Ramadan, a month holy for the Muslims, begins. In Indonesia, a country with many Muslim believers, the massive change of behaviors during the month is very interesting to see: minarets actively blare Arabic verses during mid-evening prayer or tarawih and pre-dawn meal or sahur; plans of returning-to-hometown or mudik are being made far in advance as transportation space will very soon be scarce; and more importantly: daytime work and schools become more lax, food stalls and traffic impatience explode right before 6PM, more food during the night – all of this dedicated to the provision of fasting in Ramadan, obligatory for able-bodied Muslim adults, which forbids eating, drinking, smoking, and other vices such as anger and sexual acts, from sunrise to sunset.
The Islamic provisions governing fasting of Ramadan is based upon three values: empathizing with the poor, self-control, and physical detoxification. Certainly there can be more, but these three are the most often heard. These values of fasting are difficult to understand. Empathizing with the poor is a social quest much bigger than merely an 8-hour pause of eating, drinking and such; while not a pause of our high-paying jobs, our privileged education, our use of gadgets, our fancy cars and houses and apartments, and so on. Empathizing with the poor becomes weird when fasting obligation does not exclude the poor – why must the poor empathize with its very own kind and exacerbate their daily conditions? It is even more ludicrous if fasting then creates a false sense of being-able-to-empathize or a completely baseless claim of success (with the validity being what Allah says instead of a true empirical achievement) by the dangerous simplification of “poor” into “not eating/drinking” (temporarily).
Self-control is also a strange value. While controlling anger, gluttony, lust, and other negative emotions is generally good, why its temporal state – only one month a year, only dawn till dusk? It is very interesting to see many super-conservative Muslims scorn Valentine’s Day: “Love is a good value, why only one day to promote love instead of everyday?” while the same concern applies exactly to Ramadan.
Physical detoxification has been one of the interesting pro-science approaches many Muslims use to justify fasting: eating in those hours and with a controlled amount allows the body to properly detoxify itself; and it is also good for those who are looking forward to lose weight! This is strange because as science develops, nutritionists certainly have found many ways to accommodate health concerns better. Different individuals have different nutritional necessities, so a prescription specific for every individual is much more appropriate rather than a one-size-fits-all magic wand.
While these values clearly have merits, there are obvious difficulties in comprehending them which necessitates a more sophisticated understanding of what “fasting” is, what should they be, and how does its practice fit with its supposed underlying value. This difficulty is sadly responded with two unfortunate moves: stonewalls and social imposition.
Stonewall (“just do what God says, don’t ask any questions!”) is clearly a lazy and incompetent way of arguing religious values. Religious complexities are reduced into mere fixed manuals. Rules of religion are not subject to any questioning or revision, and by default they are the best already without having to be proven at all, which is a gross oversimplification. Justifications used are most often the afterlife: just do it, and you will be rewarded generously in the afterlife. The over-reference to afterlife displays an inability to philosophize as well as the inability to engage in different assumptions (i.e. the assumption that there is no afterlife’). A good (understanding of) religion will be able to address as much assumptions as possible. This behavior most often denotes a frustration at the inability to provide answers for both self and other people, and this is embarrassing. To prevent embarrassment and evidence of further inability, a stonewall is applied.
Stonewall is possibly the seed of social imposition. Because there is no deepening of religion that can only be gained through rigorous questioning, the value of religion ties very strongly to quantity of voices surrounding it. Any noise, disagreement, or the littlest of challenge becomes such a huge threat, and a believer’s validity of religion (in this case, practice of fasting) is attained by having as much conformity around him/her. Thus, when this kind of believer fasts, it is necessary for surrounding things to conform. Kids have to learn to conform to fasting (without being educated profoundly of its value). Those who are not Muslim are compelled to “respect”. Restaurants are forced to shut their windows during daytime. The necessity of quantity-based reinforcement due to weak value-understanding is why a flock of believers would demand others to conform and create a social imposition, especially in the case of fasting as such a personal religious practice. Thus, I feel that fasting is socially imposed – it is fulfilled, by me in my growing up years as well as by many I observe around me, merely as a way to fulfill society’s tradition and expectation.
The Dynamics of Revenge
Social imposition is particularly concerning because when fasting has devolved from a deepening of its value but into merely a tool of 1) conforming to social hawks, or 2) God’s “have-to”, fasting is not taken with joy, rejoicing, full control of personal agency, but instead, with burden. Fasting becomes an ordeal, a set of hours spent in an abstract prison; and then, as is the case with all agony, it would need some sort of compensation later. What compensation might arise from this phenomenon of burden-laden fasting?
One of the top, if not THE top, trending topics in conversations during Ramadan is the menu and venue of fasting-break meal: “Where do we eat – at home or with friends? What do we eat? What meals will make it special? We have to try a different cuisine today because those we have tried yesterday! What ARE for ta’jil – pre-meal sweets intended to provide the empty stomach with easily-digestible glucose so as not to shock it when later a floodgate of complex carbs and protein rampages through? What ARE for main course? After all the thirst and hunger we’ve endured for these long hours, there just has to be four types of sweets and five types of main courses!”
Such sentiments are very commonly found during Ramadan. Every day is very verbal: groans of thirst not being quenched and body being nutrition-deprived during the day, boasts of having-gone through ordeal and exhibitionistic vocalizations of prayers during the night. Every day is very bipolar: slowness during the day when students complain of not having their brains sorted out and workers excuse themselves from carrying tasks due to their self-imposed physical limitation; splurges of banquet in parties during the evening.
