Making A Meal Of Ramadan

 

Ramadan is here again with its sawm (fast) and salat (prayer) timetables, in-store date pyramids, and politically correct acknowledgements from world leaders. Is it just me or does it seem to get more air-time and column inches with every passing year? It’s the alpha of abstinence, easily outshining Lent and the various Jewish fasts.

This is my first Ramadan since leaving Islam and it feels odd to be uncoupled from the obligation to fast. I’m still just as aware of it as if I were fasting, like some phantom limb, there but not. I think I feel a little nostalgic.

I always valued this very physical reminder of my good fortune in the luxury and abundance of food available to me. Insulated in our comfort and convenience-filled lives it’s easy to feel insouciant, to forget this isn’t everyone’s experience.

Nothing focuses the mind like hunger pangs. You passionately crave things you wouldn’t look twice at normally – a whiff of someone’s Burger King meal and your mouth floods in excited expectation. After sixteen hours of no food or drink, a glass of water has all the nuance of a fine vintage, and the feel of that cool wetness in a barren mouth… aaahh! sheer delight.

 

Denying the stomach to feed the mind

You don’t need to fast for long to understand so much of what we consume is chosen on a whim, rarely necessity. That’s the kind of perspective I valued Ramadan for, as well as the reminder we can subsist on much less than we think. Eating really has become a form of recreation in our society. In an ironic twist of economical Darwinism, Survival itself has lost out to Consumerism.

Little wonder then that an exercise intended to ground us in gratitude for what we have has been swallowed whole by the big shiny promise of ‘what we can have in a few hours time’. The very idea of slowing down and being fully present in the moment is eclipsed by clock-watching and food fantasizing. In a curious inversion of the poor man’s raison d’être, people with plenty live only for their next meal, minus the uncertainty of where it’s coming from.

The concept of spiritual growth through abstinence isn’t exclusive to muslims. Anyone can impose similar restrictions on themselves and experience an expansion of consciousness, not to mention those whose fiscal circumstances allow no choice in the matter, so what’s with all the social media posts demanding special treatment for fasting muslims?

 

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The comprehensive list above seems to suggest the best policy when in the vicinity of someone fasting is to keep quiet for fear of saying the wrong thing (don’t even get me started on the irony of the wineglass emoticon in this context).

When I saw this on Facebook it reminded me of the awful sense of entitlement some muslims exhibit at this time of year, despite being obligated to behave with humility and gratitude, as though this burden of righteous suffering implies an exclusive connection between Islam and high moral values, with everyone else languishing on a lower spiritual plane.

For many, observance of the fast isn’t even genuinely voluntary. People are coerced into fasting through peer pressure, cultural expectation, and in some countries even legislation. How can something be spiritually nourishing if it’s done purely to comply with ‘the rules’?

Fast or feast?

That hypocrisy is rife during Ramadan is no secret, it’s customary for people simply to flip their schedule from daytime to night – sleeping through the day then eating, socializing and shopping through the night. What is supposed to be a month of austerity, introspection and fasting is actually closer to an extended celebration of food and feasting where muslims gorge themselves twice a day and rest in between. A better word for this type of fasting is “gluttony.”

The amount of food consumed in Ramadan by families is much more than they ordinarily use, with the consumption rate rising by 70%, and some products seeing a 100% rise according to Egypt’s Information and Decision Support Centre. About 25% of this is thrown away thanks to over-production of a range of tasty post-fast treats.

And not only does food consumption and waste spike during Ramadan, so too does violence as people grapple with hunger, nicotine withdrawal and sleep deprivation. Other not so obvious effects imply Ramadan also results in loss of life as blood donations drop by one-third, emergency services are disrupted, and child trafficking increases as poverty-mired parents, struggling with the spike in food prices, force their children into exploitation as beggars, street vendors and unskilled labourers.

 

Food is just the first step

Those muslims who still DO observe Ramadan in the manner it was intended won’t mind you asking them about it, nor will they mind you carrying on your normal eating habits in their presence. While some human compassion for what another is going through is welcomed, kindness aside, nothing is required of anyone else. They understand that food is just a metaphor for a deeper realisation.

We are all responsible for our own decisions and choices – this perhaps is the greatest lesson Ramadan can teach us, one that slips out of sight a little more with each passing year.