From Fast to Feast: Meaning of Ramadan and the Global Poverty Crisis

Every year the month of Ramadan arrives ushering in fasting and spiritual contemplations about our words and deeds in this world and aspiration for the hereafter. During Ramadan, Muslims from all walks of life fast, pray and give charity as an expression of commitment to their faith and an articulation of a sense of collective social responsibility to fellow human beings. However, increasingly Muslims in various countries are preoccupied only with the outer physical fulfillment of fasting coupled with a basic and shallow commitment to making the world a better place.

In many locales, Ramadan has been transformed from a fast into feast with food over-consumption, waste, and nauseating levels of indulgence; and not to forget a month long obscene entertainment agenda. Many do and are able to articulate the need to fast in order to control the appetitive self, eliminate bad habits, and embellish one’s character with good qualities that can help in navigating a difficult world. Furthermore, the adeptness to understand the health benefits of fasting are easily cited by Muslims and the need to feel the hunger of the poor so as to develop sympathy toward them that engenders a resolve to lend a helping hand from that which God has entrusted them.

Yet, the problem of over-consumption and utter waste is readily evidenced with Muslims food intake increasing during the month of Ramadan when compared to non-fasting months and days. In addition, many find themselves gaining more weight during the month of fasting by taking the opportunity to make every end of the day a limitless feast knowing no boundaries. Rather than developing self-control and contentment with little food, Ramadan has become the time for letting one’s self go and make sure to experience every worldly food and drink delight available to them and at times going into debt to procure it.

The deeper problem at present is the lack of immediate connection that must be made between fasting in Ramadan and the global poverty crisis. Yes, we should attempt to feel hunger so as to understand how those without food feel on a daily basis, however, I am calling for a completely different level of connections to be made. We need to understand and make a pressing connection between over-consumption, indulgence and wastefulness and the rising tide of poverty not only among Muslims, but all humans across the world. We need to feel that our over-consumption essentially is our own footprint on the lives of those living in poverty. Important to feel the hunger of the poor, but it is more critical to understand our own inward and outward responsibility for the state of imbalance in the world that today makes many go hungry on a daily basis.

If Ramadan is no more than a feast, a family gathering and going through the motions of spiritual performance while not digging deeper into the meaning of fasting at a time of extreme global poverty, then we are only part of the larger problem. Performing Ramadan as a yearly act becomes part and parcel of clothing poverty with a spiritual garb that confounds attempts at addressing the real causes of the problem.

Fasting should be about reducing our footprint on the lives of the poor and collectively consuming less so those who have nothing can have access to something. We eat to live and Ramadan is a reminder of this fact since the intent of fasting is to remove our addictions to food as well as other worldly pleasures. The act of denying the self is the process of taking control of one’s own life and beginning a journey toward purposeful living, which includes being and acting human and at the core of it is caring for others.

At a time when Muslims across the globe have transformed their tradition into an accommodationist and embracing attitude toward unfettered and obscene capitalist enterprise with wealth accumulation more important than collecting deeds for the hereafter, then profound questions must be asked during Ramadan. What is the purpose of fasting? Why was it made into a pillar of Islam? Why should I deny the self that which it desires? How does my own desire and self-indulgence have anything to do with others across the world?

The questions above have pre-occupied Muslim scholars in the past as well as scholars from other religious traditions but make no mistake about it: the answers to the above questions are at the heart of the current human condition.

Ramadan is about freeing us from wants and focusing on essential needs, which should be narrowly defined and controlled. At a time when globalized corporate machinery has managed to transform wants into needs while making us all suckle into their ready-made products to provide a short-term fulfillment of “happiness” that is until another newer and more refined product is produced to make us feel inadequate and empty. We, collectively, have become wedded into this wants system that can never be fulfilled and all are chasing the shadow of happiness masquerading as product brought to you by “we bring all things to life” corporate arms while destroying the inner core of humanness and spiritual meanings.

Ramadan today must be about severing our relationship to products produced by corporation in sweatshops at a far distant lands using the poverty of people to maximizes profit while treating them as modern wage slaves, including Muslim countries. The more distance the product travels the more abuse and structured poverty it produces. This Ramadan fasting means cutting ones addiction to such products and making a commitment to buy local and develop relations to those who produce what you eat, wear and use on a daily basis. The meaning of sustainability is centered on local co-dependency economy and shared concern for all participants in the making of life. Modern globalized capitalism is rooted in separation, alienation with maximum profit for one party at the expense of all others.

Ramadan today means environmental consciousness and a keen awareness of human hands that are bringing about catastrophic conditions threatening the world. Yes, God determines all affairs but we are in the world of causalities and we are entrusted with the upkeep of this planet. There is no theological support for taking the world into destruction with our own hands; this is for sure not of divine substance and points to self-appointed “priesthood” of destruction and catastrophe serving as “religious” spokespeople for corporate greed.

This Ramadan we should usher in a new custodianship to the world we inhabit and end the use of chemically destructive materials. If you are unable to pronounce the name of the substance included in the ingredients list, then it is a high likelihood that it is destructive to the environment. Ramadan means eating healthy products and knowing where your food comes from, which once again calls for supporting the local producers, knowing them and having knowledge of their products. It is about building a cohesive community.

Ramadan today means finding alternative to the destructive media that uses hate, racism, objectification of women, crude sexuality and fear to distance people from one another and help foment wars near and far. Corporate media is a business that is wedded into existing power structures with the intent of “manufacturing consent” for polices that are harmful and destructive. Fasting from TV and modes of communication that direct human beings to despise and otherize one another is a must before, during and after Ramadan. It is a sad commentary that during Ramadan TV consumption increases and hours spent in front of the tube destroys the resistance developed by fasting during the day as the shows and programs are directed at keeping all connected to the corporate advertising machine and fulfillment of the appetitive lower self.

Ramadan today means a sincere and constant effort at ending all types of abuse and making sure that one has no role in any suffering of a human being near or far. We fast to control the self’s desire but it is far more critical to remove the harm we inflict on others. Make a commitment this Ramadan that you will not from this moment on be the cause of abuse for any human being and fasting means removing your ability to inflict pain and suffering on others. Indeed, many act as little dictators while opposing the bigger ones inhabiting government offices. I ask for consistency and for opposing all types of dictatorships including the one sitting inside us.

Ramadan has no meaning if it does not lead to a transformation and improvement of the individual and society at large. Thus, fasting is about self-control and living a purposeful life that is connected to everyone else as well as a shared sense of responsibility for the world we inhabit with all of our brothers and sisters from the progeny of Adam and Eve. Ramadan calls upon us to “live simply so others may simply live” and to embody this principle in our daily lives at all times.