As Ramadan approaches, I’ve been thinking a lot about indulgence versus discipline and the “hidden costs” of indulgence. In large part, I see Ramadan as a disciplining of the nafs (roughly translated: ego). I’ve often heard and thought that “one who cannot control her/his appetite can barely control her/his ego” – the idea being that the appetite is what, quite literally, feeds the ego.
The problem of discipline versus indulgence is not an easy one to sort, and often in my own internal dialogue I struggle to find a simple solution to preventing indulgence from leading to over-indulgence (or to reframe: enjoyment leading to indulgence).
Last week, to prepare us for the holy month of Ramadan, a friend and I fasted for three days in a row. After three days of fasting, we decided we were really going to “let go” for lunch on the fourth. We chose a place outside of our budget, but it was “okay because we hadn’t eaten out all week, ya know.”
We finished our meals, full and satisfied, and then we saw the check. I knew lunch would be a stretch – but that much for what I just ate? I hadn’t even thought about the tip, until my friend started, “You know, he wasn’t even that good of a server.” “You’re right, he hovered so much at first and then completely ignored us,” I added. Feeling guilty on the inside and feigning disappointment towards the server on the outside, I scribbled down a less-than-decent tip on my receipt, and we hurried out.
I had just violated the tipping principle. The tipping principle, as often discussed in American culture, is the idea that you should only eat what you can afford. Or better put, if you cannot afford the tip, you cannot afford the meal. In recollection, I find that this is a good standard to live by, and that its core lesson can add quite a bit to the indulgence/discipline conundrum.
It was kind of silly, I later reflected, that in an effort to prepare myself for Ramadan, I ended up over-indulging. And worst yet, in a half-hearted attempt to curtail and discipline my nafs, the casualty of my over-indulgence was my server rather than myself.
When looking at a menu, or even choosing a restaurant, it’s frustrating to have to stop and think that a $14.99 lunch may end up costing me $23.00, for example.
However, at some moment, even when I’m indulging, there must be an existential break between my desire to indulge and my ability to guide that indulgence.
The tipping principle does, in fact, extend to situations that go well beyond giving servers their due. Every Ramadan, I spend thirty days attempting to discipline my nafs, only to devastate a day’s worth of discipline with indulgence every evening. Perhaps the correct approach to lunch after three days of fasting would have simply been to transition back into my usual routine. Perhaps the correct approach to iftar after 16 hours of fasting is to simply have dinner (a light, well-paced one).
And, perhaps the correct approach to a disciplining of the nafs is to meet discipline with moderation rather than indulgence. Regardless, I must always force myself into asking, “Does my nafs need this? Whose rights am I starving as I over-indulge?” Or more simply, “At what cost am I feeding my nafs?”
Zainab Khan is a recent graduate of Wesleyan University. Her interests include the South Asian and Middle Eastern diaspora networks, transnational youth movements, and more broadly, fashion and how it operates as a global discourse. You can follow her on Twitter @zaynman. She writes monthly for Altmuslim at Patheos.