Monday, August 23, 2010

Secular Aspects of Blessed Ramadan

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By M. Bakri Musa

A friend from Canada who moved to California many years ago decided recently to return to the cold north. When asked why, he replied that while he absolutely enjoyed the year-round sunshine and the salubrious climate of the Golden State, he found the lack of seasons disorienting.

“I could not get anything done,” he claimed, “Every day was too nice and I would postpone to the perpetual ‘next day’ doing my gardening, cleaning the garage, or even reading my favorite novel.”


My friend’s observation reverberates in me this middle of Ramadan. Yes, California lacks a definite season, but the fasting ‘season’ forces me to shift gear mentally, behaviorally, and in many other ways just as surely as the falling snow in January and the glorious sunshine in July did to me when I lived in Canada.

Nonetheless, my Canadian friend is on to something profound. One theory explaining the more advanced development of the people of the temperate zone is that the definite seasons disciplined them to plan, or at least be prepared for the inevitable adversities ahead.

The definite seasons of the temperate zones effectively regulate human activities. You plow in the spring, plant in the summer, and harvest in the fall. The long cold dark nights, being non-conducive to procreative activities, are more suited for intellectual and other cerebral pursuits. Failure to plan and lack of discipline to observe the rhythm of the season would have severe consequences, for come winter and nature would weed you out from the community’s gene pool.

The definite seasons seamlessly integrate into society the concept of planning, and once a culture has this as an integral part of its ethos, and the discipline to observe it, then the groundwork for advancement is well laid. In my view, this is what makes societies in the temperate zones more advanced. As a theory, it is more appealing than one based on race or skin color.

The monotonous climate of the tropics on the other hand, with one day more or less like any other and with no distinct season, there is no sense of urgency or need for planning. If it rains, be patient for it will clear up soon enough and then you can go out hunting or fishing again.

This lack of season encourages you to procrastinate; soon the “maƱana syndrome” becomes ingrained in you and the culture. Why do today that which wait till tomorrow? A decade goes by and the crack in the wall is still not fixed!

A society that lacks discipline and one that constantly procrastinates is never destined for greatness. The same applies to individuals.

Thoughts on Ramadan

These thoughts swirl in me as I tap the keyboard in the silence of my empty office at lunch break during Ramadan, deep in the cerebral pursuit of writing this essay. Ramadan does that to me, to pursue matters cerebral and spiritual. In fact I see little difference in the two.

In the normal scheme of things I would have been in the cafeteria with my colleagues bitching over our deteriorating healthcare “non system.” Either that or we would be busy solving the world’s problems!

The switch to skipping lunch seems so welcomed. I have missed many lunches before as when my schedule was hectic, yet that did not quite affect me in the manner of missing lunch during Ramadan. For one, I had planned on it, for in the evening before I had made a niat (a pledge) without which my fasting would not “be accepted.” For another, uninterrupted in the quiet of my office during lunch break, I get so much done.

Ramadan, properly observed as per our Qur’an and traditions of our Prophet, sa.w., is a season that disciplines us. It disciplines us towards moderation and restraint, as well as to respect time, as with the breaking of fast. It also incorporates the concept of planning. For just as we have to plan for winter, so too should we for Ramadan.

Sha’ban, the month preceding Ramadan, is for such preparation. The Prophet s.a.w. used to fast on many days during Sha’ban. That could be simplistically viewed as “prep.” This is important. As a surgeon in Malaysia I used to see many flare ups of ulcers and gum diseases attributed to this lack of preparation for fasting.

I am guided by the Qur’an, Verse 2:185 (Surah Al Baqara), approximately translated: “It was in the month of Ramadan that the Qur’an was revealed as guidance for mankind [in] distinguishing between right and wrong.” (Abdel Haleem, 2004). That is enough for me to hold Ramadan in reverence.

For those who need more assurance, there is the hadith (saying of Prophet Muhammad, the Messenger of Allah) to the effect that when Ramadan starts, “the gates of the heaven are opened and the gates of hell are closed, and the devils are chained.” That comes in handy only if we have a choice of when we exit this world, but we don’t. Another has it that on the “Night of Power” (one of the odd nights in the last ten days of Ramadan), meritorious deeds would be amplified to that “of a thousand months!” I presume that hadith is for those quantitatively inclined.

The more pragmatic would do well to be reminded of the season concept alluded to by my Canadian friend. Islam began in the Middle East, a region without definite seasons. Likewise its followers; the bulk dwell in the season-less tropics and subtropical regions.

For Muslims, Ramadan could be looked upon as a season for reflection and contemplation, a time to ponder our place in the grand scheme of things. It is a personal as well as societal or cultural “time-out.” In our fast-paced multi-tasking world, do we ever need one!

The change in the daily routine, the greater emphasizes on things religious, and the drastically reduced caloric intake all reinforce this “time-out” dimension. As for the seasonal aspect, in traditional Muslim societies Ramadan is a convenient time marker, as in, “The first Ramadan after the war,” in much the same manner as, “the first winter following the war.”

Of course as a physician I would be remiss if I do not mention the many medical benefits of fasting, the central feature of Ramadan. Calorie Restriction (CR) (approximate meaning – reduction in food intake) is the only experimental variable known to extend the lifespan of a number of species including primates. CR also reduces age-related disorders like cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disorders in mammals, enough that CR regimes are now a booming business in the anti-ageing sector of the health industry.

If appealing to vanity is not your cup of tea, consider the polar opposite of CR. Obesity, apart from its negative impact on your vanity, is a major public health problem, and not just in developed societies. I see its devastating consequences daily in my medical practice.

Viewed medically, Ramadan is a month-long season of CR. A caveat! CR is beneficial only if it is chronic and not acute; meaning over weeks and not days. Acute CR followed by binge eating is destructive health-wise and in many other ways.

Unfortunately Ramadan in many Muslim societies today has degenerated into a season of acute CR during daylight hours and binge eating after dusk. Instead of losing a few pounds, most put on weight, and just a few pounds! This can only be described as bida’a (adulteration of the faith), to use the language of the Qur’an, quite apart from the deleterious health effects.

As we near the halfway point of this holy month, let us remember the central message Allah imparted to the His Last Prophet during that special Ramadan, and the recurring theme of our Holy Qur’an, Amr bi alma ‘ruf wa nahi ‘an alnunkar (Command good, and forbid evil!) More practically, let this blessed Ramadan be a season that disciplines us, and a much-needed “time-out.”

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