassing idea of self-denial and sin which is a tenant of most organized religions. The perpetual sense of guilt that religion often forces upon us is highly oppressive. There are lots of customs in traditional Islam that I disagree with or leave me conflicted, whether it is zanjeeri maatam during Muharram or the practice of circumcision in the Abrahamic religions. Fasting, however, is something I would recommend. As a practice, it starkly contrasts to a world that focuses so much on the idea of instant self-gratification and mindless consumerism.
Probably, one of the most counterproductive effects of growing up in a society like ours is that our world-view becomes so self-centered and myopic that we choose to conveniently forget the uglier, less sparkly side of life. Islam does not endorse fasting during Ramzan as a form of penance and the purpose behind keeping a roza is not the well-being of a husband or a son. Feeding the less-fortunate during iftaar, irrespective of what religion they belong to, after a day of fasting is also a part of Ramzan. The goal of empathizing and restraint behind fasting is what interests me the most. I think it’s fascinating how giving up food and water for a few hours brings about a change in my perspective. What about the state of millions who are suffering from starvation and hunger? Our world today is plagued by overconsumption and wastage of food. ‘The 12 percent of the world’s population that lives in North America and Western Europe accounts for 60 percent of private consumption spending, while the one-third living in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa accounts for only 3.2 percent’ notes the Worldwatch Institute. It would be presumptuous to say that since fasting has taught me to empathize, it should work the same way for everyone. If someone is conscious of the plight of those less-fortunate, they don’t necessarily have to fast to become aware of it. Any method we choose, that helps us recognize our privilege and connect with those who are suffering is equally sacred as long as the purpose behind it is achieved.
The privilege, of living in an affluent home where I have enough to eat and clothe myself, of belonging to a class where our greatest concerns are slow WiFi speeds and not enough variety in the Domino’s home delivery menu, is never more blatantly obvious when you think about it in the context of millions who are far worse off – not just poor kids starving in Ethiopia, but the emaciated rag picker two blocks away from your home.
If empathizing with others leads me closer to the Absolute or God or Allah or whatever you choose to call it, it has a higher purpose. Doesn’t God reside in us all?