The universality of fasting
Writer: Sharyn Shufiyan
Published: Fri, 03 Aug 2012
It’s that time of the year again when Muslims test their patience, refrain from worldly desires, and increase their piety.
The ninth month, Ramadan, is the holy month for Muslims and rewards for good deeds and piety are multiplied.
Muslims fill their nights with Tarawih prayers and recite the Quran after breaking fast. They are encouraged to do charity and pay zakat (alms).
Sceptically speaking, for Muslims who have been “bad” throughout the year, Ramadan is a great time to catch up by scoring bonus points.
Hence, if you’re slightly alarmed that your normally outgoing Muslim friends are suddenly super pious, don’t fret; chances are they will revert back to normal once the moon wanes.
It’s safe to say that Ramadan bazaars are everyone’s favourite, both for Muslims and non-Muslims.
Urban neighbourhoods are littered with these bazaars. On the first day of fasting, I was at a bazaar in Taman Tun Dr. Ismail queuing up for some putu piring, when a passer-by remarked, “Eh, Bangla yang buat! (Eh, a Bangla is making it!)”.
I almost took offence to such crudeness. After all, putu piring probably originated from that part of the world in the first place. But I guess that’s just it; no one “owns” anything and these bazaars are not just for and by Malay Muslims.
At these bazaars, we are spoilt for choices and because it is advised to be patient and to refrain from cursing during Ramadan, most people would not mind the long queues and packed streets.
The environment is quite festive as people go to stall by stall checking out any food that they fancy.
Sometimes we get too excited over the choices that we tend to buy too much. We would buy enough to feed a whole village if we can.
It is interesting that food waste is the highest during Ramadan, when the very spirit of Ramadan is about controlling urges and to be thankful and appreciative for what we have. It’s not just about blind holiness.
Non-Muslims would probably wonder why anyone would subject oneself to such misery, to abstain particularly from food and water for a whole day, the whole month.
It’s really not that bad. Most Muslims are trained since young to observe the fasting month. Plus, the idea of fasting is not an Islamic one; it is a common practice for many religions. Jews do it for Yom Kippur, when they fast for a day and pray for forgiveness.
It is very similar to Ramadan; both Muslims and Jews seek atonement and repentance on this day/month.
Christians observe Lent for six weeks leading to Easter. During Lent, Christians either fast or give up certain luxuries as a form of penitence.
Hindus fast on many occasions; one of them is during Maha Sivaratri, a festival celebrating Lord Shiva. People also fast as part of a dieting regime or to make a point, like Gandhi.
I’d like to think fasting as more than just a religious obligation.
Fasting reminds us of restraint and of moderation. It reminds us that our bodies are highly durable and that we can get by with just a little.
They say we can go for seven to eight weeks without food and eight to 14 days without water, so what’s a day?
It reminds us that we have been treating our bodies quite poorly by over indulgence.
Fasting slows us down and gives us time to reflect.
It allows us to have control over our urges. It makes us realise that most of the things we want, we don’t need.
It’s not just about abstaining from eating and drinking, but also to be moderate in your ways, to not depend on the material, to think of others.
These lessons are universal themes that anyone can ascribe to. Put it simply, it teaches us to be a better human being.
And I don’t necessarily mean that being pious equals being better.
Although people fast because it is what’s required of their religions, I wonder how many actually belief in the spirit of fasting.
Religion just makes it more systematic; prescribing specific days and guidelines to how to do it, but I think the lessons of fasting should be incorporated into our daily lives.
There’s no point in abstinence if you abstain only for a month, or a day, or 40 days when you revert back to how you usually behave before the religious obligation.
There’s no point in abstaining from food for 12 hours when you stuff your face at night. There’s no point in being patient when you’re quick to lose your temper after Ramadan. There’s no point in paying zakat if that’s the only charity you do for the whole year.
Ramadan is a great month to observe; it’s fun, vibrant, and communal. But sometimes I feel the spirit of Ramadan is lost within hypocrisy and superficiality, and that’s a shame.