Ramzan: Moving Beyond Rituals

The blessed month of Ramzan is here. A month where, following Allah’s command, more than a billion Muslims worldwide shun food and water from dawn to dusk. As per the Muslim tradition, the devil is chained during this month. In a way, that makes it easier for the faithful to conduct their affairs. Most Muslims undertake additional  prayers, more recitation of Quran and, of course, abstinence (from dawn to dusk) during this month. But what does Ramzan mean beyond the rituals?

There are periods of fasting among the believers of other faiths as well. But Ramzan, by far, is the most widespread month of fasting. More than a billion Muslims, in different geographies, in different time zones and separated by distance, remain spiritually connected through this bond of fasting. Muslims are in a way connected to the whole of humanity as well, to the people of other faiths, the Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus etc, who undertake fasting in their own way and in their own prescribed form and time. So in a way, the month of Ramzan is a reminder of the connectedness of humanity, not about its separation. That is a deeper, but a more subtle and intense meaning of the month of Ramzan.

The theological background and rituals of fasting are spoken about, almost every day, during this month, in the local mosque. Most Muslims, from a very young age, start inculcating the habit of fasting and gradually, over a period of time, they begin to fast the entire month. So in a way, it is a process that leads to a particular state of mind. It makes one to deny oneself what is otherwise permissible, during the rest of the year. It is about living one’s life as per the limits set out by God.

Beyond the external rituals, fasting means a lot. It is about spirituality, kindness, mercy, justice, self-control, steadfastness, abstinence and giving to others. We hear and talk so much about the external rituals and the form of fasting than its inner, reflective and more important teachings and meanings, which are often neglected. Ramzan shouldn’t merely serve as a manual of rules and external rituals, but as a complete framework of spiritual, ethical, moral and intellectual guidance. It should serve as a mirror to our moral and ethical uplift. It should stop our moral decadence. The conformity to the external rituals, though important in its own way, to give it the shape, should not in itself serve as the end. Rather than becoming a ritualistic and mechanical deed, it should act as a transformational agent in an individual’s life. 

Ramzan provides an individual believer a platform and gives him/her a month-long opportunity for personal and spiritual growth .It is the individual’s quest for the Divine. One thing that differentiates fasting from other acts of Muslim worship like Namaz and Hajj is that it is a very private act of worship. In his book, ’Even Angels Ask’, the American convert to Islam and writer, Jeffrey Lang says, "Of the five pillars of Islam, the fast of Ramadan is perhaps the most personal expression of self-surrender to God. We can observe a Muslim performing the other four pillars, but, in addition to himself, only God knows if he is staying with the fast." Thus, it becomes a supreme act of accountability.

As per the Muslim tradition, the first ten days of Ramzan are about mercy. The next ten, the middle, is about forgiveness. While we beseech the Lord, to be merciful to us and show us His forgiveness, we in turn need to work on these qualities ourselves, within our own human limitations. ‘’…..Let them forgive and overlook, do you not wish that Allah should forgive you? For Allah is oft-forgiving, most merciful.’’—Quran 24:22

Forgiveness is such a noble virtue. It calls for breaking walls and building bridges. It provides a higher spiritual meaning to an individual’s life. It is a quality which one cannot pluck from thin air. It is a state of mind and more important than that, it calls for a rigorous process of inner cleansing of heart from holding grudges. Above all, many a time, it calls for an extreme battle against one’s ego, that old enemy of human beings.

We need to use the institution of Ramzan to build in us the quality of kindness. Kindness in dealing with the weak, our subordinates, our domestic help. Of showing empathy. Of putting oneself in someone else’s shoes. So when we break our fast, satiate our thirst and hunger, the first drops of water and the first morsels of food should remind us of the hungry, the sick and the suffering. The hunger and thirst we experience during the fast should connect us with millions of other human beings, who suffer from hunger and thirst for want of food and water. When the pangs of hunger grow, the one who is fasting can take comfort from the fact that it is temporary. We know it will last only till a particular time. We can even choose what we eat, when we break our fast. But not all are that lucky. What about the millions of people, who, in a way, fast the whole year, for want of food and water and that too without expectation of any reward from their Lord? So this month of Ramzan should also go a long way to build that bond of humanity with all the hungry of the world, irrespective of their religion, colour or race. It calls for an extremely human and egalitarian approach in dealing with the issues of human suffering. We need to tap into our inner reserves of kindness, love and humanity, which lie dormant in most of us. What better way to serve God than to serve His creation. Believe me, this opening up to humanity, will serve to close the gap with people of other faiths that Muslims unfortunately and increasingly find themselves jostling with. At least, it will be far better than the mindless acts of debates and discussions that many Muslims indulge in, with people of other faiths. Nothing could be better than practicing good virtues.

Ramzan, among many other things should also encourage in us a sense of detachment. It should help us in removing our dependence on material things. We are increasingly embracing a material and consumer driven lifestyle where the focus remains on the material well being of the self, without much concern about others. Ramzan teaches us not to consume, even while having it. The self-denial from dawn to dusk is a clear reminder of that. That in other words, should lead one to giving. Our ability to deny ourself material things, even when we can afford them, will lead us into the realm of giving to the others.

‘’By no means shall you attain to righteousness until you spend (benevolently) out of what you love; and whatever thing you spend, Allah surely knows it’’.—Quran 3:92

Brazen consumerism that we see around us makes us insensitive to the suffering of others. So while you throw lavish Iftaar parties for your family and friends, also spare a thought for the poor and hungry who cannot afford the basic necessities of life. While you buy new set of clothes for your kids and wife, do not forget your poor cousin or the domestic help who keeps your house in order. Teach your kids the meaning of charity and kindness from an early age. Teach them to respect your domestic workers and helpers. That will keep their ego in check and make better human beings out of them. Charity is not merely an act of giving money or other material goods. It also involves feeling the pain of others, actively looking out for the needy and also spending time to make it more effective. Most of us treat charities merely as doles given out to poor. The need of the hour is about targeting charities, so that it helps the needy people, become self sufficient, over a period of time.

The whole month of Ramzan, the Muslim believers spend in individual acts of worship. So what kind of dua (prayer) should one make? It is fine to make dua for one’s own wellbeing and asking God to show His favors to us. It is also good to make dua for the whole community of Muslims (Ummah). But it is equally important that humans in general, irrespective of their religion, colour, race or nationality should become a part of a Muslim’s dua. It should not become a ghettoized kind of worship. The veil of prejudice or animosity shouldn’t stop Muslims from making dua for people of other faiths. Muslims should pray for alleviation of every human being’s suffering. After all, poverty and suffering are very secular. They don’t see one’s religion or any other affiliation when they strike.

So here is, hoping that the radiance of this holy and blessed month rubs off on all of mankind - Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Jews, Sikhs. And the atheists, as well.

Tariq Jameel, a Kashmiri based in Bangalore, is an investment professional with interest in history, politics and sports.

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