The Joy and Loss of Ramadan
Daniel Alan Bey
The first day of Ramadan is now over, the first in a long month which, ashamedly, I used to know very little about. This is not exactly a fault of my own. You see, I was born in England, and despite what a few of the more questionable tabloids over in the UK might argue, England is not and will probably never be a Muslim country. In fact, the vast majority of people in the UK are not only non-Muslim. Whether they define themselves as Christians or not, most people are actually disinterested in religion.
Take my family as a good example. I was too young to remember my Christening, but beyond the ceremony, which might have lasted an hour or so, it meant nothing. It was simply a hollow tradition; an event, a procedure which had been passed down from one generation to the next. This is the same with Good Friday, Easter Sunday and Christmas day; where christened and non-christened folks alike spend their time faithfully drinking spirits as opposed to spiritually embracing their faith (or lack thereof). And that’s exactly how my family have celebrated such events ever since I was born.
Of course, this is no fault of my family. My family are simply a product of their society. In times long past, Christmas and the likes probably contained some spiritual significance for the average English family. However, through the destructive forces of time, which have given rise to social and philosophical revolutions as well as war (two
of which stand out in particular), these events have now lost their meaning.
The spiritual emptiness of these events is also reflected in the state education system of my own country. Like the rest of my generation, Religious Education (RE) was taught to me as a kind of back-water subject which had little or no relevance to my future as well as my everyday life. I remember my classes well: they consisted of my teacher showing us “East Is East,” a British film about a Muslim family from Pakistan growing up in Salford – which is, incidentally, my hometown. It is not a bad film; actually, it is quite good entertainment. In my RE classes, however, we watched it each and every week for an entire academic year.
And that was it, my introduction to and the extent of my learning in regards to Islam. The rest of my “education” came from the mass-media and popular consciousness, which, as you can imagine, were not exactly helpful. It was only when I went to university that I had the opportunity to expand my intellectual horizons beyond the completely nonsensical. And it is only since coming to live and work in Indonesia that I have had the opportunity to put this knowledge into practice and, in many ways, to critique this knowledge from my own very real everyday experience.
So I decided to join in on the fast of Ramadan on Saturday. The first day was difficult, and the days that follow will probably be even more difficult, but I am sure it will be worth it. Although I am not a Muslim, I have a tremendous amount of respect for the faith – a respect which has developed and grown stronger since coming to live here in Indonesia. My decision to fast is therefore an attempt to better understand the condition of being a Muslim, and so in the process, Islam itself. Yet outside of my own anthropological and theological interest in the faith, I also believe fasting will offer a very practical means to both improve and better understand myself.
I recently finished a book called “Islam in The Modern World” by Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Born in Tehran, Nasr was raised in the United States since the age of 12. Today, he is the author of over fifty books and a professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University. In the book, Nasr devotes a chapter to jihad, which has helped me better understand the philosophical reasoning behind fasting. Jihad is probably one of Islam’s most misunderstood concepts and Nasr points out that jihad is usually translated incorrectly into European languages as “holy war.” This, argues Nasr, has distorted the spiritual and ethical significance of jihad. The term is actually derived from the root “jhd,” which means “to strive” or “to exert oneself.”
According to Nasr, jihad is, in fact, applicable to every aspect of human life. If Islam is a religion which seeks to establish balance and equilibrium within human beings, then to remain balanced and in equilibrium requires performing jihad at every stage of life. The loss of equilibrium, argues Nasr, is an ever-present danger which can have a devastating impact on the individual and lead to the disintegration of communal life and so society as a whole.
The fast of Ramadan is therefore a time of performing jihad, where one must exert oneself in order to combat human desire. For a Westerner such as myself, this means resisting the temptation to drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes as well as the more traditional modes of fasting, which include abstaining from food and water during daylight hours. This obviously requires a great deal of strength and inner-discipline, two qualities which I hope the experience can help me strengthen. Ramadan can also be a time of contemplation, especially considering it is a new experience for me. Through hunger and thirst, hopefully I can learn to appreciate the basic amenities I already have, which are often taken for granted both by myself and others.
And finally, for myself, Ramadan will no doubt be a time of loss: an awareness of togetherness, unity, spirituality, faith, and community, all of which are so deeply lacking in my own society and beyond.