“I used to look forward to Ramadan a lot more when I was in the US,” commented a friend. “It was different. Somehow, I felt it much more. Do you know what I mean?”
“Does not fasting feel the same wherever you are?” I pursued after having contemplated what I had believed to be the crux of the issue.
“That is my point,” he remarked.
“It is not just about the fasting. It is about the whole rationale behind it. That special feeling you get after having submitted yourself to God.”
He was right and I knew exactly what he meant.
The Holy Month of Ramadan is more than just a time that Muslims observe by refraining from food and drink. I remember some of my non-Muslim friends in London who, in their ignorance, viewed this as a sort of pointless self-inflicted process of starvation.
“You cannot even drink water?” they would inquire, having failed to grasp the concept that the fast lasts only from dawn to dusk.
However, such an outward manifestation actually serves to belie the profundity of a much deeper abstention in which individuals are expected to strive to become closer to God.
Ramadan is a unique opportunity for all followers of Islam to avail themselves of the mercy and blessings of the Almighty Allah.
It is a time when we are supposed to reconnect with our spiritual side and cleanse our souls through a process of immense self-discipline and ingenuous introspection.
True, it is essential to experience the basic deprivation of hunger, to know what it must feel like for millions of people who live in a perpetual state such as this without any respite at the setting of the sun.
But it is not just about enduring those physical pangs brought on by the denial of basic sustenance.
To me, Ramadan is more about cultivating a superior perception of our relationship with God and developing a cognisance of how, in spite of all our self-delusions, we really are insignificant.
It is this level of humility that we should endeavour to attain, which subsequently teaches us more about gratitude, understanding and empathy toward others.
So back to the original question.
Why did we both feel that somehow the spirituality of our devotion was somehow lacking here? I believe to benefit from the lessons learned during this month, we have to sincerely feel the plight and suffering of others.
When I used to fast while studying at the university, I would still have to adhere to all the strictures that such a dedicated regime required.
There were no special timings. People would be eating and drinking everywhere.
I would stay up during the night praying, and still have to function normally during the day without any special privileges afforded to me because of this aspect of my worship.
There were days when the Sun would set at close to ten at night and rise again a few hours later and yet, rather than rue this hardship, it actually made the whole process seem more rewarding.
The breaking of the fast would be a simple affair with some special Ramadan treats and there were very few social events save the communal prayers at the local mosque.
The feelings of intense personal satisfaction and achievement were pure and untainted, encompassing a solitary ambition to seek the pleasure of God devoid of any desire for personal glory.
What disappoints me greatly is the way certain people behave during this inherently private month. It has sadly become, for some, a sorry excuse to have parties with advance bookings stretching back for over a month.
A peculiar round of Iftars and Suhoors that cajole invitees into a world of excess and lavishness with tables creaking under the strain of the 101 dishes all vying for their attention and indulgence.
Frankly, I find the whole concept of starving all day and then gorging out all night nothing short of sickening.
The Islamic faith preaches moderation in all walks of life.
To feast your eyes upon the gluttony inspired cuisine manifest on most dinner tables during this Holy Month shows just how far we have diverged from this central precept.
There are many who become nocturnal creatures, abandoning their daily routines to antipodean timings. I have been flabbergasted at members of the community who spend the entire day sleeping, waking up in time for the evening prayer so that they may beautify themselves for one of those round-robin gatherings.
The evenings are a time of frenzy.
But people are not rushing to the mosques anymore. Shopping malls and cafes are filled to capacity with those who enjoy the carnival atmosphere, forsaking the chance to ponder their raison d’être in favour of a little after-hours consumerism.
To Muslims the world over, the advent of Ramadan is an opportunity for spiritual renewal. Non-Muslims who see the practice here, might ironically perceive it as a symbolic reversal of day and night.
Lubna Hussain is a Saudi based writer. The above article, which appeared in the Jeddah based Arab News, has been reproduced with permission.