Various researches show that consumption, particularly of the middle-upper economic strata in urban areas, increase sharply during Ramadan. Items that regularly see and look at an increase of consumption during Ramadan include sembako (sembilan bahan pokok or the Nine Staples), food products, clothes and apparels. Some argue that this increase is supplier-driven: discount prices, often at insane rates, ubiquitously provided by various shops and department stores during and especially toward the end of Ramadan or Ramadan evening meal offers of sweet drinks and cheaper meals for large groups in restaurants. However, simplest laws of economy and the easiest understanding of market behavior clearly point towards one direction: supply responds to demand (especially an overwhelming one), and market’s behavior responds to customers’ preference. Certainly, in Ramadan, there is a customer preference of splurging, eating, drinking, and spending more. This is an interesting fact, as this defies all underlying value of empathizing with the poor, self-control, and detoxification.
Splurging most likely compensates for the burden imposed by the social imposition of fasting. It is a dynamic of revenge: fasting often renders its observers feeling not like a spiritually transcended person, but rather a victim of deprivation, censorship, to some extent, oppression and agony. These feelings of being deprived leads to the execution of revenge: undereating is paid back with overeating, lack of festive during the day is compensated by gaudy acts during the night.
Revenge is still a dominating theme in many teachings of Islam, unfortunately: the law of qisas (Equal Retaliation; eye for an eye) is still upheld as one of the main criminal tenets of the Sharia law; the rift between Shiite and Sunni is mainly fueled by the revenge of murder against the prophet’s grandson; the principles guiding many jihad movement bring forth the rhetoric of “trampled dignity” – revenge against the evilness of a common enemy such as the West or Zionists. It is not surprising that the same psychology of revenge-demanding victimhood is too-familiarly applied as well in this case of fasting.
A Supposed Revocation of Physicality?
Splurging is a form of compensation, compensation is necessitated by burden, burden is a by-product of imposition. It is impossible for fasting to be completely absolved of its elements of burden and imposition. After all, “burden” and “imposition” is a merely a less positive way of saying “responsibility” and “discipline”. They are both aspects very inherent in life. Some burdens are more acceptable than others (for example, the responsibility for a child to study is much more acceptable than the burden for a minor to take care of their ailing parents); some imposition is fairer (the discipline a citizen must employ in following legislated laws, for example, is fairer than the arbitrary imposition of iron-fisted kings in the medieval). In this case, burdens and imposition imposed during fasting very often does not stem from personal necessity, but rather as a social necessity. This is where burden, instead of transcending into its “higher forms”: responsibility and discipline, devolves into the need for compensation and revenge.
In order for burden not to devolve, it is important to ensure it stems from a personal necessity – by this, a personal understanding of what values fasting embody, and a release as much as possible from social impositions – both being imposed with or, worse, actively imposing. An understanding of fasting at a personal level necessitates any possible stonewalls being relinquished as much as possible in order to question deeper what fasting means for an individual.
When fasting ultimately is a practice to be more in control of self’s vice, fasting should not be defined as stopping eating and drinking. Eating and drinking is not everyone’s vice. As an ectomorphic, disease-laden guy, sporting only 50 kgs on a 170 cm body, having a metabolism system not so absorbent of fat or nutrients so it’s very tough to gain weight, and psychologically addicted to not-eating, stopping eating and drinking is brings more harm than good to me. For many other normal people out there, eating in control, healthily, having not much problem with food, defining fasting as a pause to eating or drinking is ridiculous. It’s like prescribing an alcoholic to go through marriage counseling – a problem-and-solution mismatch.
However, everyone has their own vice. Almost everyone is addicted to at least one thing or one bad habit, or more, a bit too much: their work, computer games, online shopping, porn, procrastination, laziness, etc. Instead of simply fixating on food as the forbidden object in fasting, it is best to identify what these personal vices are and focus on that. The scripture’s temporary ban on food is merely symbolic, perhaps representative to the Arabic culture of eating in very large portions. By that, fasting will better represent personal betterment, and an individual will be allowed better to take ownership of their fasting instead of stonewalling logic and doing it simply “it’s what everybody does”. The example for this is the practice of Lent observed by the Catholics, where individuals choose a vice of their choosing and stop its consumption for an extended period of time. This is certainly more fitting to the inspiration of personal betterment, self-control, and empathy as the philosophies of fasting.
Stopping eating and drinking while simultaneously prevents other personal vice does not make much sense. The body will continue to biologically demand nourishment, and the mind will continue to quell this, so that this takes away focus necessary to be applied to the other vice. It is best to focus at one vice at a time.
Ultimately, the worst thing that fixation on food and drinks can do to fasting is that it physicalizes fasting. Fasting, instead of a philosophical journey of value-finding and a reminder to understand and mend ourselves, becomes a formula of physical exertion. It is hard enough to personalize fasting when it is too often treated as “something everybody does” or “simply an obligation”, and even more so to personally own it when an immense focus on physicality, especially, an irrelevant one, is poured into the act of fasting. The problem of compensation earlier discussed is very likely to have stemmed from the inability to claim ownership to the act of fasting, and because fasting is treated more as a physical rigor (which might not always be relevant) rather than anything else. Physicality should be revoked from fasting in order for other aspects of it that drives further betterment, such as psychological mending or addiction-quelling, can better unearth – and when focusing on these aspects, we all can still fast while eating or drinking, if those are not our worst vice.