Come the month of Ramzan, and everyone starts discussing what fasting is all about. Media houses run special programmes and brands create advertisements around the spirit of the month. Staying hungry and thirsty, voluntarily, from the crack of dawn until the black of dusk is no mean feat and millions of people round the globe take on the task upon themselves every year.
Part of the discourse round Ramzan is that the fasting is meant to make you experience what the underprivileged face throughout the year, to walk a mile in another person’s shoes and learn empathy. It is supposed to create compassion and encourage positive action. But there’s another aspect of Ramzan far less talked about: the inculcation of discipline and self-control.
Observing a fast isn’t just about hunger and thirst. Various other dos and don’ts accompany the regulations around food and drink. Intimate sexual acts, for instance, are forbidden in the duration of the fast— depicting the strict regulation of the most basic human desires. It is a rigorous routine for mastering the art of self-control, for when you control the most urgent, basic desires, only then would you gain mastery over your own self. But that’s not all. Since observing a fast is a sacred act, an act of worship, there are numerous other actions that render the effort null and void. The inculcation of self-control extends to the other, more vile aspects of human nature, and it is here that perhaps fasting would be most effective — if not for the fact that the vast multitudes entirely ignore this most crucial aspect. Lying, cheating, stealing, defaming, causing hurt to another human being — whether by physical or verbal means — and particularly oppressing the weak are all acts that render the fast null and void. From a sacred, personal act of worship, it turns into a pretentious display of (un)holy posturing. To put things in context, let’s take the instance of the person whose ‘fast’ consists of quick bites and gulps sneaked in a corner when no one was looking. For all outward appearances, the person remains in a state of fasting, but in truth the fast never existed at all.
An episode from the life of Prophet Mohammad goes thus: During the month of Ramzan, a woman was heard hurling abuses in anger at her servant. A few minutes after, the woman was surprised to find a man at her doorstep, carrying a “gift” of food, sent by Mohammad himself. The woman was most pleased to receive a gift from the Prophet, yet most astonished because the time for breaking the fast was a long way ahead in the day. She informed the man that she was fasting and couldn’t partake of any of it. At this insistence, Mohammad sent his true intended message: “Your anger and misdemeanour, your oppression of this human being, has already broken your fast. Hunger and thirst alone are of scant consequence.”
And that, perhaps, is the deepest and most significant meaning of the month of fasting: the mastery of the self-control over not just the body’s desires but over the darker instincts that humans possess in plenty. In fact, the month of Ramzan was historically always the month of ceasfire, the month of peace and protection for everyone. With a little instrospection, one might even conclude that it was supposed to be a month-long practice routine for abstinence from violence, for getting into the habit of maintaining peaceful social relations and extending protection to people instead of attempting to annihilate them. Any sacred act becomes sacred only when it results in the elevation of humanity.
Zehra Naqvi