Wednesday, 25 August 2010

In conflict with the spirit of Ramadan?

I wrote an article about Ramadan but it was not fit for print by a leading UAE newspaper. This is the note they sent to me. 

"Dear Mr Taufiq Rahim,
In reference to your article, sections of it are in conflict with the spirit of Ramadan and especially the policy of UAE. I regret to inform you that we won't be able to use it."

I disagree. What do you think? 

Ramadan in Excess
Taufiq Rahim

I was 13 years old when I first started fasting for the entire month of Ramadan.  There were only 3 or 4 other students in my school (in Vancouver, Canada) who were also fasting and due to school regulations we had to go to the cafeteria everyday during lunchtime. We would sit there with our fellow classmates as they gorged down their lunch with the smell of food wafting through the air. During those years, I often had tennis and soccer practice in the afternoons as well. I can’t even recount the number of exams I sat for during the holy month.

Ramadan taught me resilience and perseverance. Most of all it instilled within me an ethic of empathy towards the plight of those less fortunate than myself. These days in Dubai, however, I am overwhelmed with the commercialization and excesses of the month. Lavish tents. Exorbitant iftars. Wasted food. At times, it seems, that part of the spirit of Ramadan is fading in large parts of the Muslim world as charity and spiritual enrichment become perfunctory by-products of an otherwise ostentatious celebration.

The month of Ramadan is enshrined within the tradition of Islam. It is the time when the Prophet (peace be upon him) is said to have received the initial revelation of the Qur’an from God. The Qur’an itself expounds on the importance of the month:

“O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that you may (learn) self-restraint.” (2:184)

Ensuing verses emphasize that those who are physically unable or travelling are exempt from fasting but not exempt from charity and feeding the indigent.  During Ramadan, Muslims from across the umma are expected to take additional care to help the least fortunate among them. Ramadan serves as a personal time for each Muslim when he or she seeks purity – physical, spiritual, and mental. The element of physical fasting is in fact only one facet of the month, as the greater and more difficult fast is the one from malicious actions, back-biting, and other bad habits. Many Muslims also seek to give additional prayers (tarawih) and read the Qur’an daily to develop further closeness to God.

These days, however, it seems that much of the original spirit is lost amidst the commercialization of the holy month, akin to what has happened to Christmas in the West. Many retailers and restaurants will confirm that Ramadan is one of the most profitable times of the year. I received an email the other day describing the Ramadan experience at the Diwan al-Khayal tent at Jumeirah Beach Hotel, which “elevates the five-start experience to new levels.” At the “purpose built marquee” I would be privy to a “lavish iftar buffet…priced at just AED 165 per person.” These tents have become ubiquitous and it is expected that upwards of AED 150 is necessary to break one’s fast; we are expected to ignore the excess of food that is left on the table after our meal. Is the spirit of Ramadan to sleep during the day in order to commemorate materialistic excess at night?

Of course, there are a number of great exceptions in Dubai. The Government of Dubai has sponsored once again a wonderful forum (Al Multaqa) bringing together Islamic scholars from around the world to facilitate religious reflection and contemplation. I have also been pleasantly inundated with requests to volunteer, particularly form the Volunteer in Dubai organizing team. In addition, the Ramadan spirit is alive amongst countless families who gather humbly together each evening to share a simple meal.

Yet, still, I can’t help but think that living in the relative luxury of the UAE (or other countries for that matter), it is easy to forget about the self-restraint and empathy for the downtrodden that Ramadan encourages us to embrace. Is the holy month really the opportune time to increase vigilance against begging?  Should restaurants have minimum spends during Ramadan of 150 AED so that we order items we don’t even want to eat?

In our regional neighborhood, just a couple hours away is one of the most impoverished and distraught countries in the world in Afghanistan.  Next door in Pakistan, one of the world’s most horrific human tragedies is unfolding due to unprecedented floods. Much closer to home, the people who labor in the hot sun to facilitate the luxurious life that many of us enjoy, have no reprieve from hardship. The opportunities to put into practice the spirit of Ramadan are plentiful and all around us. Unfortunately, I have neglected to do so to the extent I should. I hope to change that this year, and I hope you will join me.  

1 comment:

  1. Very true. I have been pondering these issues since I moved here 8 years ago. I cant fathom how people can fool themselves into thinking the the spirit of Ramadan is staying up all night, stuffing yourself eating and then sleeping half the day. Unbelievable, every Ramadan I go insane when I see how so many people think they are fooling other but are really just fooling themselves.