Muslims around the world are coming towards the end of this year's Ramadan. The decision by the UK's Channel 4 to air the daily Muslim call to prayer raised eyebrows and created hot debates amongst viewers, however this has increased awareness of Muslims fasting up and down the country.
Whether practicing or cultural, Muslims have a special fascination for fasting during Ramadan; many totally change their lifestyles for a whole month, improving private and public behaviour. There is increased contemplation, sharing, care and a heightened generosity. The community-spirit jumps up significantly.
For numerous Muslim charities this is the best month for their fundraising. No wonder that 'Muslims are Britain's top charity givers', according to Ruth Gledhill, the Religion correspondent of The Times. If a similar high number of Muslims were able to continue the same reflective mind, superior conduct and generous habit of giving for the rest of the year the community would have excelled in all affairs of public life and the parts of the world would be a far better place for all. But real-life Muslims have considerable contradictions in practical, day-to-day life: we have a disproportionately high number of Muslims in the prison population that is worrisome; there is a visible, although tiny, number of violent extremists who have been putting Muslims in the docks through their mindless acts. The Ramadan message needs to reach all Muslims.
If public expression of religious rituals were the only sign of progress, the Muslim community would have surpassed many others. But there are those in the community who probably do not see the real meaning or spirit behind these important rituals. In this month of Ramadan, when Muslims believe that the Qur'an was revealed to their Prophet with a distinctive message of 'Read', many Muslims will be reciting the Qur'an and hearing the night prayers in Arabic, but will have little understanding of its meaning. In general, the community's overall knowledge level is not as strong as it could be, with all its negative consequences. Muslims are reminded year on year that Ramadan's message or inner spirit should be deeply embedded in the community.
God has given Muslims this unique opportunity once a year to build their individual character through a long month of 'training', so that they can elevate themselves to a higher spiritual level. They are expected through this month-long deprivation of food, desire and sexual indulgence to achieve a superior level of Taqwa (God-consciousness) and Ihsan (perfection). Ramadan indeed demands we be positively active and dynamic in our society, with our unilateral code of conduct to become good citizens. This should, in essence, be the Muslim morality, without moralising or being judgemental to others.
Fasting is the only ritual that represents un-noticed self-surrender to God. While other rituals could easily be noticed by people, fasting is for God alone. It should keep believers away from backbiting and inappropriate behaviour: Whoever does not give up forged speech and evil actions, Allah is not in need of his leaving his food and drink - according to a Prophetic tradition.
Fasting is about the 'burning' of one's desire and ego in order to conquer base instincts in life, such as immediate self-gratification, greed, sensuality, arrogance and wasteful extravaganza. In a world of unprecedented commercialisation we tend to constantly feed our body with what it desires: we fatten our ego and nurture our arrogance, we tend to dominate over others with a 'beggar thy neighbour' attitude and action. Our desire for immediate pleasure makes our patience thin. The accessibility of instant messaging, Facebook, Twitter, etc, makes us 'slaves' to our technological gadgets; we have very little free time to think and relax; still less time to spend with our near and dear ones, our family and children. We live fast-paced lives; we want to be in life's fast lane, always in a hurry.
This is eating away our soul; we are gradually turning into human robots. We fear discussing tough issues such as morality and ethics - private or public - lest we are seen as 'dogmatic' by others. We have become too much rights-based, but expect higher level of responsibility from others - our elected representatives, government, the police and public servants. A society needs people who strongly feel a sense of duty to the community around them. Here comes the need for citizenship training; Ramadan, for Muslims, gives this opportunity for one month in a year. Muslims need to ask whether they are succeeding.
Thus reflection, contemplation and introspection in this month are vital. Fasting is the antidote to extreme materialism in our life. It helps us stand firm on positive morality, saves us from empty rhetoric and builds our conscience. Fasting, for Muslims, is a shield from evil; its spirit and message is ignored at our own peril.
Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is former Secretary General of Muslim Council of Britain (2006-10). He is an educationalist, writer and freelance parenting consultant. Follow him on Twitter @MAbdulBari
The views expressed in this article are the author's own.