In many Arab and muslim countries and communities worldwide, tomorrow marks the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan. The idea that one may achieve spiritual elevation by giving up certain foods and drinks for a period of time is a common theme in various religions.
Our bodies are bio-chemical entities whose equilibriums may be altered by depriving ourselves (abstaining) from certain ingredients and nourishments over a period of time. In this way, we move our bodies from one biological state of equilibrium to another. It is hoped that this process, this journey from one state of bio-chemical equilibrium to another, will induce a certain spiritual lucidity that would augment our innate tendencies towards the good that is inherent within us.
As a religious ritual, this practice is referred to in different ways, the most common are fasting and lent. In several religions, fasting is considered an act of worship and is practiced during designated days, supplemented by other rituals such as special prayers or meditations. Its culmination is typically marked by feast and celebration.
As muslims begin the holy month of Ramadan this year, it is worth remembering that, at the end of the day, religions are tools for us to connect with the divine and realize the good that is within us. Religious rituals (e.g. prayer, fasting, pilgrimage) are not goals for their own sake; they are there to help embed a moral and ethical code in a people.
For those who consider Him to be our ultimate moral adjudicator, God judges our character and humanity. We do not pray and fast to go to Heaven. We pray and fast to become good, and that is our path to Heaven.
Religions came to us with unified sets of rituals and beliefs but we realise our individual states of grace in our own individual ways.
Our spiritual needs, the culminations of the predicaments of our human existence, vary for each one of us, like the swings of a pendulum over time. Our spiritual needs dictate how much of religion we consume at the various stages of our lives. Indeed, those same religious rituals and traditions that one may wish not to engage in today could be of great relevance tomorrow. And vice versa.
I am reminded of a muslim friend who eats pork and drinks alcohol yet fasts Ramadan and prays regularly. She considers herself to be a good muslim although in the eyes of some she may not be that, or at all.
“Diversity within a religion does not negate it; it is a sign of strength, not of weakness. The success of a religion does not come from solidifying a conservative core but in strengthening its capacity to embrace the many, especially those in the minority or on the margins.”
Ramadan is not meant to be a food orgy; a series of dinner parties lasting till dawn, with excess, waste, and lethargy as byproducts, as some in the Muslim World make it out to be.
Ramadan is meant to teach humility; a moral and ethical value that is as old as humans have existed.
In the The Sovereignty of Good, Iris Murdoch says that humility is a rare virtue and an unfashionable one. “Only rarely does one meet somebody in whom it positively shines, in whom one apprehends with amazement the absence of the anxious avaricious tentacles of the self.”
Murdoch says that the humble man is not necessarily a good man but…”perhaps he is the kind of man who is most likely of all to become good.”
Majd Shafiq is head of the Middle East at Audere International. He is an Arab public policy and capital markets expert. Majd advises clients on corporate finance and capital market issues, Middle East economies and political structures.