In the days and weeks ahead, we will often be reminded of the graces truly associated with fasting the month of Ramadan, particularly its “thirds”: mercy, forgiveness, and rescue from perdition. Verses of the Quran and traditions of the Prophet of Islam will be appropriately recited, in order to emphasize the great value of this prime real estate in time and the generosity, favor, and opportunity available to us. We will learn again that the most revered people in religious history, without fail, practiced fasting in some form—a tradition unbroken and now passed on to us. For them, voluntary deprivation and altered rules of consumption were more than parts of a spiritual regimen, but the expected thing to do if you took your life seriously and felt some responsibility for having a soul. The outpourings (prose and poetry) of saintly men and women have survived to our day and are frequently mentioned around this time of the lunar year. Rumi’s urgent metaphors and Ibn Ata’illah’s arresting aphorisms come to mind, as do the reflections of many others who speak of the various levels of the Fast and the necessities of each.
Without doubt, there is enormous benefit in hearing again these bezels of wisdom, although it’s a struggle to draw from them. Our time—modern, postmodern, or whatever—is losing ground to aggressive mores that dampen human sensitivity to the sacred. Many have observed this, and it’s hard to disagree. Some call it the “post-truth environment,” an ethos that is unabashedly concerned with appearance, regardless of whether or not it connects with truth, just as long as it sounds right according to some market research. And yes, it’s a world increasingly unwilling or unable to receive approvingly the insights of the great sages who were fortunate enough to have lived in a time when sacred tradition was a reality without a name, the natural flora of existence.
But in the end, there’s a private and personal response to rituals that can mitigate the profanity all about us. By a sheer act of divine mercy and compassion, the essences of the rituals—these peculiar interruptions of behavior—have not really changed. They are able to do now, we hope, what they had done before, the same influence and benevolence originally prescribed for them.
A time-honored counsel that one often comes across deals precisely with wanting to imbibe more of the meanings of rituals. To paraphrase: If you want to truly understand what a ritual means, they say, then pay the tithe and participate more in what it calls you to do, beyond form. The larger culture of Ramadan lends itself to this advice in many ways, two of which pertain to what we can do and what we should feel.
It’s often said that one of the benefits of fasting during the month of Ramadan is to experience something that poor people feel. There’s probably some truth to that, but emphasizing it can have the unintended effect of viewing the indigent as an abstraction, people who live in desperation as if it were their station without parole. Fasting does have some didactic purposes that relate to the needy, but it pertains more toward empathy and duty rather than pity and abstractions. It’s really impossible to simulate desperation, particularly when framed between dawn and dusk. The sheer anticipation of food and drink in a matter of hours completely dilutes the trauma and psychology of indigence. The realities of such places as the famine fields of Sudan—even when told in the descriptive narratives of the likes of Jacqui Banaszynski and others—are beyond dramatic demonstration.
It is part of the purpose and very culture of Ramadan to instill empathy that’s actionable. Sympathy relates more to surface emotion that can be ransomed off with a check or, worse yet, forced distraction. Empathy, however, cannot be so easily assuaged or fooled. Empathy is connecting with others because of their humanity and their needs, no abstraction. It is about sincere giving, humility, gratitude, shared humanity, and realizing that our material condition and well being can change without notice, and each condition has an obliged reaction. The disparity of “realities” in our world are not forgiven when we show others our backs. We are a social species, which means more than tea and biscuits; we are responsible for those we know and, especially, those whom we may never meet. They are of us, and we are of them. When we fast with heart, we realize that we are in constant and utter need for things outside of ourselves, external to our so-called talents and skills. Dethroned, we realize that we are all needy, a permanent condition that’s lost in our billboard world.
One thing that a thoughtful Ramadan experience is said to do is reverse 11 months of “professionalizing our existence,” to borrow the phrase from Martin Amis. “Professionalizing” the religious experience means to become rote doers of rites (stiff and perfunctory); with Sunday-school heart; and exposed to pretension and self-righteousness, among the greatest risks of religiosity. If Ramadan were a proofreader’s pen, it would stop at “Muslim” (the professional adherent) and strike it down to “muslim” (a person who believes and remembers why).
It’s a marvel how a geologist can take a soil sample and come up with thunderous conclusions about the physical condition of the earth and the mad culture of consumption that’s ravaging it. Seeing the big picture in something small and self-contained is the definition of sagacity. When Ramadan comes, things change. We all know it. It’s an interruption in routine, a time that agitates a rote existence. This interruption has many purposes, but it comes down to this: It is said that if you want to see how your life is going, then look at your day, your sample, and realize (hopefully enchanted) that we are and always have been in this constant state of returning, a procession of hours and days that’s taking us to nowhere but God, who made us and eventually wants us back.
To live with that consciousness and awareness of the grand ride is among the highest achievements of revealed religion. It affects everything. That awareness is also extraordinary and cannot be scaled with the ordinary. We are shown rituals—acts that are breaks from the norm—and we are taught something about them. How we engage them is really the challenge that by all appearance will not become easier. Trained to be jaded and consumers, Ramadan each year comes to us with an offer to be counter-cultural, to think differently, and hopefully remember the ride and the destination.
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