By Peter Muijres – Culture Class
Getting sloppy with your daily prayers? Do sexy bikini girls make you sigh and your eyes wander off? Do feelings of greed, envy, anger or other sinful thoughts clutter your mind? The month of Ramadan offers Muslims a tailored opportunity to get their spiritual, moral, social and psychological ducks in a row again. However, many people who are not Islamic only have a faint idea what it involves and why Muslims do it.
Muslims fast during the month of Ramadan, because they have to and/or choose or want to. Opting out of fasting without having a good reason means inviting severe critique and social rejection and is therefor hardly an option. At the other hand, Muslims are self-motivated to fast. Fasting is a religious obligation because one of the five pillars in Islam (#4) commands that all adult Muslims have to fast during the month of Ramadan. The other four pillars are: #1: Accept God as the only god and Muhammad as his messenger (Shahadah). #2) Pray at least five times a day (Tarawih). #3) Spend 2,5 % or more of your savings to the poor and needy (Zakat). #5) Make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in your life (Hajj).
Ramadan is the 9th month of the Arabic calendar during which the fasting takes place between sunrise (suhoor) and sunset (iftar). The Ramadan month is holy, because the first revelation of the Qur’an was sent down by God to Muhammed during Ramadan. During the holy month, the ‘thawab‘ for being good or bad are multiplied. ‘Thawab’, entails a sort of religious credits associated with being virtuous as a Muslim. The sight of the crescent moon marks the start of the Ramadan and the break-of-fasting party (Eid-al-fitr) 30 days later marks the end. This year, in 2014, Ramadan starts today on the 28th of June and ends on the 27th of July.
Muslims who are exempted from fasting include children, and adults who are travelling, menstruating, breast-feeding, busy with a Jihad (holy war), ill or pregnant. Who is fasting and who is not has always been an inspiring source of conversation. Modern days have complicated the cut-off line, because it is harder to determine who is travelling, for example. Are first generation Muslims who are temporarily living abroad travelling? Also, are people with mental disorders ill and thus exempted, so they can continue taking their prescribed medication? Even if they are, the ‘spiritual medicine’ and healing effect that the sense of ‘social belonging’ has to offer, motivates many to participate nevertheless. When circumstances force a person to miss one or more days of fasting, these can usually be compensated with fasting extra days after the Ramadan month.
Fasting is associated with religious, cultural, social and psychological benefits:
– Religious benefits: Ramadan offers a great window of opportunity to please God, repent your sins and save your soul because the thawab are multiplied during the holy month. It is a time of reflecting on your belief and reconnect with God, repent your sins. The five prayers a day and recitation of the Qur’an help you remind how you ought to behave.
– Benefits for cultural identity: During Ramadan, all Muslims are doing and focusing on the same thing. That has a strong bonding effect within the ‘umma’, the transnational Muslim community, and strengthens to the cultural identity of Muslims.
– Social benefits: During Ramadan, Muslims try to be nice to each other, not to get upset and avoid feelings like envy, greed, lust, anger and such. They try to keep their coolness and avoid swearing and fighting. This creates a great opportunity to restore social ties, get in touch with people you haven’t seen for a while, settle old conflicts or make new arrangements. Family and friends visit each other after sunset and organise buffet style dinner parties with delicious traditional dishes and drinks in abundance. The charity resulting from observance of the third pillar helps out the poor and needy.
– Psychological benefits: To fast for 30 days during the daytime requires an effort and shows that you are capable of self-restraint and self-discipline. Abstinence, poetically worded ‘dying before you die’ (Rumi), will help you:
(a) regain appreciation for the luxuries you have,
(b) free yourself from the value and dependency you may have attached to wordly goods, and
(c) prepare you to sacrifice yourself and your possesions for a higher goal when necessary.
So, although fasting is in effect a religious and social obligation, in many Islamic countries enforced by rules and laws and an facilitated by an adaptation of daily life, many Muslims consider it a choice to fast. Pickthall illustrates that element of choice in a speech in 1920. He points out that God does not require people to fast, because God does not want or need anything from us creatures. Instead, Muslims themselves decide to fast because in the end the self-disciplinary effort of pleasing God and all social side effects include are to their own benefit. The fasting before and the feasting after sunset brings Muslims closer together and to God, and works as a source of self-respect, social restoration and the acknowledgement of others.
Culture Class is a group of trainers, therapists and performers who train and coach people to realise their potential beyond personal and cultural limits. http://www.cultureclass.org