In this year's month of Ramadan, which is only a few days away, Muslims in the northern hemisphere will have very long days of fasting. In London it is expected to be around 19 hours of voluntary 'starvation' from food, drink and physical intimacy. This annual month-long fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam aimed to create 'God-consciousness' (taqwa in Arabic) amongst believers.
Taqwa has a deeper meaning of incessant introspection of one's inner thoughts and behaviours; that is, to always be on the religious 'middle way' and social 'centre-ground', away from extremism in all aspects. This 24/7 soul-searching has the potential to guide and propel believers towards living a morally upright life and developing key inner qualities, such as integrity and self-discipline as well as good manners. It has the ability to shape their lives and transform their character towards one with a positive drive for action, for the good of all.
Behind the disciplining of natural thirst, hunger and base desires, fasting prepares believers to contemplate the mystery of our life - our fleeting existence on earth, connection with God, relationships with fellow human beings and obligation to the well-being of our environment. This has a direct impact on our behaviour - humility, patience, fortitude, care and love. Ramadan teaches Muslims the ethos of sharing and caring, extra generosity, respect and giving preference to fellow human beings; these are the values that are greatly needed now, more than ever, in our unequal society and fractured world.
The physically challenging and spiritually intense fasting from dawn to dusk is thus a divine gift to Muslims so they can become harbingers of good to all mankind.
The question is how real is this now?
When it comes to the public expression of religious rituals, Muslims are one of the strongest amongst others in faith communities. Whether practicing or cultural, They have a special affinity for fasting during Ramadan; many thoroughly transform their attitude, behaviour and lifestyle for a whole month, according to a Prophetic tradition that says 'Whoever does not give up forged speech and evil actions, Allah is not in need of his leaving food and drink.'
Ramadan also harvests a unique festivity in Muslim life. Many multiply their charity giving during Ramadan (British Muslims are known as the 'top charity givers'). Recitation and memorisation of the Qur'an are commonplace and some strive to gain an understanding of the text and context.
Being true to Islam means being a good citizen and human being. In fact, the essence of Muslim morality is to be good to others, without being judgemental. It demands from them positive and ethical action, a unilateral undertaking to create a better society.
While other Islamic rituals are noticeable to people around, fasting is not; it represents a unique self-surrender to God. Fasting 'burns out' one's desires and helps to conquer base instincts, such as self-gratification and arrogance. Apart from health and other benefits, it is the most effective way for one's inner purification.
In this unprecedented commercialisation and sexualisation of our world today it is easier to fatten our egos, nurture our greed, increase our impatience and succumb to intolerance and hatred of others. The easy accessibility of social media that shrinks the world can make us 'slaves' to our ever-new technological gadgets. We have very little time to think, reflect and relax; still less time to spend with our near and dear ones - even the treasured children and beloved elders in our own families. We live fast-paced lives; we want to be in life's fastest lane and beat others, yet we do not foresee the possibility of a potential crash.
Much of the modern way of life is eating away at our souls; we are involuntarily turning into human robots. We avoid discussing tough issues such as morality and ethics - lest we are seen as 'dogmatic' or 'extremist' by others. We have become too rights-based, but expect a higher level of responsibility from others - our elected representatives, governments, the police and public servants.
Fasting is thus antidote to selfishness and the extreme materialism in our lives. It is a 'shield against evil' to survive and succeed in our highly asymmetric world; it reminds believers that real success is not just in our wealth, power and fame but in striving for a better world for all.
A society needs people who strongly feel a sense of duty to all people, a natural civic responsibility - not just for political and social unity but to address our human cravings for peace.
Every year Ramadan brings this unique opportunity to 'train' Muslims to find their inner selves, recharge their energy, revitalise their lives and work for common good. Alas, many amongst them have big contradictions in real life.
In these turbulent days of materialism and individual self gratification, with religious extremism and secular-irreligious backlash in our public life, we need a spiritual regeneration to make our world safer and more humane.
Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is an educationalist, author and parenting consultant.