As Ramadan begins, Mehr Panjwani considers what values it can teach us in this period of ‘social fasting’. 23/04/2020
The holy month of Ramadan starts this week – and as the UK prepares for 3 more weeks in lockdown, it is becoming increasingly apparent that British Muslim communities will be spending it very differently this year. With the Muslim Council of Britain calling for the suspension of all congregational activities, a busy time of community – the standard nights packed in the mosque eating iftar meals on the floor – will be replaced with eating at home, restricted to seeing your household members only. For Sunni Muslims, annual tarawih prayers will be disrupted as many mosques are advising people to carry out their own prayers at home. Although those suffering from illness (physical or mental) are exempted from fasting, they will definitely be on everyone’s mind this Ramadan.
Ramadan is not just about food: while it is commonly known that Muslims are obligated to abstain from eating and drinking from sunrise to sunset, it is a lesser known fact that Muslims are also required to fast from sexual acts and certain social acts like getting angry and gossiping during these hours. This practice helps Muslims to get closer to God, and is intended not only to create solidarity with the oppressed and hungry across the world, but also to teach believers self–control, discipline and delayed gratification.
Fasting is not unique to the Islamic faith and is found in almost every religious tradition. But today, we tend to see the religious values associated with fasting – self–discipline, abstention and self–control – as outdated, and as a suppression of healthy desires. There is some merit to this, as religious teachings have, in some cultures and time periods, created shame around healthy human desires. Nevertheless, this does not mean we should completely disregard those original values altogether. On the contrary, fasting as a spiritual practice is just one example of a common principle in moral philosophy: that is, curtailing short–term individual pleasures for a higher cause, as is seen with many religious practices of self–discipline.
This year, COVID–19 has forced us all into a strange form of ‘social fasting’: fasting from our constant itching for connectivity, our urges to go outside, even our cravings to visit various food outlets (as many on social media yearn for the return of McDonald’s) all for the pursuit of a greater cause. If there is one thing that failures of social distancing have taught us – with countless news stories of people going to the beach or having picnics in the park – it’s that many people really struggle with self–discipline and abstaining from their own desires for a higher purpose, even when thousands of lives are at stake. Yet we’ve also seen (literally) millions embracing measures that require a complete re–ordering of life in order to protect their loved ones and communities. In this sense, we are discovering as a society what many spiritual practices have been teaching for centuries.
Of course, we mustn’t glorify this period of isolation: in the same way that fasting is mentally, emotionally and physically taxing, the impacts of social distancing on mental health and on the vulnerable are not something that should be taken lightly and will undoubtedly be profound. Furthermore, while Muslims can break their fast around 8pm, we still do not know when these social distancing measures will officially end. However, in an age where instant gratification, consumption and rebellion are glorified, and values like self–discipline, abstinence and submission are viewed negatively, current events may show us times where these concepts are extremely valuable.
Ultimately, there is nothing wrong with desire, especially desire for social interaction. Desire is healthy, normal and can even push people to achieve and think outside–the–box. But in times like these, religious traditions like Ramadan, observed by 25% of the world’s population, remind us that self–control and discipline are also very possible. Perhaps we too readily write off religious practices that demand a lot of us, often assuming that they are shame–based rather than driven by the love of another – whether God or a person. A certain amount of discipline can sometimes be helpful. And in the same way Ramadan is only a temporary period of fasting, it may give us all hope to remember that this current period of ‘social fasting’ is ultimately only temporary too.
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