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Of Holy Months and Holey Months

Ramadan is upon us again! Like last year, it’s another summer Ramadan with a lengthy fasting time with hot weather to boot. For me, summer Ramadans are a huge shock. After over a decade of reaping the benefits of winter and autumn Ramadans, the time had finally come to pay the price. That smugness I felt when speaking to my Malaysia-based family over the phone and they asked me ‘what time do you break your fast’ and I would giggle and say ‘3 pm’ is long gone. Summer Ramadans has been prolonged hunger and thirst and curses at the clock for not going faster. Breaking the fast at 9.30 pm was no trifling matter.

Ramadan is a holy month for Muslims. As tradition would have it, it brings the spiritual rewards of a thousand months. As Ramadan approaches, Muslims would start thinking about their behaviour for the past eleven months since the last Eid. They would feel the need to reform themselves as Ramadan arrives  in order to reap those spiritual rewards. Who wouldn’t want this? It’s like your employer paying you a thousand months’ bonus every year. However true it is, at least it spurs the Muslims to act better during this holy month.

In the era of the social network, Ramadan motivation becomes even greater. Being a massive Facebook proponent (almost two thousand ‘Facebook friends’ most of whom I’ve never spoken to let alone met), I get inundated with ‘shares’ of facebook Ramadan messages urging me to make full use of this month. Messages reminding not to miss the tarweeh prayers, the twenty unit prayer after isha’ or night prayers, which go on every night of Ramadan. The tarweeh prayers especially bestow  immense spiritual blessing and are not to be missed if at all possible.

Personally, I am ambiguous about this entire mindset. While I can see it spurring the Muslim community to self-reform and to greater spirituality, that spirituality simply vanishes after Eid. The celebratory mood of Eid quickly erodes the mentality of self-discipline fostered during Ramadan. The holy month gives way to long ‘holey’ months where there are big gaping holes in our self-discipline and conduct.  Perhaps the rationale of the thousand month benefit isn’t so helpful during the other eleven months apart from Ramadan itself.

It is the same problematic mindset with the tarweeh prayers. While I appreciate the concept of performing supererogatory acts for added benefits which after all, comes from the sincere desire to please God, the purpose of the tarweeh itself is not being met due to this ‘finish at any cost’ mentality. The tarweeh is traditionally used to rehearse the Qur’an in full. It is the tool Muslims use to orally verify the Qur’an every year apart from reading it in their daily salah prayers. From here alone, we can see what the problem is with many tarweeh sessions in the mosques. Because of our zeal to finish the reading in thirty days, the imam (prayer leader) attempts to finish one juz or part a day (the Qur’an has thirty parts). This task is simply impossible if one wants to actually make out the words during the readings in the tarweeh. I find these ‘bullet train readings’ not only unhelpful but also less than respectful to the Qur’an and to God. It is better for us to read at a moderate pace and not complete the entire thirty parts than to speed through the thirty parts and not get a thing.

Our Ramadan diets need a health re-evaluation as well. Does anyone else find it deeply ironic that it is only during this month of discipline and frugality that we actually have special Ramadan meals? In Malaysia, Ramadan is almost a dietary subculture in itself. Food stalls magically appear during Ramadan on designated streets selling all manner of Malaysian culinary delights. These stalls are licensed by the government and to obtain such a license is difficult without some connections. After all, there is tons of money to be made. It’s almost like Hallmarks during Valentines’s day.

Apart from that, lush hotels have ‘Ramadan buffets’ where one can gorge oneself till late into the night. The amount of food present at these buffets is obscene and I shudder to think what happens to the excess food at the end of the night. Consider this in light of the story of the Mufti who cried when some starving people asked him if their fast is still valid if they didn’t have any food with which to break their fast. Something unconscionable is going on here.

Perhaps it is time for a revision in our Ramadan mindset. I suggest ‘mini-Ramadans’ during the rest of the year to prepare ourselves for Ramadan proper. Going into Ramadan after slacking in self-control for the previous eleven months is like going into a crash diet. Naturally the sudden, shocking drop in blood sugar levels would manifest itself in a food binge at the end of the day. The visual and olfactory stimuli we get from restaurants, supermarkets and the media doesn’t help either.

A better way would be to implement mini-fasts throughout the year. Try fasting for half a day 2-3 times a week. Try missing a meal from time to time or even going on a water or fruit fast. There are many kinds of fasting available from various traditions. If we can do this over a period of eleven months, by the time Ramadhan rolls around, fasting would not be such a glucose roller coaster.

It is the same with reading the Qur’an as well. Instead of reading it during tarweeh only, why not read it after each prayer? That way, we can better appreciate our reading. Or perhaps simply read the shorter suras during tarweeh prayers? The shorter suras are easier to memorise and there are fewer words to understand. Try learning one short sura a month and by the time Ramadan comes back, we would have a meaningful tarweeh session. After all, the Qur’an is already well preserved. It is now a matter of preserving it within us.

Ramadan is really a beautiful time for Muslims to re-evaluate themselves and to remember their priorities. A truly holy month. Let us plug up the holes in the ‘holey’ other months so that we may benefit from Ramadan to the fullest.

Farouk A. Peru is a Phd Candidate in Islam and Postmodernism and teaches Islamic Studies at King's College, London.