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Ramadan: Reverence, Restraint & Responsibility

tarawih-understanding-the-words‘There’s only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving, and that’s your own self,’ said Aldous Huxley, the English novelist best known for his dystopian novel, Brave New World. In his exploration of the dilemmas confronting modern man (the rise of capitalism, the dehumanising demands of technological progress, and the cult of self-worship and instant gratification), Huxley hits on many truisms in his chilling forecasts to the modern world.

This month will see Muslims the world over observe the fasts of Ramadan. Ramadan is a month in which believers are required to buckle down more consciously so as to improve their own ‘corner of the universe.’

The month is marked by heightened religious observance and also a keener sense of social cohesion, and provides a powerful energy for self-transformation. As the month progresses, many Muslims, repentant for the ills and misdeeds of their past, resolving never to return to such ways again. Indeed, men, women and whole societies actively purify themselves during this month. This experience becomes, for many, the turning point of the year and, for some, their whole lives. Furthermore, Ramadan yields to the believer an array of timely lessons to help steer them through what is fast becoming a chaotic and volatile world. Let’s touch upon three such lessons:

1. Undoubtedly, Ramadan’s core lesson is learning to be more mindful and conscious of God, which relates to the sense of ta‘zim (“reverence” and “awe”) of Him. Ramadan is a call to renew our reverence of God by revering the Divine orders and respecting their limits (hudud). The regime of fasting sets certain limits which, though designed to facilitate our detachment from the dunya; the lower world, and from the nafs; the ego, it is ultimately about offering believers an opportunity to revere and remember God more fully and faithfully.

2. Another of Ramadan’s recurring lessons is that of restraint. By temporarily denying themselves instant gratification while fasting, Muslims are taught self-restraint. Here we confront Islam as counter-culture. For what could be more unmodern than to keep the cravings of the nafs in check. Modernity is about pandering to the nafs. “Free yourself”, “Be yourself”, “Indulge yourself”, is modernity’s holy trinity.

Our current climate is one where Muslims find themselves under constant scrutiny, criticism or attack. Hardly a day goes by, in the media or the world at large, without Islam being fair game. Yet for believers, the self-restraint exercised in Ramadan is the same restraint we must demonstrate in the face of all such provocations. The Qur’an asserts: You shall certainly hear much that is hurtful from those who were given the Book before you, and from the idolaters. But if you are patient and God-conscious, these are weighty factors in all affairs.[3:186]

3. Ramadan also teaches us responsibility, particularly to the world’s poor and hungry. For by the end of a day’s fast, Muslims usually experience some sensation of hunger. Thus we are awakened, in a most direct manner, to the plight of hundreds of millions of our fellow human beings who suffer hunger and starvation every day. This should compel us to extend to them our help and support. In a world filled with grotesque human inequalities, and soaked in the unholiness of poverty, we must each commit ourselves to eliminating this global injustice.

This year, as schools up and down the country wind-up the task of grounding pupils in the Three R’s (reading, writing and arithmetic), Ramadan offers its own Three R’s: reverence, restraint & responsibility. Internalising such lessons best prepares believers to engage the brave new world of the turbo-consumerist Monoculture and help bring about its much needed healing.

Wa bi’Llahi’l-tawfiq.

Big Brother: Who Watches Who?

big-brother-1984-carrier-q-640x353During the first half of the twentieth century, many books were written which warned about the dangers of giving the state control over new and powerful technologies. The nightmare visions of society these books conjured up have left an indelible mark upon our collective consciousness and subsequent social and historical development.

George Orwell’s 1984, and Aldoux Huxley’s Brave New World, are regarded by many to be the two most influential works in this genre. The two novels describe a dystopia in which an all-powerful state controls and manipulates the behaviour and actions of its people in order to preserve its own power and stability and to keep the masses servile and under control. Orwell’s 1984 is, no doubt, the better known of the two. Words like “Orwellian” and “Big Brother” have even entered our lexicon as synonyms for abusive or totalitarian societies and all-controlling, surveillance states – such is the impact the book has had, both culturally and politically. That said, the two depictions of dystopia, the Orwellian and Huxleyan, are quite distinct and their warnings very different.

Orwell’s dystopia warned about a repressive surveillance society where every thought and conversation was monitored and dissent was brutally punished. Huxley’s warned about society held captive to gross consumption and seduced by sensual gratification, political theatre and trivial amusement. So whilst society is kept entertained, political power would grow unchecked as people embraced their own oppression.

Orwell, as Neil Postman says in Amusing Ourselves to Death, warns of a world in which books were banned. Huxley, Postman noted, warns of a world where no one wants to read books because of being distracted by trivial pursuits and mindless pleasures.

Orwell warns about those who would deprive us of information. Huxley warns about those who would feed us too much information, so that truth becomes lost in a sea of triviality and minds made passive with mediocrity.

Orwell warns of a society where ideas are brutaly controlled and truths manipulated. Huxley warns of a society where a population, preoccupied with trivial gossip or news, no longer cared about truth.

Orwell warns we would all be watched by Big Brother. Huxley warns that we would all be watching Big Brother.

Orwell warned we would be controlled by inflicting pain. Huxley warns we would be controlled by inflicting pleasure.

Orwell warned we would be frightened into submission. Huxley warned we would be seduced into submission.

Passionate discussions still abound as to whether we are closer to being an Orwellian society or a Huxleyan one? Whether the state is growing increasingly Orwellian, and society ever more Huxleyan? Whether we are now in the grip of a Huxleyan dystopia which will eventually morph into an Orwellian one? And while we should continue to be vigilant against state tyranny and totalitarianism, their presence or approach tend to be quite conspicuous. But, as Huxley remarks in Brave New World Revisited, we may be ever alert to oppose a coercive regime, but must not fail ‘to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distraction.’

The Qur’an speaks against the tyranny of the rich and the powerful in many passages. Yet because of the subtlety of its deception, the Qur’an places greater emphasis on the distraction and subjugation brought about by over-indulging in worldly comforts: The life of this world is nothing but play and distraction. But the Hereafter is better for those who fear God. Have you no sense? [6:32] So although both kinds of subjugation are nasty – the Orwellian type and the Huxleyan – it would seem to be a case of: ‘Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.’

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