From time immemorial, fasting has always been a pillar of religiosity and spirituality in major faith communities. To Muslims the month of Ramadan is pivotal for their spiritual uplifting, as it demands from them an individual consciousness, self-restraint, introspection and a spiritual renewal. Through fasting believers are expected to make every effort to better themselves as active citizens and above all good human beings. With increased empathy, heightened spirituality and communitarian festivity the month of fasting challenges perceptions about Islam and its 1.6billion followers.
As the Islamic calendar follows a lunar cycle, Ramadan comes forward 11 days every year. This year's Ramadan falls at a time when the days are the longest in Britain. To those who have never fasted in their life this could be both intimidating and scary. But to believers, fasting is nothing short of liberating as it is a training period for them to defeat one's greed, lust and selfishness. Long fasting hours can thus be exceptionally rewarding.
Fasting works as an antidote to human transgressions. Indeed, a month-long 'burning' of one's ego and arrogance uplifts individuals and elevates them to a higher status. Human base instincts - gluttony, indulgence and wasteful extravaganza - have their own pains and emptiness. Rumi, the 13th century Sufi mystic and literary giant, found their cure in fasting; he saw the "hidden sweetness in the stomach's emptiness."
Our body is the carrier of our soul and spirit. The fitness and purity of our body is thus essential. Fasting detoxifies our body. It removes impurities from the blood in the liver, where toxins are processed for elimination and through the kidneys, intestines, lungs, lymph and skin making us feel cleaner, lighter and healthier. So, believers are especially advised not to turn their break of fasting meal into a feasting which would be contrary to the goal.
The long hours of fasting have obvious challenges, especially for people with demanding physical activities such as builders or sportspeople. Physical stamina and mental preparedness are thus vital. By streamlining one's life and purifying intentions, it helps one to focus on excellence (Ihsan in Arabic) in our daily activities and in attaining closeness to God. To real believers, fasting is never a burden or an act of starvation.
During the 2012 London Olympics season some research about the effects of fasting on Muslim sports people was carried out. It was found that a deprivation of sleep, not necessarily the lack of food, in summer times when nights are very short could affect athlete's performance in the day. Waking up for the predawn meal (Suhoor) was found to be the main factor; believers, however, eat this meal for reward as this is recommended by the Prophet and this is also beneficial for health. The only way they could compensate was to make meticulous plans and bring about a ruthless determination to perform at their best.
The last time the fasting season was in the peak of summer with long days was more than three decades ago when I came to the UK as a Bangladesh Air Force officer in July 1981 for training with the Royal Army (Chattenden barracks in Kent). I was worried in the beginning. But once I determinedly started fasting, even all the physical rigours in the day appeared to be adventurous! I felt it was through God's mercy that I could do this. I look back and think my youthful energy then was a big factor; but I now realise that it really is down to ones willpower.
The Ramadan ethos of share and care, deference to the law of the land and extra generosity become part of Muslim social life during the holy month. This was demonstrably evident during the 2011 England riots when Muslim youth in some affected areas kept away from the streets and in the mosques. It was also visible during the 2012 summer Olympics that coincided with Ramadan, when Muslim Olympians and Paralympians, Games Makers, torchbearers and spectators behaved extremely well.
In our normal life, the desire for immediate pleasures tests our patience. The easy accessibility to instant messaging and other social media platforms too often makes us 'slaves' to technological gadgets. We have very little free time to relax and reflect and even less to spend with our near and dear ones. We live fast-paced lives and always seem to be in a hurry only to find that life's mirage is always driving us to wrong directions.
A month-long fasting is a great leveller amongst believers. Feeling for the poor and destitute is all embodied in the spirit of fasting. Whatever one's background, fasting demands the same physical discomfort, but similar spiritual contentment. It makes us realise how it feels to be hungry and thirsty and offers a true appreciation of the needs of the poor and malnourished in our midst and beyond.
Ramadan demands that Muslims be positively active and dynamic in their community and wider society. As a people of faith we have a unilateral obligation to work for the good of all. We have the obligations of good-neighbourliness, of being concerned for others, to share their joys and feel their pains and to provide support and help wherever we can. We have also a religious obligation to encourage all that is good and discourage what is harmful, with a sense of urgency but with patience and wisdom.
This is what I have learnt as Muslim morality, without moralising or being judgemental to others.
Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is a noted civic leader, parenting consultant, intellectual-activist and commentator.