Muslims performing Tarawih prayers on the eve of Ramadan at Masjid Wilayah, Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday evening.
RAMADAN commemorates the time of year during which the man who would be the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad bin Abdullah, peace be upon him, took his annual retreat into the hills behind Mecca to fast and meditate in a spiritual cleansing.
About three weeks into that seclusion in the year 610, Muhammad underwent the shattering experience that marked the commencement of the Revelation of the Holy Quran — the affirmation and seal of the great message of Abraham (Q3:95).
Ever since, Ramadan has been observed by Muslims as a month of dawn-to-dusk fasting, prayer and spiritual observance (Q2:184-185). The classical Arabic word for this abstinence is siyam or sawm. It refers to a condition of stillness, expressing an ideal tranquility of mind, heart and soul.
A mundane interpretation of the Fast says it is meant to remind Muslims of what it feels like to be poor and hungry. To some extent this is valid (though millions of Muslims would need no such reminder), but the Fast is much deeper. It seeks to cleanse the physical body by asserting the discipline of the will. As such, fasting is an exercise in transcendence.
Yet, Ramadan is not meant to be a sequestered, joyless time. The duties of life are not to be forgone; work continues by day, if at a gentler pace to allow for leaner fuel. By night, families are meant to commune at the Breaking of Fast, and married couples are encouraged to intimacy (Q2:187) — many Muslim cultures consider children conceived during the month of Ramadan to be doubly blessed.
Most of all, Ramadan is a time for the suspension of hostilities. The Quran is too knowing of human nature blithely to call for peace and goodwill, but for this one month, there was to be no warring. Instead, antagonists were to reflect on themselves in contemplation of who they are, what they are intended to do, how they are to do it, and above all, why (Q4:94).
Ramadan is a time of contemplation towards clarity; of the analysis of motives and deeds.
The 22nd or 23rd night of the month is known as Laylat Al-Qadr, the “Night of Power” marking what is believed to be the actual anniversary of the Revelation; of the conjoining of Heaven and Earth for the salvation of Man. At this time, those who have most diligently observed the Fast engage in night-long vigils of prayer and meditation, with their physical constitutions cleansed and their consciences clear and open to insight and epiphany.
A week or so later, with the sighting of the new moon, Ramadan ends in the most important festival of the Muslim year — a day or two spent in soulful memory of the departed, communal prayers, charitable acts and festive family gatherings.
Ramadan is, therefore, a crucial annual check in the cycle of life. Observed as it should be, each year includes a month in which humanity pauses for a stock-taking and “spring-cleaning” of the individual soul, and of the societies formed of them. In this noblest of months, there is no place for negative thoughts — except insofar as they can be seen for what they are, and pondered upon for realisation, repentance, and forgiveness.
For all these reasons, the simple sacrifice of food and drink never seems to be so great as to merit much fuss. Think of it as having an earlier breakfast and skipping lunch, no big deal.
But, as Bob Marley observed, “a hungry man is an angry man”. A definite crabbiness does come with an empty belly — which is all the more reason to welcome the discipline of fasting as a reminder to not be such a grump about it. (Besides, Marley was referring to hunger caused by repression, corruption and bigotry, not a passing peckishness.)
In sum, though, the fundamental ethos of Ramadan is one of retreat. Some take this literally, opting to take their annual leave off work to ease back on the throttle and glide a loftier trajectory; perhaps even spending the month in the Holy Land at this very special time of year.
For most, the “retreat” has to be more internal than actual; furling the sails to rest on calmer, more reflective waters.
In search of those calmer waters, there are certain places that are best avoided during the fasting month. Pre-eminent among them are the “food courts” of shopping malls and the buka puasa buffets of hotels.
The final hour of the fasting day is perforce the longest and hardest, hypoglycaemia being what it is. Remaining calm, therefore, may be hardest of all when witnessing what happens in that hour in such places during Ramadan.
They fill to overflowing with Muslims sitting at tables with their dinners piled high before them congealing on their plates, ice melting in their tumblers, tea cooling in their cups, waiting in dry-mouthed and glazed-eyed anticipation for the call of the Azan, not to pray but to eat.
What’s worse, this never happens at any other time of year, when the call to prayer means exactly that.
True, it is proper to break one’s fast at the appointed time, but this was supposed to be done with a piece of bread or fruit and a drink of water prior to prayer, with a leisurely and hopefully convivial dinner to follow. This is a perfectly sound dietary regimen while fasting; gently restoring fodder to depleted alimentary systems.
Suddenly shoving a kilo of dates, rice, curry, satay, meat, vegetables, lobster thermidor and air bandung down a parched throat into an empty stomach, however, can play havoc with the system. Blood drains from the head to the gut to deal with the sudden engorgement, blood-sugar levels skyrocket, and the brain is left stuporous.
That the blessed hour of Maghrib throughout the holy month of Ramadan in this country is now associated with such public spectacles of preposterous gluttony — for an obsession with food to be the hallmark of the fasting month — is a riddle to be contemplated with detachment (Q42:37).
To all Muslims everywhere: Peace and Coolness be upon Thee. Enjoy the month. Selamat Berbuka Puasa. (Q5:93.)