Faithless Fasting: Ramadan in the Modern Political Economy

One of the biggest challenges for corporate America today is diversity: racial, religious, ethnic, sexual, etc. The holy trinity of corporate professions–management consulting, investment banking, and corporate law–make substantial effort to hire “underrepresented” minorities and portray themselves as more “inclusive” to potential clients and the public. Undoubtedly, there are sincere concerns about improving the kinds of people that are hired as a way to grow business and acknowledge diversity as a good in itself. However, religion presents particular challenges for diversity and a careful look at the average Muslim urban professional (“Muppie”) in the month of Ramadan reveals a host of contradictions that challenge America’s ostensibly deepest values. The main conflict is a familiar ordeal, one of conflicting moralities between secularism and democracy versus Islam (and religion broadly).

In his acerbic condemnation of America’s current state of affairs, Chris Hedges notes:

We fill the spiritual vacuum with endless activities, entertainment, and nonstop electronic hallucinations. We flee from silence and contemplation… [Our economy] has made war on the communal and the sacred, on those forces that allow us to connect and transcend our temporal condition to bond with others [1]

Despite attempts to replace bloody wars over thrones, gold, and fertile land with agitation for the demands and recognition of the marginalized and oppressed, we have nourished an unstable moral economy subject to the whims of not coercive, scriptural authority, but the agitations of popular politics.

Ramadan

Ramadan is most readily recognizable in the public sphere as a month of fasting. It is a month whose definition has been reduced to a physical act, described as an experience that simply builds sympathy for the less fortunate. The sacred month, however, is much more than abstaining from food and drink. Ramadan could be described as a month of abstinence and temperance. However, this definition is more problematic for Muslim professionals because it involves aspects of a Muslim’s life like upright character, prayer, recitation of holy scripture, and, above all, enoughness. Orthodox Judaism offers a sympathetic analogy: the Sabbath.

“We usually encounter the Sabbath as an inconvenience,” historian William Black writes, “or at best a nice idea increasingly at odds with reality”.  The Sabbath taken at face value is quite dangerous because it “has the power to restructure not only the calendar but also the entire political economy.” The Sabbath presumes such a thing as enoughness, whereas Silicon Valley and Wall Street preach the importance of “grinding” and “work hard, play hard” or “optimizing workflow.” The reasoning of corporate titans is that you can never be whole, and thus must always strive for more. The Sabbath was originally a check on the exploitative pharaonic economy that valued, theologian Walter Brueggemann notes in Sabbath as Resistance, anxiety, violence, jealousy, and commodification of sex (all very significant qualities of our own present economy) [2].

Ramadan is similar to Sabbath in this way: it is a way to engage the world in a different, deeper way. Talk kindly. Show patience. Build community. It is also a retreat from the realities of quotidian life. Pray more. Sleep well. Spend time with family. Attend tarawi [prayers]. Step back from worldly pursuits.

Diversity programs emphasize the importance of individual rights in the modern world, giving currency to material success as a popular, sanctified way to engage with and embody faith. In particular, the Protestant work ethic exemplifies the collapsing differences between work and religion.

The shifting sands of public opinion represent a physics by which corporatism, constitutional rights, and politics redefine and transcend particular and differentiating practices of the individual that are articulated through religion [3]. American secularism does not seek to separate church and state as much as it aims to make religious difference and practice inconsequential to consumption. It embeds norms that promulgate and promote particular laws and practices that boost shareholder value and executive compensation packages.

The reign of an ethos of “hustling” is not to suggest that materialism has completed dominated tradition. On the contrary, people have become more religious and vocal about their objections to important moral debates. Rather, our economy has found that religion is profitable and reconcilable with its own rationality. It pushes the center of action away from God and towards the human, aiming to replace the omnipotence of individual human expression with its own. The religious American is the channel through which God’s divinity is replaced with imminent deism.

In The Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber’s overarching argument traces religion in Northern Europe, through different sects of Protestantism, as a factor that significantly contributed to the rise of capitalism [4]. Wealth, in Weber’s analysis, is a danger for Protestants. The temptations of wealth never end, making it pointless to strive for wealth in the world God has created. It is also necessary to strive against financial procurement, as enjoyment of wealth and “the lusts of the flesh” interfere with the endeavor to live a “holy” life.

Work, not wealth, is “the end and purpose of life commanded by God.” If one does not work, or one does not want to work, it means that he does not want to be blessed by God’s grace. These factors contribute to the Protestant drive to invest profit after profit, year after year, without indulging in any of its fruits – all in the pursuit of pleasing and coming closer to God. However, this spirit has slowly changed and almost disappeared. Weber argues that a beruf [profession] and the modern economic order of capitalism are inescapable. He states, “The Puritans wanted to be the men of calling—we, on the other hand, must be.” Weber argues that beruf can no longer by linked to “spiritual or cultural” values – the modern person makes no effort to find meaning in a calling.

