Fasting in Ramadan – A Spiritual Ritual or Culture?

Part 1

Fasting and Culture

In light of the above-mentioned and greatly troubling phenomenon, good and bad persons — male and female, young and old, educated and uneducated – fast among today’s Muslims.

Corrupt and oppressive leaders, as well as politicians, fast; as do the greedy and materialistic businessmen and businesswomen, puffed up and misleading artists, haughty and ensnaring media personnel, fantasizing and dreaming students and scholars, and numerous backers and tub-thumpers for all of the above from among the ranks of the ordinary folks.

The situation is such that the same leaders, politicians, artists, media personnel and businesspersons try their best to hijack the spirit and dominate the limelight of Ramadan and its subsequent Eid celebrations for their own personal agendas, regrettably often succeeding in their endeavors.

This is so because to many, the realm of fasting is associated with sheer culture. Yet, it is sometimes deemed a cultural dimension by itself, with extremely little religious and spiritual disposition imbued in it.

Thus, pompous festivities, exhibitions of power, influence and wealth, extravagant meals, latest trends in fashion and lifestyle, consumerism, publicity stunts especially by politicians and the rich, have all become inexorably bracketed with Ramadan, fasting and Eid celebrations.

To certain categories of people, there is no more entertainment, fun and enjoyment than during Ramadan and its immediate aftermath. In addition, myriads of movies, TV shows, drama series and songs are produced in various languages in order to cater to the growing global demand.

What we are witnessing, its stands to reason, is the emergence of what could be dubbed a Muslim pop culture with its extending aspirations and goals. It is transmitted and sustained via mass media – just like everything else today, but most of all that which is not entirely wholesome and appropriate – reflecting the cultural activities and commercial tendencies as well as products that are suited to, or aimed at, the tastes of the general masses of Muslims many segments of which are incessantly aimed to be brainwashed and manipulated.

Since this Muslim pop culture enjoys endless possibilities and potential, even non-Muslims are increasingly partaking in its promotion, articulation and enrichment.

As a consequence of the latest developments, some of the purely spiritual activities were not spared either.

For example, many mosques are virtually competing among themselves who will hire better and more popular preachers and Quran reciters, some of whom have become Muslim either local or global celebrities on account of what and how they do. They are often brought from distant and more glamorous places, spending considerable amounts of financial resources for the purpose.

The Quran is thus recited beautifully all the time, though little consideration is being given to its profound heavenly messages and their implications for thought and everyday life. The same goes to dhikr (remembrance of Almighty Allah) sessions, supplications (du’a) and nashids as spiritual songs and chants.

In many essentially non-Arab milieus, lots of people do not even know what is being recited, pronounced, supplicated and sung, and honestly, a few would ever care so long as the reciters, performers and singers do their job “professionally” and impressively, regularly shedding some tears as a tacit sign of piety and devotion, inducing in the process their audiences to follow suit.

Similarly, spiritual talks and lectures are often saturated – some more and others less — with humor, fun, anecdotes, legends, weak or outright fabricated traditions (hadith) of the Prophet Muhammad, and attempts to directly or indirectly tarnish the name and image of a person, group, community, political party, or a religious faction, so as to warrant the full attention of the listeners and make the talks and lectures more interesting, attractive and so, more effective.

This way, many religious preachers appear as though skilled performers and entertainers, trying to make their profession as much up-to-date and profitable as possible. Just like everyone else, they likewise do whatever is necessary, not only to keep the job they have, but also advance their career prospects. They are textbook populists, within their intellectual and moral framing representing and looking after the interests of the “pure people”.

Furthermore, the last third of Ramadan, instead of being most spiritually charged and infused with most intensive spiritual pursuits, normally becomes lost in consumerism and glitz on account of the approaching excessive Eid celebrations. All of a sudden, while fasting as a cultural manifestation gathers momentum, it, as an intended extraordinary spiritual experience, becomes anticlimactic.

