"What! Not even water?"
Has often been the shocked reply for many Muslims, to the statement that you are abstaining from food and drink sunrise till sunset, for the month of Ramadan.
But it could be said that many across Britain have gleaned some understanding of this month of spirituality, exclusive to Muslims. That it's a bit similar to the Christian month of Lent (but more strict), it's a month of understanding how poor people feel, it is a month of increasing spirituality. These are all ways that Ramadan is often understood.
Channel 4 is dedicating daily programming time this year to Ramadan, where selected Muslims have been sharing their experiences of the month. It has emphasised the great spirituality of this month and the personal relationship Ramadan aids in building with God.
But there is one aspect of Ramadan that is not in the spotlight as much, and it is this aspect which is crucial for the lives of Muslims, post-Ramadan.
The actual verse of the Quran which makes fasting an obligation for Muslims is translated as this:
"Fasting as been prescribed upon you, as it was prescribed on those before you, so that you may gain consciousness [of God]" Chapter 2: 183
The word used to describe consciousness of God, taqwa, is difficult to translate into English but broadly means having consciousness and fear of God in your life. It isn't a term that just describes the spirituality created in the ritual actions of prayer and fasting - Understanding this term taqwa, gives spirituality in Islam a different meaning.
This verse of the Quran therefore defines the spiritual retreat of Ramadan as having wider purpose - And that is to recharge the spirituality and rememberance of God in all actions Muslims carry out in life. And this, has a profound impact not just on individuals but also society. Society becomes in need of Ramadan.
It is this heightened consciousness of God which urges Muslims to be moral and do what is right, even if no one is watching them as they are aware God is watching them. So although looking after elderly parents may at times be taxing and seen as a nuisance, Muslims seek to please Allah by not only looking after them, but even be mindful in the way they speak to them - As God in the Quran orders to not even snap at them. It is this taqwa which imbibes the Islamic view that all women are an honour to be respected and protected, and to not treat them in this manner is displeasing God. Thus before any rape laws or sexual harassment laws come in, taqwa puts men into line.
Whether you are an influential banker, or claiming a benefit, the mentality of taqwa is the first form of police which limits you in sticking to being honest and truthful, as you seek to not wrong God before you even think about wronging the State.
It was what made the third ruler of Islam Umar Ibn Al Khattab as the single ruler of a state which spanned the vast Arab world, to roam the streets at night and sleep in doorways of public buildings, looking for the citizens whom he may not have met the needs of. It was having consciousness of God, and the fear of being accounted by Him which drove him to go above and beyond simply enacting laws.
Indeed Ramadan, has clearly not made all Muslims crime-free. However it is important to understand that the idea of fasting in Ramadan was actually introduced to the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) in a society where the entire society thought in this manner and held the same views. Islam has views and rulings on every aspect of life, so this renewed taqwa through Ramadan was vital throughout Islamic history to ensure first and foremost people self regulated themselves to create a healthy and harmonious society.
Today Muslims live in a society where consciousness of God is predominantly relegated to the private sphere, where religion usually is placed. Making the actions of life, family to work, social interactions to politics; aspects for individuals to decide how best to do, assuming their individual moral quality will drive them to do good.
Furthermore, living in a society whose Prime Minister talks about 'Broken Britain', of absent fathers becoming an increasing problem, of fraud from top bankers to benefit thieving being a problem that needs scrutinising, perhaps it's worth stripping back the discussion to the level of values and reflect upon what a consciousness of a Higher Being could really provide society.
The recent report that Muslims are officially the highest charity givers of the UK itself makes one question what is unique about this community to achieve this result of such humanitarian and moral behaviour. And it is this discussion which will transcend the "What! Not even water?" responses, to let's talk wider, about values.