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What’s the point of Ramadan anyway?


Khadija Patel pushes words on street corners. She is passionate about the protection and enhancement of global media as a public good and is the head of programmes at the International Fund for Public Interest Media. She is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian in South Africa, a co-founder of the youth-driven, award-winning digital news startup The Daily Vox and a vice-chairperson of the Vienna-based International Press Institute. As a journalist she has produced work for Sky News, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Quartz, City Press and Daily Maverick, among others. She is also a research associate at WISER (Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Witwatersrand). 

As soon as the new moon is spotted in the evening skies on Sunday, Muslims will hail the beginning of the month of Ramadan. For 30 days, observers of the holy month will abstain from food, water and sex between sunrise and sunset.

If you work with one of us or live next door, or if perhaps some of your best friends are Muslim, you would do well to tread very quietly around the “Slum ou” during August. Caffeine and nicotine withdrawal is dangerous at any time, but when combined with a good measure of sleep deprivation and the growling of an empty belly, it sometimes transforms even the most amiable among us into asocial monsters. Beware, the “Moslem” – and this time he’s not wearing any bombs.

Although we’d prefer for our crankiness over the next month to be passed as fitting retaliation for the social perversity that presses bottles of wine on us, you may well wonder what good could come of this self-deprivation. Is it not a most cruel self-flagellation to deprive yourself of your basic physiological needs? Why not allow just a little sip of water at midday?

Children are taught that fasting inspires an empathy for the poor and hungry. Too often adults have the same simplistic explanation foisted upon them. Truth is, fasting in itself does not suddenly give rise to mass identification with the indigent. Sure, a little stab of hunger may make you think fleetingly about the starving in Somalia, but it is a transient hunger. How could a few hours of abstinence ever compare with the hunger of compulsion? A fast of a few hours is hardly comparable to a desperate 300km search for sustenance.

Anyway, when the first strains of the call to the sunset prayer sound over the horizon any empathy for the starving is soon lost in what sometimes becomes a feeding frenzy. Statistics reveal halaal butcheries in the two months leading up to Ramadan traditionally sell almost 500 tons of chicken fillet in Johannesburg alone. You see, chicken fillet is the stuffing in your samoosa that incidentally Al Shabaab have banned in Somalia for being too Christian-like. (True story.)

With no such qualms in South Africa, the food preparations for Ramadan often begin months in advance and chicken fillet is patted, pounded and shaped into submission and variation. Freezers, humble machines that they are, complain in vain. If we were indeed feeling such great sympathy for the hungry during the month, the rituals of food preparation would certainly not be as grand. Yes, this is the sort of self-defeat us Muslims have mastered. Of course, the poor and hungry should feature more prominently in our consciences and, yes, one tenet of the sacred month asks that as well as fasting, we be more generous in our charity.

Most Muslims choose to distribute the annual 2.5% deduction of their wealth, known as Zakah, during this month. There certainly is an enhanced awareness of the poor at this time, but, when the poor, hungry and homeless are largely ignored for the rest of the year, it is more of a grudging admission that they actually exist. There is more to fasting than a simple empathy with the poor.

It is, of course, far easier for me to believe in the virtues from within the faith than it is from the outside, but in an age characterised by an all-consuming culture of instant gratification, our ability to tame the more basic of our urges is suffering. Self-control is usurped by a rampant sense of self. An inability to resist temptation is blamed for everything from divorce, obesity, teenage pregnancy to even depression as studies suggest people with strong self-control may actually be “happier” than most.

Back in the 1970s Stanford University conducted a study using marshmallows to investigate how strong the tug of temptation really could be. A group of pre-schoolers were left alone with instructions that they could eat one marshmallow immediately or wait 15 minutes and get two marshmallows. Some went for the quick fix, others held back distracting themselves until the promised “payday”. Years later, researchers tracked down the children and found that those who had waited for the second marshmallow did better at school and were more self-confident. It is the sort of study that is more likely to damn academics to their ivory towers for being out of touch with the real world’s problems, but what this study indicated is that there are benefits to self-control, benefits that we are losing as we become increasingly consumed with giving in to even the slightest flutter of temptation.

Will power, psychologists say, is a lot like a muscle – it needs to be burdened before it is built, but once built, the whole body benefits. And, in my view, that is the thinking behind Ramadan. Abstaining from food and sex during the daylight hours is meant to jumpstart your ability to resist temptation through the rest of the year. This month is an acknowledgement of human beings as not merely physical creatures, it admits our physicality, but also shows we are so much more than the pleasure of our own flesh. DM


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