However, Ramadan for many Muslim professionals challenges Weber’s assessment of capitalism as lacking “metaphysical significance.” There is a desire to “hustle,” make money, and collect financial and social capital. Networking iftars are places to build professional – and romantic – relationships that often follow a “dress to impress” ethos.

Alternatively, Muslims increasingly believe that success means God has looked favorably upon them (like Protestants) – that the wealth and achievements they have accumulated is a function of both their hard work and the fact that they have been able to curry favor with God.

However, is this pursuit of success while attempting to be a pious Muslim during Ramadan the best Muslims can do? Imagine, in the bazaars of Tehran, there are two merchants, Zulnash and Mehtab, who sell shoes. They both sell the same quality of shoe. However, Zulnash is able to sell many more shoes than Mehtab. By noon, Zulnash has hit her profit margin for the day. She now has two choices: continuing selling till the end of the day (and make a lot more money) or pack up and direct incoming customers to Mehtab (so that he too can make his projected profits).

What would the average Muppie advise Zulnash to do? In a capitalist society, executives, bankers, consultants, or business owners would invariably go with the first choice. After all, competition and profit maximization are hallmarks of a garden-variety capitalist business model. Normative Islamic ethics, however, would encourage the second choice: you have made your ends meet, now it is incumbent upon you to help others do the same – or at least not let your ambitions get in the way of somebody else’s livelihood. However, Muppies may respond that donating to the masjid is an easier way to “give back” or “help” others than letting someone get a cut of potential profits. Such is the tension between a makeshift, patchwork notion of fasting (as an allowance, a right, given by society to Muslims) and the broader, more penetrating, and omnipotent requirements of Islam.

Is there space in America’s legal and cultural infrastructure for a genuine commitment to Ramadan and Islam’s moral cosmology?

Reconciling fundamental differences appears to be an impossible task. Do Muslims accept a “lite” version of themselves and their beliefs as the compromise they must make in order to live peaceably with others? Are these differences irreconcilable precisely because they are fundamental, and that evacuating them of their fundamentalist thrust dissolves the truths around which a group builds solidarity? Does such abandonment dissolve the group itself? Does this mean that we cannot exist meaningfully in the groups that we claim to be a part of?

On fundamental differences, literary critic Stanley Fish has pointed out gradations of toleration within multiculturalism [5]. The shallower manifestation of open-mindedness is “boutique multiculturalism,” which tolerates cultures and diversity in their most superficial aspects (because of its commitment to a universal potential for rational choice). Alternatively, “strong multiculturalism” honors diversity generally, but cannot afford that honor to any one difference in particular, especially if that difference infringes upon the rights of others. However, it is often the most disagreeable differences – the ones that strong multiculturalists object to – that give life to and define the groups that embody them. Therefore, can one actually be a multiculturalist and tolerant of difference in any coherent sense? Fish says no.

Fish’s argument offers a thoughtful way to understand why medieval Christians and Muslims were more openly intolerant towards one another. In fact, as legal historian Steven D. Smith points out, the “intolerance” of premodernity has a rhythmic quality to it:

…did the people in premodern Europe who resisted religious toleration – the Thomas Mores, the John Calvins – somehow fail to grasp or accept the idea of “reciprocity”? Not at all…In their view, one of the religions leads to salvation, while the others lead to damnation: that is hardly equivalence. And what could be more perverse than to insist that reciprocity requires truth to be treated in the same way as falsehood? It is as if a student were to argue, on grounds of reciprocity, that if the school gives credit for true answers on a test it must give equal credit for false answers [6].

Ramadan in America and the celebration of diversity broadly appear to be an affirmation of Fish’s thesis: we cannot have it all. Multiculturalism is able to counteract and deploy increasingly complex strategies of behavior management to match outbursts of discontent and alienation, while also providing a recursive fodder to continue believing in its liberating, tolerant potential. Tolerance allows us to experience human destruction of social bonds, to borrow from Walter Benjamin, “an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.”

We praise diversity as the triumph of reason over ignorance, of tolerance over oppression, and enlightenment over darkness. Despite the enormous social, historical, and political changes over the past few hundred years, modern solutions are little more than ersatz – no closer to finding ways for human beings to accept one another, while maintaining a true commitment to one’s faith.

 

Works Cited

  1. Chris Hedges. America: the Farewell Tour. Simon & Schuster, 2018.
  2. Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now (Westminster John Knox Press, 2017)
  3. Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity, Cultural Memory in the Present (Stanford University Press, 2003).
  4. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism (Penguin Classics; Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics edition, 2002)
  5. Fish, Stanley. “Boutique Multiculturalism, or Why Liberals Are Incapable of Thinking about Hate Speech.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 23, no. 2, 1997, pp. 378–395., doi:10.1086/448833.
  6. Steven D. Smith, The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse (Harvard University Press, 2010)

Photo credit: Plateau by Michal Karcz


About the author: Shahrukh Khan is a guest contributor. He is a JD candidate at Emory University School of Law. His interests include American law, history, and Punjabi culture. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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