Gluttony never goes away either, due to the endless and often aggressive promotion of food as an important part of culture, needed for preserving Muslim cultural identities.

Consequently, food, money, time and energy are often irrationally wasted throughout for the aims and purposes that stand at the diametrically opposite point of much of what Ramadan and fasting epitomize. As much as we give in charity during entire Ramadan, could be wasted in a day or two on our excessive food and stuffs.

As much as we care for others in Ramadan, in terms of spending for their sake our precious time, efforts and resources, could be easily matched by a few gluttonous, amusement, or consumerist weaknesses of ours, attended to in a few days of the fasting month.

Without doubt, our Ramadan is a month full of paradoxes and ironies. It is fraught with contentious attitudes and actions. The whole thing sometimes boils down to sheer numbers and statistics: how many pages or sections (juz’) of the Quran have been read a day, how many units of voluntary or supererogatory prayers (rak’ah) have been performed each day and night, how many ringgits/dollars/euros we have to give away as obligatory and how much we should as voluntary charity, how many times we have invited people for iftar and how many times we were invited, etc.

Sometimes one seriously wonders how much spirituality has been injected into those in principle extremely meritorious deeds. One further wonders if we emphasize too much quantity at the expense of quality, and the form and appearances at the expense of the substance and soul.

By the same token, do we live or just practice Ramadan and its fasting obligation? Do we tend to feel and experience or just survive it?

As hinted earlier, the raison d’être for this peculiar state of affairs is a belief that fasting is part of Muslim culture, rather than a fundamental and unreservedly Islamic principle and practice. In that case, fasting would be seen partly as a revealed tenet, and partly – especially a number of implementational aspects of fasting – as a cultivated behavior derived from the cumulative deposit of the beliefs, morals, practices, objects and lifestyle acquired by Muslims in the course of generations through individual and group striving.

The proponents of this idea feel relatively safe and free to operate, in that no culture is inherently superior or inferior to any other. This is so because a culture as a totality of learned, accumulated and then socially transmitted perceptions, practices and experiences evolves under the sway of a particular set of contextual components and factors, many of which are beyond human comprehension and influence.

A culture is a result of predominantly natural and spontaneous processes. Human open interference in such processes are small and ancillary, playing second fiddle to the former. A culture, it goes without saying, cannot be inherently good or bad either. Whatever is evolved, accumulated and socially transmitted by a people has a merit and so, should be respected and preserved.

Nonetheless, Islam as a complete belief and value system, as well as a way of life, though respecting numerous elements of culture — above all such as are consistent with the Islamic heavenly message — inspired, initiated and guided the formation of new cultures.

The fields of values, beliefs, epistemology, worldview and the fundamental aspects of the behavioral patterns that have thence originated, were affected most as they contained more universal and transcendent than local and physical character.

At the same time, Islam recognizes and accommodates natural as well as innate auxiliary elements of local cultures and traditions, chiefly when they are legitimate and in line with the principal teachings and values of Islam, treating them as a source of minor rulings where there are no explicit primary texts of the Quran and Sunnah specifying the ruling.

It is thus always said that Islam influences cultures, and not that cultures influence Islam, except in some relative and rather inconsequential instances. It is also asserted that while Islam and Muslims have common cultural elements, they are also very diverse.

Indeed, Islam is more than a culture, though it possesses and promotes distinctive culture characteristics of its own. Islam and Islamic civilization promote the notion of unity in diversity, that is, the unity of universal message, vision, mission, values and purpose, and the diversity of local and operational methods, expressions, forms and solutions.

About Dr. Spahic Omer
Dr. Spahic Omer, an award-winning author, is an Associate Professor at the Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences, International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM). He studied in Bosnia, Egypt and Malaysia. In the year 2000, he obtained his PhD from the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur in the field of Islamic history and civilization. His research interests cover Islamic history, culture and civilization, as well as the history and theory of Islamic built environment. He can be reached at: [email protected].