A few months ago, with ramzaan in full swing, a regular reader of this blog asked me to do a ramzaan post. I had replied saying that I wasn't sure I could, since I don't fast.
However, in private, I tried sorting out my own views on the subject, but wasn't sure I was ready to share them until now. With Bakr-eid, I decided to say what I have been thinking all this time.
The main rationale behind a month of fasting, my grandfather used to say, was to instill a sense of discipline and self-control amongst people, and perhaps, to encourage a reduction in conspicuous consumption, to encourage us to think about desire and lack and about those for whom the lack is perennial. That is why, if you don't fast, you are asked to give the equivalent grain or price of food to the poor.
(Aside: Islam is big on giving at all times. While I have never officially followed the 'one-fifth of profits' rule, I've rarely had much excess or profit. On the other hand, I did have a lot of clothes and my mother translated and extended the one-fifth principle to our wardrobes a few years ago. She asked me to make two piles - for every four clothes I kept, I had to put the fifth aside to give away. The first time, it wasn't easy because I wanted to keep everything. But now I've gotten used to the idea and often end up thinking of consumption in terms of fourths and one-fifths. Surely, if I've got four of anything, I can do without a fifth?)
It even made sense to think of dietary discipline in terms of agricultural cycles. All countries and communities have major festivals that coincide with harvests. The period before a harvest is a really lean one. Afterwards, there is plenty and therefore, joy, which is celebrated. With the lunar calendar, the concept of harvests may not apply, but the rationale for celebration, even of the hunger, exists. (Perhaps, somebody who knows a little more about ancient Arabic clans and pre-Islamic festivals can shed some light on this connection between the lunar calendar and harvest festivals).
Personally, I'm not convinced that we need a religious imposition to inculcate discipline. I am not sure that I am a big fan of 'Discipline' as an overriding necessity. If a government ruled that people must starve twelve hours a day, for a month, we'd have rebellion and revolution at the fall of the first dusk. But because religion says so, we not only observe the fasts but impose them on others (they do that in some places, I hear) who may or may not be religious.
As for discipline... am I disciplined?
On long trips on the road, I go hours without food or water. Sometimes up to 8 hours. I rarely lose my temper, and when I do, it rarely expresses itself in violent, public ways. That's discipline enough for me. When I feel I'm slipping up or giving in to excess, I'll fast by all means. But I should be able to do this on my own. I don't need the world to do it with me. To be able to do something only collectively is not discipline. That's just rule-following. Laws aren't spirituality. Spirituality is about making a choice. About choosing to seek something that is beyond the worldly, beyond your ordinary engagement with the material and the instinctive.
And the excess factor? There seems to be no respite from the excess either. The rich have iftar parties that put to shame a poor man's wedding. It is like a wedding feast where the daily excess is trebled, instead of being controlled. And the poor...? Well, the poor eat a little less, or starve a little differently. They get up earlier than they used to and sleep worse than they did. Maybe it does discipline them. Maybe it does teach them that they should be prepared for starvation, if hunger be their fate. Maybe it teaches them to swallow their spittle in more ways than one, to ignore the most primary of instincts. Maybe it grooms them for life, as it were.
If at all ramzaan was intended as a compulsion, I personally feel that it was intended for the rich. For a well-to-do elite clan of traders and herd-owners, to begin with. Maybe that was why that loophole was permitted - if you can't fast, give the equivalent of the meals you would eat to those who need it. Either way, a general form of control and community discipline was intended to benefit the poor. Now it is just a tool of control for some, a social bonding trip for others, and a mandate of identity for the rest.
And yet, I support Eid.
Eid is celebration, even for the poor. Eid is newness. Eid is joy and mingling and hugging people. (I especially endorse hugging.) The poor celebrate with all they have. The rich do too. That, I can deal with. But ramzaan seems no longer an equitable undertaking, if it ever had been. The rich celebrate it. The poor go through it. The middle class sighs that it isn't the one, shudders that it isn't the other, and does a bit of both.
Ramzaan is life, in that way - representative of how things are. And how things are is just as insupportable - to my mind - as they always were.
However, if we must have a compulsory Ramzaan, then I would have liked to change the rules. Let it be a month in which nobody wears any artificial fabrics. Nobody eats anything processed. Nobody works more than eight hours. Nobody works less than eight hours. A month in which everybody works with their own hands at least four hours a day, where they do something that requires the use of physical labour. A month in which everybody gives up routine foods, work patterns, costumes, habits, whatever, even houses. A month of change and real experimentation with the self and with your relationship to the world you live in. Not that I see it happening any time soon... but it would be nice, wouldn't it?