Muslims have grown accustomed to living in a perpetual state of defense as the price of their existence, readily deploying explanations for their religious and cultural practices. This may well be an acceptable and even advisable transaction to keep the peace in diverse modern societies, but with the holy month of Ramadan underway, one cannot ignore the distinctly modern tinges in the explanations circulating for its many benefits. Contemporary discourse on these benefits increasingly neglects its moral and metaphysical essence, offering material explanations instead. Either fasting is “to feel as the poor feel” – appealing to the West’s fragmented moral understanding, where the only mode of existence is the material – or fasting is for its associated “health benefits,” as validated by science. While both explanations offer worthwhile, morally decent incentives for fasting, they are inherently physical and reduce Ramadan to the material.
Creeping Consumerism and the Eclipse of Traditional Ethics
Nevertheless, there is a deeper, more damaging force at play: our assimilation into the capitalist structure via globalisation. Corporations now slap “halal” marketing labels on meat, finance, clothing and more, having their form made nominally appealing to Muslim consumers who struggle to find Islamically-viable options. The products and services presented for Muslim consumption are outcomes of the same usurious, exploitative, dehumanized, and un-Islamic systems we decry. Our clothes come from exploited labor in sweatshops, our food from industrialized slaughterhouses and chemical plants polluting our environment, and our finances from the interest-based, deceptive global banking system. In a system that celebrates these things as marks of progress and human betterment, it can be difficult to recognize the profound subversions at play. Liberalism undermines the philosophical and moral essence of our customs, resulting in form devoid of meaning. Made to live in an “iron cage,” as German sociologist, Max Weber, remarks, we are left to trudge through meaningless gestures until we eventually rebel against those too for restraining our freedom (understood as total and limitless), abandoned with no objective parameters for our lives (1). Such is the role of liberalism in undermining Ramadan’s essence via cheap marketing ploys and materialist philosophies.
Ramadan also confronts today’s hyper-consumerism and gluttony. Amid unparalleled commercialization and materialism, Ramadan serves as a reminder of a life unbound by capitalism, one that does not require constant consumption to experience satisfaction. It is during Ramadan when our desire to consume more is tempered by the divine command and prophetic example to focus on the spiritual nourishment of community and self over our physical hunger. Sadly, many have forgotten this message in what increasingly characterizes iftar: unbridled gluttony and extravagance. Corporations like McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and Burger King market their products towards Muslims, knowing their investments yield enormous profits, with Ramadan-themed adverts that feign celebration of diversity, while fueling a culture of excess. Muslim-majority countries boast some of the largest social and economic inequalities on Earth: the obesity rate in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia as compared to the starvation rate in Somalia or Yemen affirms the role we all play in exacerbating this suffering through our excess.
The Disenchantment of the Modern World
Ramadan encompasses more than the (legitimate) effect physicality has on our spiritual well-being. Weber noted that modern life has been stripped of any metaphysical and mystical element, replaced by a rationalized and bureaucratized society. Everything has become de-sacralized; what once served as cultural symbols and rituals of spirituality have been stripped of that spiritual essence.
Ramadan is the lived rejection of this desacralization. An obvious, but nonetheless wondrous, mark of the month is that Ramadan impresses the importance of governing one’s day according to the cycles of nature, as opposed to those of an industrial clock or 9 to 5 existence. Ramadan begins with the visual sighting of the new moon, and our daily fasts commence and conclude with dawn and sunset, respectively. Submission to the cycles of the sun and the moon affirms not merely living in harmony with nature, but submitting to God as Creator and Master of all things. The modern world has parted with millennia of human experience, as it unnaturally attempts to bend our will in submission to a full day of labor marked by the hour hand. Our existence was not destined for capitulation to fleeting materialism and Ramadan reminds us of our grander purpose.
Nevertheless, as neglectful and distracted creations, we often abandon the lessons of Ramadan and revert to our old ways at the proclamation of Eid. This schizophrenia, one noted in the modern man by the Algerian sociologist Malek Bennabi, juggles between the world of Islam and the world of modernity (2). Bennabi explains how when the modern man enters the masjid, he brings himself solely under God’s sovereignty and adopts the etiquettes of faith, and yet when he leaves said masjid, he quickly reverts to the modern man: boorish (by Islamic standards), subservient to creation, and indistinguishable from the non-Muslim in his habits. Such a temptation to regress, facilitated by the ease of adopting modern ways and means to suit a modern life, must be resisted if we are to be an Islamic ummah that truly lives according to our own ideals, not one that merely uses a colorful veneer of culture to mask its assimilation into the capitalist scheme.
Ramadan as Antidote to Modern Woes
We are in danger of losing the essence of Ramadan, an indication of how much our faith’s moral imperative is being fragmented and forgotten in the shift towards materialism. The process of moral destruction in the West threatens to overwhelm Muslims everywhere, exposed as we are to an abrasive and totalizing Western paradigm, unique even from the days of colonialism. We live as minorities in the host societies’ hearts, facing constant attrition by a hegemonic Western paradigm of life, increasingly deprived of the shield the Islamic paradigm offers.
Ramadan is a rejection of what the modern world forces onto humanity: gluttony, hyper-consumerism, the mechanization of time, and the obsession to exercise control over our lives. Both Muslims and non-Muslims are increasingly disenchanted with modernity and seek purpose and meaning to replace the superficial accumulation of possessions (3). Ramadan is a time for us to reorient ourselves towards the Divine, redefining our relationship with time, community, and the natural world. God-consciousness, or taqwa, is achieved not through sound bites, but as a lived reality of intentional living, transcending the impulses and needs of the body and ultimately, aspiring to a higher state of being.
To reclaim spirituality as the bulwark against the pursuit of this fleeting life demands that we approach matters of faith and worship beyond dry academic analysis or flitting bouts of insta-faith. We must restore the holistic philosophy of life that Islam offers and honor it as its own worldview, defiant to liberal capitalism with its material and utilitarian ethics. We must encourage an attempt to make Islam central to our daily lives, making Ramadan more than an isolated annual event, but a periodic rejuvenation of our cosmological order that we carry on through the remainder of the year. If we are true to its ideals, this cosmological order will oppose the capitalist system that destroys the spirits of men. Only then can we claim to be Muslim: submitting fully to God and His holistic deen above all else.
- The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber
- Islam in History and Society by Malek Bennabi
About the author: Mariem is a civil society activist working for democratic governance & religious freedom in the Middle East and North Africa. She writes on critical political & social theory, comparative democracy studies, and Islamic & comparative religious studies. You can follow her on Twitter here.