Writing for Al-Jazeera, Professor Beydoun corrected a remark by a Los Angeles based imam who said “Ramadan is a new American tradition”. This statement he continued reveals “a pathology afflicting a lot of Muslim Americans today, an inability to look back and embrace the opening chapters of Muslim American history written by enslaved African Muslims”. Ramadan, he would emphatically declare is “a centuries-old American tradition”.
To say a similar pathology afflicts the British Muslim community would be to assume too much, but in her cursory history, Muslims in Britain, Professor Gilliat-Ray traces the first documented presence of Muslims on these Isles to the Sixteenth Century. They were primarily North Africans and Turks freed from galley slavery on Spanish ships, and though it’s beyond our historical powers to demonstrate decisively, it wouldn’t be wild to conjecture that on the same grounds, Ramadan might also be considered a “centuries-old British tradition”. A tradition which persists through the presence of a Muslim community of an entirely different composition.
I vividly remember the first year I fasted, it was 1998 and I was 6 years old. My cousins were fasting, and of course my aunts and uncles, and I wondered why I’d been excluded from this activity. In fact, I’d never heard of it before that day. My mother wouldn’t let me fast — typical I thought at the time — primarily because I had a regular breakfast that morning, but being the stubborn brat I was, I refused to eat for the rest for day and enjoyed iftaar with my family that evening. A ravenous appetite and amazing food, in the company of my whole family was the perfect recipe (pun intended) for the creation of a vibrant atmosphere.
I over indulged on my first day and couldn’t move after a few minutes, not yet learned in the arts of the restrained and refined approach to iftaar. But there are only a few experiences which come close to that moment when you place that first morsel of food on your lips.
Needless to say, but Ramadan is obviously not easy. We’re basically not allowed to do all the things we really like to do during the day. And because we use a date-keeping system which is based on lunar cycles, as opposed to the Gregorian solar calendar, Ramadan moves backwards about 10 days every year relative to the Gregorian calendar. This year it’s right in the middle of summer in the Northern Hemisphere, and the longest day of the year (June 21st), is the 26th of Ramadan. On average Muslims in Europe fast between 21 hours (Iceland) to 17 hours further south in the Turkey and the Balkans. This begs the obvious question, why? Why put yourself through all this? What do you benefit from it? Isn’t there a way around it?
Though a lot of fruitful speculation has followed from attempting to understand the wisdom behind fasting, from giving people a first-hand experience of the piercing pains of hunger, to improving gratitude, the health benefits, raising awareness of inequality and the need to redistribute wealth or enhancing self-discipline, it’s easy to forget when explaining to someone unfamiliar with Ramadan that these are all subsidiary reasons, and even if conditions were to radically change, we would still fast.
I’m reminded here of one of my favourite verses in the Quran: There is no compulsion in religion [2: 256]. Read inversely, “this is the life I chose”. Islam demands a great deal of personal discipline and motivation in non-Muslim societies where cultures haven’t developed in a way that readily accommodates our faith. Linda Sarsour details her experiences in a small sketch called “The Struggles Of A Ramadan Fast (In A Non-Muslim Office)”. She describes the experience as a “literal Hunger Games”, but this doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface.
We barely sleep, you often get indigestion, headaches and your body becomes weak. But as Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyyah says in his Trials and Tribulations, the “more love becomes firmly embedded in the heart, easier does it become for the lover to endure harm and adversity in the pursuit of pleasing his beloved”. Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali quotes a poet who says: “By love’s sanctity! I find none to replace You”.
People often forget that the restrictions placed on satisfying bodily needs are designed to increase God consciousness through a very intrusive disruption of our daily routines which gives us an opportunity to reconnect with the Divine. When we fast we typically become more conscious of our behavioural habits to protect our pure state. You reclaim agency through the fast as it upsets the banality of life by introducing a challenging new task — with the goal of increasing God consciousness through it.
Ubaydullah Evans’s summarizes it very well when he says “I would like to eat, I would like to quench my thirst, I would like to satiate my hunger, and then understand that you cannot, simply because God told you. This is the essence of discipline” he continues, “this is the essence of self-control, and this is of course the beginning of piety.”
God consciousness, Fazlur Rahman says is a “mental state of responsibility from which an agent’s actions proceed but which recognises that the criterion of judgement upon them lies outside…”. This amplified “reverential fear of God” can act as a powerful catalyst for a spiritual revolution and activate conscious history he continues, as faith re-establishes itself in our hearts sending down searching roots, and finding water in forgotten wells.
Last year British Muslims raised £100 million for charities in Ramadan, mosques were regularly full late into the night, many I’m certain completed a reading of the Quran numerous times and all this whilst working, training, taking care of our families and managing our other more mundane responsibilities. Ramadan is a divinely inspired amplification of the best parts of us, and for this tradition to extend as far into the future as it does into our history here, we would do well not to forget the words of Ebrahim Moosa who says, “tawhid is that inner torch that illuminates human character and mind, and provides it with a transcendental compass”, directing you to the rendezvous of those who have attained grace.
Originally published at projectvanguard.org.