Many people won’t be able to join us this Ramadan having lost their battles with the dreaded COVID-19 virus. Azrael hovers low lately, busily returning the souls of men, women and children, many of whom would never have anticipated that this is how they’d meet their end. The living however, who have been granted the opportunity to see one more Ramadan should then be more aware, I hope, as statistics of rising deaths continue to pour in, of how fortunate we truly are.
But Ramadan this year, as Abdal Hakim Murad astutely points out in his Perspective on the Pandemic coincides with a kind of global fast. “The world is fasting in a certain way” he says, “this is an imsaq of capitalism, whose Belshazzar’s feast has abruptly been broken up.” “The consumer carnival, the Mardi Gras of our product addicted age is over” he continues firmly. “This feels like a kind of morning-after, a hangover. We used to reach happily for the goods in the shop, before our entranced and childish eyes. Now we hesitate, and touch gingerly, reluctantly, like touching the skin of a corpse.”
We have also been confined to our homes, only allowed to exit for necessities and following quick and decisive government decrees, our taverns, coffee houses, cinema’s and theaters have been closed down. This virus, hijacking our political & social systems, has taken control of our lives. It is as if Mother Nature herself, frustrated with humanities corruption of the earth has released this plague to imprison us in our homes in a last-ditch effort to save the world. As drone footage of our cities capture almost apocalyptically empty scenes, dolphins begin to return the Bosporus, frolicking in the tranquil evening sun, as the thick smog which blanketed many of our cities dissipates.
The owner of my local coffee shop, whose store would brim with young staff members and a vibrant atmosphere stands at his door anxiously looking on to see if any customers will stop by to take a coffee away as he works alone. As prospective customers remain at home and excess consumption decreases, the flow of cash dries up, and nature returns slowly to her splendor and beauty. Whilst these measures have forced us to return to the basics, with an almost rural sort of simplicity, they have come with a cost.
Gita Gopinath, Director of the Research Department at the IMF writes that if this “Great Lockdown” continues for a few more months we could be facing “worst recession since the Great Depression, and far worse than the Global Financial Crisis.” No country has been spared she points out, and those “reliant on tourism, travel, hospitality and entertainment for their growth are experiencing particularly large disruptions.”
The language here might be stale, full of jargon and technocratic, but it does imply a real human cost. Ben Rickert played by Brad Pitt in the movie The Big Short said “every one percent unemployment goes up, 40,000 people die”, as he scolded a pair of young men who bet against the American economy. Some scholars disagree with this view, however Professor Harvey Brenner who tested the hypothesis found “the net effect of increased unemployment is a substantial increase in mortality.”
Not only are people likely to die then because of COVID-19 but the measures taken to manage the outbreak will cause added fatalities and immense suffering for those who fall between the gaps in government safety nets. A perfect storm I might add, as we continue to [fail to] cope with existing challenges. All of this is exacerbated by the fact that “weary shoppers are not interested in nice things, but survival. Old habits of absent minded browsing seem absurd” Abdal Hakim Murad says.
Not only is absent minded browsing seeming absurd, but even the social conventions and acts of communal worship which in many ways were at the heart of Ramadan are now looked back on with the nostalgia of a happier time. Indeed, many Muslims look on with bewilderment at Pakistan and Afghanistan (among other places) where Taraweh continues. “Muslims have always held it [Ramadan] as a manifestation of the community’s spirit” writes Alija Izetbegovic in Islam Between East and West, “and this is why they react so strongly to public violations of this duty.”
But for many of us lockdown has become the new reality we have to contend with and whilst there is certainly a lot to be lamented, this does provide us one unique opportunity. “The Islamic Fast…” Izetbegovic continues, “is the most natural and most radical educational measure that has ever been put into practice.” And if we think about Ramadan as a class, the one benefit we have this year, likely to be unique in our lifetimes and those of our parents, is that we are totally free of distractions — socially, in terms of entertainment and of any other kind.
This didn’t occur to me so suddenly I must confess, and came to me after a long conversation with my brother about how interesting things will be with the lockdown in place. But he said this is actually opens a path to more seriously explore yourself, increase acts of worship and deepen our connection with the Divine as almost all obstacles fade away. His thoughts reminded me of an interesting reflection Muhammad Iqbal gave on the beginning of the Islamic declaration of faith (Shahāda):
There is No Deity, But Allah
Lā ʾIlāha ʾIllā Allah
He separates the Shahāda into a negation (No Deity —Lā ʾIlāha), and then a subsequent affirmation (But Allah — Illā Allah), explaining in one of his poems that the negation “is the first station of the man of God.” In Asrari-i-Khudi he says he “who dwells in the world of negation is free from the bonds of wife and child, He withdraws his gaze from all except God.” “To say No in front of everything besides God is life,” he writes elsewhere, “From this strife creation is made fresh.”
Illucidating his ideas in Gabriel’s Wing, Annemarie Schimmel explains Iqbal’s belief that one of the great faults of “men of the present age is that they no longer use this dagger of No (La) which would enable them to resist the temptations of modern civilization, with its numerous idols.”
If we think of our lifestyles, not necessarily as idols, but at the very least tempting distractions, then the COVID19 outbreak, as we all sit at home, has made it easier to withdraw our gaze “from all except God.” We no longer need to battle ourselves to make time for reflection, prayer and other activities to cultivate our souls and spirits, because we live in an almost coerced and constant state of No Deities — Lā ʾIlāha. The closures outside, have illuminated the path for openings within. The question is of how much focus and energy we can bring to our affirmation, But Allah this Ramadan, and hopefully, as Abdal Hakim Murad puts it so articulately, allow our “spiritual circuits to be reactivated.”