Friday, July 19

Ramadan and modernity’s discontents

In an age of plentiful prosperity, self-denial is starting to make a comeback. It is becoming a self-improvement trend–Intermittent fasting, waking up at 5am, cold showers, half-marathons, boot-camps, minimal living to name just a few. YouTube is full of podcasters preaching the benefit of these ways of living. And there also appears to be a growing scientific interest in these fads. The art of self-discipline, and it’s major constitute of withholding pleasure is nothing new, however. 

Recently, I have found a keen interest in ancient Greek philosophy, especially virtue ethics and stoicism. This discovery (or I should say rediscovery) has been a coming of home, of sorts, for myself. The ancient cardinal virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance were always intuitive and self-evident to me, yet in my younger years not something that I was drawn to. I was too focused on individualism and promises of modern science and detached rationality. Modern Western society also has this scepticism for the past, especially for religion and traditional values, many considering them as superstitions of a bygone era. The future is forged by looking ahead and not turning around to look back, we’re told. Yet, outside the Western world, such virtues and wisdom of the past are still alive and prosperous. 

Temperance: the quality of moderation or self-restraint is important for many world religions. And Islam is no exception. We are in the midst of the month of Ramadan when millions of Muslims around the world fast from dawn till dusk. No food or no water for periods of 12-18 hours; in heat or cold the aim is to persevere. Yet this would be a simplistic way to look at Ramadan. Muslims are also encouraged to be respectful and kind to others, to avoid idle chatter, to devote themselves to God and to live a better life during these 30 days.

Prayer, too, is an important aspect of this Holy month. In addition to the five daily prayers, many Muslims attend the masjid (mosque) to pray “Taraweh,” which can last for more than 2 hours, the majority of it conducted standing up. And a few of the faithful also perform additional prayers in the early hours of the morning – another two hours of discipline and devotion. In short, Ramadan requires a complete shifting of priorities. It could mean coming home early from work to break the fast, postponing holidays and trips (because it’s no fun traveling when you can’t eat food during daylight), refraining from watching movies (because most movies are full of “meaningless worldly distractions”), and rescheduling parties and events for another time. It is a month devoted to other than “me” – to God alone.

This all may seem a tad bit excessive, considering it’s mandatory for all adults. There are a few exemptions though: those who are sick, pregnant, breastfeeding, elderly, young, and those traveling are traditionally excused from fasting. I remember when I first began to fast, starting from half day fasts, it was a badge of honour. Nowadays, when I mention Ramadan to my non-Muslim friends, there is usually a gasp and a remark, “I could never do that, I would die of thirst and hunger.” Yet from personal experience, I know they are wrong: they can do it.

The first few days can be hard; there’s the feeling of nausea, sudden bursts of hunger pangs, the headaches, the caffeine withdrawal, but because your brain has been thoroughly reset (it knows it cannot eat or drink), your body appears to adjust, to find a way for you to endure. And then the remaining 25 days or so are not too bad at all. I personally find this revelatory. It tells me something about the human psyche and its resilience. Now that I am no longer very religious, I am trying to rediscover this self-discipline of Ramadan in other ways, which has led me to explore other fruitful avenues such as positive psychology, stoicism, and meditation.

Sceptics might interject that this is all brainwashing of the masses. They may claim that religion is just a tool to control people; perhaps pointing to other areas where Islam demands obedience that seems problematic, or downright abhorrent, to secular and liberal values – women’s rights or blasphemy laws, for example. There may be some truth to this (the appraisal of which requires serious and open discussions, not safe spaces and curtailing of free speech), but it must be admitted that Islam’s promise of structure and self-disciplined and a reluctance to compromise to modern sensibilities is what draws many people to it.

It’s no surprise then that many converts to Islam in the West come from backgrounds where hedonism is king – parties, drugs, and a carefree life. And according to some estimates, women converts outnumber men converts. Why would a Westerner growing up in freedom and prosperity abandon it only to turn to a “medieval” mindset, “restricting” him or her for one twelfth of the year? Maybe because the answer is nuanced and says something about the human need for self-discipline and structure. There is much good that can be gained from religion, if one is to look in the right places. Islam, like all world religions has much to offer the modern world. Like all great traditions Islam has struggled to make sense of the human condition, to console our deepest existential anxieties. Ramadan, a month dedicated to fasting, prayer and self-reflection, is one way Islam has striven to do this.