Ah. The holy month of Ramadan is upon us, so Ramadan Kareem to you all! For anyone who doesn't know what that is, it is the month in which many Muslims around the world will fast everyday from sunrise to sunset, abstaining from food, drink, smoking and sex.
The onset of Ramadan every year always manages to raise a controversy around the Muslim world in the debate over which day it will actually start on. The Islamic calendar is based on lunar months, so the start of Ramadan is identified by the sighting of the new moon. The debate is usually between the modernists and the traditionalists, where the former want to use tools of astronomy to determine when the new month has started, and the latter insist on going by sight alone. You can read the GDN's report about this debate taking place in Bahrain here. On this one I think I have to side with the scientists. The traditionalists were trying to sight the new moon yesterday (October 13th), but the scientists were trying to tell them that the new moon will not be born until tonight, the 14th, and that if it was sighted on the 13th that would have actually been the last moon of the month... not the new moon of Ramadan (confusing isn't it?). Moreover, the astronomers tell us that the new moon will not become visible in Bahrain until tomorrow evening (the 15th)... so the first day of fasting should actually be on Saturday (see moonsighting.com for details). But the traditionalists said they're having none of it, and have announced the first day of fasting for Friday. Although it isn't really worth it to waste precious time arguing over which day Ramadan should start, I do think this debate captures the juncture at which the Muslim world stands. When figures of traditional Islamic religious authority refuse to address the role of modern science, it illustrates well why Islam is perceived to outsiders as being out of touch with reality. (Of course, the same can be argued of modern science, but I'll save that debate for another day).
Another fun story that always comes up this time of the (Islamic) year in Bahrain is about government employees demanding shorter working hours during Ramadan because they are fasting. The front page of yesterday's GDN had a headline: MPs want a five-hour Ramadan working day (cut down from the current six hours). Adel al Maawada, president of Al Asala who submitted the proposal, had this to say about work efficiency concerns:
Shaikh Al Maawada said that the change wouldn't affect employees' output, since it would be temporary.
"The work pace decreases by itself in Ramadan and I think that five hours is reasonable," he said.
While everyone else in the country is talking about poverty and under-efficiency, I'm just not sure how something like this can seriously be proposed. And to me, this represents all that is wrong with our understanding of Ramadan today. We are so obsessed with carrying out the ritual observances that we overlook the deeper meaning of it all. I would like to believe that someday Muslims will think of Ramadan as a time where we should be working even harder during office hours so as to further help the growth our societies. I'd like to someday see the government take back the laws that reduce working hours during Ramadan, and the ban on eating in public.
Ramadan really is a beautiful month though. It is a time where we stop and take a look at ourselves to study who we really are are. During the rest of the year we are driven by our lusts, our carnal desires, our moods, and Ego... but for one month in the year we make an effort to reclaim control of our Self. As I see it, the fasting of Ramadan can be split into three levels. (1) Physical fasting is the absolute bare minimum necessary to be able to say that you have fasted. Although it is difficult to refrain from eating for several hours, it's certainly do-able for most people.
(2) The next level up is to control your words and actions. This entails refraining from insults, backbiting and the sort. If someone at work says something mean then you will try to hold back from replying with something equally mean. If while driving to work someone else cuts in line by driving on the pavement, then you will refrain from honking your horn or giving him/her the finger. In essence it means controlling the way you display some of your emotions. This is considerably more difficult, but still something that you should be able to manage on most days, for at least the daylight hours hopefully.
(3) The real and complete fast (in my opinion) is if you can (in addition to the previous two levels) manage to control the way you feel in reaction to things that happen to you. If someone at work says something mean, then not only will refrain saying something mean back, but your heart will not desire to say something mean. In the same way, you will not hold any ill feelings towards the asshole driver that just cut in line from the pavement. At this stage your mind is so overwhelmed with love for the Divine that you are unconcerned with the petty things that happen in your everyday life. Rather than harbour ill will towards those meanies, your heart will want to do whatever it can to help those people, simply because they are the creation of the Divine. This final stage is really quite difficult to achieve (for me at least). It seems almost absurd to try and control your thoughts and emotions. If any of you have ever tried some form of meditation, you'll know how difficult it is to bring your mind to rest and concentrate on just one thing. But this is even more difficult than isolated meditation because you can't spend the whole month sitting alone, away from the rest of the world. You have to go about your daily business and interact with other people, all the while maintaining this extremely composed state of mind. Maybe this ideal is impossible to achieve for most of us, but I think it is possible to take steps towards it.
Oops, sorry, this is a long post... time to stop rambling and step off my minbar methinks. I'm sure I'll have lots more things to say about Ramadan over the next 30 days or so. But let me take this opportunity to invite the non-Muslim readers to try fasting for a day (or more if you're up to it!). It is a very rewarding experience, so take a shot and let us know how it goes. Ramadan kareem to you all again!