‘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.