‘There’s only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving, and that’s your own self,’ said Aldous Huxley, the English novelist best known for his dystopian novel, Brave New World.
In his exploration of the dilemmas confronting modern man – the rise of capitalism, the dehumanising demands of technology and progress and the cult of self-worship and instant gratification – Huxley hits on many truisms in his chilling forecasts to the modern world.
This month will see Muslims the world over observe the fasts of Ramadan. Ramadan, essentially, is the month in which believers are required to buckle down more consciously and improve their own ‘corner of the universe.’ The month is marked by heightened religious observance and also a keener sense of social cohesion, and provides a powerful energy for self-transformation. As the month progresses, many Muslims, repentant for the ills and misdeeds of their past, resolving never to return to such ways again. Indeed, men, women and whole societies actively purify themselves during this month. This experience becomes, for many, the turning point of the year and, for some, their whole lives. Furthermore, Ramadan yields to the believer an array of timely lessons to help steer them through what is fast becoming a chaotic and volatile world.
Let me touch upon three such lessons:
Undoubtedly, the principle lesson of Ramadan is learning to be more God-conscious, which is related to the sense of ta‘zim – “reverence” or “veneration”. Ramadan is a call to renew our reverence of God by venerating the Divine commands and respecting their limits (hudud). The regime of fasting sets certain limits which, though designed to facilitate our detachment from the dunya or lower world, and also from the nafs, the ego, it is ultimately about offering believers an opportunity to revere and remember God more fully and faithfully.
Another of Ramadan’s recurring lessons is that of restraint. By temporarily denying themselves instant gratification while fasting, Muslims are taught self-restraint. Here we confront Islam as counter-culture. For what could be more unmodern than to keep the cravings of the nafs in check. Modernity is about pandering to the nafs. “Free yourself”, “Be yourself”, “Indulge yourself”, is modernity’s holy trinity.
Our current climate is one where Muslims find themselves under constant scrutiny, criticism or attack. Hardly a day goes by, in the media or the world at large, without Islam being fair game. Yet for believers, the self-restraint exercised in Ramadan is the very same restraint we must demonstrate in the face of all such provocations. The Qur’an asserts: You shall certainly hear much that is hurtful from those who were given the Book before you, and from the idolaters. But if you are patient and God-conscious, these are weighty factors in all affairs.[3:186]
Ramadan also teaches us responsibility – particularly to the world’s poor and hungry. For by the end of a day’s fast, Muslims usually experience some sensation of hunger. Thus we are awakened, in a most direct manner, to the plight of hundreds of millions of our fellow human beings who suffer hunger and starvation every day. This should compel us to extend to them our help and support. In a world filled with grotesque human inequalities, and soaked in the unholiness of poverty, we must each commit ourselves to eliminating this global injustice.
Ramadan offers Three R’s: reverence, restraint and responsibility. Internalising such lessons best prepares believers to engage the brave new world of the Monoculture and help bring about its much needed healing.
‘God enjoins upon you the fast. Indeed, the likeness of that is as a man carrying a sack-full of musk in a crowd of people, all of them revelling in its fragrance. For the breath of someone fasting is more fragrant to God, exalted is He, than the smell of musk.’
The Prophet uses the imagery of a person carrying a sack-full of musk hidden from view, under his clothes, after the habit of those who carry musk. Likewise, fasting is hidden from the eyes of people and unperceived by their senses. The fasting person’s limbs fast (abstain) from sins; his tongue fasts from lies, foul speech and false witness; his stomach fasts from food and drink; and his genitals fast from sexual union. If he speaks, he says nothing to violate his fast; and if he acts, he does nothing to spoil his fast. All his speech is salutary and wholesome, as are his deeds – just like fragrance one smells while sitting next to the bearer of musk. Anyone who sits with a fasting person benefits from his presence and is safe from false witness, lies, foul language and wrongdoing. This is the fast prescribed by the Sacred Law; it is not simply abstinence from eating or drinking.
Hence, one sound hadith has it: ‘Whoever does not refrain from speaking and acting falsely, or acting ignorantly, God does not need him to refrain from food and drink.’ In another hadith: ‘Perhaps a fasting person gains nothing from his fast except hunger and thirst.’
True fasting, then, is when the limbs abstain from sin and the stomach from food and drink. As food and drink can break the fast or spoil it, so sins can cut off its rewards and spoil its fruits; as if one had not fasted at all.