Religion and religious practice is for a higher purpose; to lift the status of human beings. When it comes to Islam it is about the spirit and message of the oneness of God and the stewardship of human beings on earth. Islam is essentially about one's wilful submission to God to become His worthy vicegerent; God has 'honoured the children of Adam' (Al-Qur'an 17:10). The core Islamic rituals, the five pillars, have their unique messages and meanings for the adherents; they are meant to guide us, individually and collectively, to live as God's true emissaries on the planet.
Human beings have been 'inspired with (conscience of) what is wrong and what is right' (Al-Qur'an 91: 8). The spirit of Islam is to nurture and strengthen our conscience and to prepare us as better human beings so that we can live at peace with ourselves and spread peace amongst others. Our world now desperately needs more harmony and peace through justice. Harmony, peace and justice are essential ingredients for our stewardship of the world.
But to err is human. We tend to forget the spirit of religion and, over time, change them into mechanical rituals. Human beings are very efficient in ritualising religion, or for that matter, any spirited action.
Take the case of a month-long fasting in Ramadan, a unique practice that God has prescribed not only for Muslims but for all the previous people, as mentioned in the Qur'an.
"O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, that you may attain God-consciousness (taqwa). (Al-Qur'an 2:183)
Now observe how many Muslims attempt to achieve this goal in just this month, while excluding the rest of the year! It is true, that unlike the other main Islamic practices, Ramadan creates a superior environment and a religious buzz within Muslim communities for a whole month, be they in Muslim-majority or minority countries. We prepare ourselves to welcome the month, and when it comes, most of us fast and become extra observant of our religion. We try not to miss the compulsory prayers which many of us may disregard in other times. Our relationships with the mosques increases; the rich amongst us pay compulsory charity (zakah) and become even more charitable. Many of us remove the dust off the Qur'an from our top shelves and recite from it; some recite the whole Qur'an and attend extra prayers (tarawih) at night. In the last ten days of Ramadan many of us seek the night of power (lailatul qadr) through extra prayers, supplication and Qur'an recitation. The routine of life changes for many Muslims be they practising or casual. Young children in many families try to emulate their elders and vow to become better Muslims. Their anger recedes and demands reduce, their addiction to TV lessens and they become more disciplined and loyal to their parents. The mood in the Muslim family and the community changes with more visible religiosity. This has an additional impact on their surroundings, even in Muslim-minority countries. Other religious communities watch fasting in Islam with great interest. According to the Vatican's point man for dialogue with Islam, Ramadan is seen as an opportunity for Catholics to learn from the Muslims' example of obedience to the Almighty.
All these are essentially signs of the liveliness of Islam that pervades Muslim minds and Muslim communities, wherever they live and even in the days of excessive materialism and consumerism. Fasting in Ramadan is genuinely seen as a blessing on Muslims and to some extent people around them. Muslims are grateful to God that that they have been blessed with this unique month-long training routine to change themselves, charge their spiritual battery and to attain God-consciousness.
However, a few questions arise. Are we, individually and as a community, achieving this desired objective of attaining God-consciousness through fasting? Beneath all the noticeable practises does the level of our God-consciousness really go up, and if it does how long does it stay there?
Islam has taught us to reflect and employ our introspection. But when it comes to our relationship with God no one, apart from the individual, can gauge it; it is between an individual and God. God-consciousness lies in one's heart where no one else has access. The month-long fasting, meant to subdue one's desire of base instinct can only be done through the total love for and submission to God. This is the essence of spirituality in Islam that one should seek; Islamic rituals are meant to be the vehicle of superior spirituality; they should not be mere mechanical habit.
It is difficult to say how many Muslims would pass this test of God-consciousness and are able to build a deeper relationship with their Creator and Sustainer, but if manners and moral character of a people are some pointers then we may be frustrated with ourselves. Our not-so-satisfactory performances in personal and group qualities in our families, neighbourhood and social lives point a finger to our general failure in reaping the benefit from this noble month.
No one can ever say that attaining God-consciousness in the midst of all the temptation is easy; Al-Quran talks about the real distraction in our life,
Beautified for mankind is love of the joys (that come) from women and offspring, and stored up heaps of gold and silver, and horses branded (with their mark), and cattle and land. That is comfort of the life of the world. (Al-Qur'an 3:14)
While all these are blessings from God, we are tested with this worldly temptation. It is a demand on us that we take the world seriously, undertake responsibilities to develop a life of serenity and balance and do not squander these blessings and lose balance. Fasting is prescribed on us to essentially mould our character and acquire the lofty qualities that are needed to bring inner peace of mind and enhance our ability to serve others. God expects from us that as His stewards on earth we race with each other and compete for righteousness, not for lowly things such as greed and lust.
Sadly, what many of us 'Ramadan Muslims' do during this month and the rest of the year is indeed less than inspirational. If our external change in behaviour and daily routine in Ramadan does not bring inner change, but give way to the passion of pleasure-seeking and egotistic extravagance, we must ask whether our fasting has really been accepted by God. For some 'Ramadan Muslims' indulgence begins right on the day of Eid celebration and for others it gradually creeps in their life and dilutes the spirit which they acquired through the hunger and thirst of fasting. This is getting worse at a time when the dominance of the materialistic way of life is becoming irresistible.
Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, was aware of our natural human frailty and reminded Muslims of these dangers. He said, "Whoever does not give up lying and evil actions, then Allah is not in need of his leaving his food and drink" (Sahih al-Bukhari).
In another powerful hadith he said: "Many are the fasters whose fasting does not bring them anything except hunger and thirst and many are those who keep standing in the night but their standing does not bring anything except being awake in the night" (Tirmidi).
It is vital we employ the powerful tool of introspection (ihtisab) of our deeds, inside and outside Ramadan, and build our inner resilience and fighting-spirit against the temptation of life. It is essential we step back from our ever busy lives and shield ourselves from an artificially created virtual world dictated by smart phones, social networking and the entertainment industry. It is important we discover our worth as human beings and use the gift of time to stay away from loss.
By the declining day, Lo! Man is in a state of loss,
Save those who believe and do good works, and exhort one another to truth and exhort one another to endurance (Al-Qur'an Ch103)