Ramadan: Beyond the Nafs, Towards the Lord

Ramadan is here — and more than ever it has become increasingly important for Muslims to refrain from reducing it to the material. While fasting surely has its health and worldly benefits, an overemphasis on those aspects, and a tendency to ascribe centrality to them, completely subverts the soul of Ramadan and the purpose behind it. The reduction of Islamic practices to an incentive of material or individualist well-being is in effect a liberal remaking of Islam. In essence fasting cultivates a self that is conscious of the truth: that we do not have the right to food, water, and sex when Allah decrees such. The feeling of hunger and thirst, and the inability to do away with them despite having the means to, is meant to reinforce within our souls the recognition of Allah’s ultimate power. As Ali Harfouch argues, fasting is a way of recognizing our own limitations and vulnerability as humans, and not our individualism and autonomy. 

Sherman Jackson talks about the phenomenon of the new anthropomorphism: a condition in which we superimpose not the form but the wishes of humans onto Allah. Under this, Ramadan ceases to be about service to Allah, and is transformed into a project that revolves around the self-service of the human. [1] As Sherman Jackson argues, “this anthropomorphism goes beyond the mere attempt to discover in God’s commands and prohibitions benefits or even pleasures that accrue to humans here and now. It even goes beyond the attempt to reconcile God’s commands and prohibitions with human wants and needs.” Rather, the underlying idea of this anthropomorphism is that which humans desire, Allah also desires, and what humans do not desire, Allah cannot desire. This anthropomorphism entails the denial of heteronomy, the primacy of an authority external to human self, and the affirmation of autonomy, the primacy and worship of self. The Qur’an points to this, in Sūrat al-Jāthiyah, where Allah says:

Have you seen him who takes his own desires as his ilāh (god), and Allah knowing (him as such), left him astray, and sealed his hearing and his heart, and put a cover on his sight. Who then will guide him after Allah? Will you not then remember? [Qur’an 45:23]

The idea that Allah desires what humans desire, and detests what humans detest, is an unsustainable one. In Sūrat al-Baqarah, Allah declares: “Perhaps you hate a thing and it is good for you; and perhaps you love a thing and it is bad for you. And Allah knows, while you know not.[Qur’an 2:216] This verse asserts that a Muslim is he who submits to Allah’s knowledge of what is ḥasan (good) and qabīḥ (evil) for us, and does not project his own desires onto Allah — in total opposition to anthropomorphism. When Allah loves a thing for us, it becomes good for us. When He dislikes a thing for us, it becomes bad for us. The same cannot be said about the liking and disliking that humans may feel towards a condition. The pre-eminence of Allah demands that even when our limited intellect is unable to discover how something ordained by Allah is good for us, we must still obey the command. 

In this way, fasting disrupts this anthropocentrism, the deification of nafs al-ʾammārah, the part of our soul, or Self, that foments evil and urges us to indulge in evil deeds, for it is this aspect of our Self that Satan capitalizes on. In Surah Yusuf, Prophet Yusuf says: Indeed, the soul is a persistent enjoiner of evil, except those upon which my Lord has mercy. Indeed, my Lord is Forgiving and Merciful.” [Qur’an 12:53] Submission to Allah, therefore, not only frees us from external enjoiners of evil and oppressors, but also elicits His mercy that protects us from the evil that is within us, preventing us from being our own transgressors. Fasting then re-centers our existence around Allah, as it teaches us that the fulfillment of our needs — even the most primordial and natural of them — are also subject to God’s pleasure and regulated by His will. As Harfouch says, in a secular age that is marked by the subversion of the “sacred” to the “secular” and the veneration of worldliness, fasting is the subversion of the most core feature of the “secular”: the flesh.

Regarding the physically taxing nature of the fast, as anthropologist Talal Asad notes, we find that in modern times, inflicting pain has come to be regarded as antithetical to morally acceptable religion.[2] Pain is regarded as an “evil” condition that religion is expected to help us overcome. But such an understanding of pain owes more to secular utilitarianism and less to Islam, in which bodily suffering is not inherently immoral, and bodily pleasure is not in and of itself valuable. The temporary suffering that fasting is meant to inflict on our bodies ideally ought to translate into a more God-fearing soul. While zakat aims at disciplining the body through taxing that material wealth through which bodily ease and pleasure are acquired, fasting targets the very body itself, acting as a tax on the flesh of the believer, upon the very nourishment that sustains it.[3]

Modernity fashions a human self that is primarily a consumer, thus, the ability to consume and to act impulsively upon one’s desires, and to live in the moment, become the defining features of human existence. In contrast, Ramadan is a rejoinder that aims at fashioning a human self that is closer to fiṭrah, a self that does not live in the state of worldliness but is conscious of death and afterlife. It is a self that does not ascribe to itself self-sufficiency and independence, but is thoroughly aware of its utter dependence on Allah. Allah says in Surah Al-ʻAlaq, “The fact is that man crosses the limits when he thinks he is self-sufficient!” [Qur’an 96:6-7] Ramadan breaks the idol of arrogance that man may feel, reminding us of how we are so full of needs; to be full of needs is to be weak and deficient, and only that which bears no need and deficiency deserves to be worshiped, and that is Allah, the Qayyūm — the Self-Subsisting Lord, and the Kāfi, the One who is all-sufficient for His servants. 

The method in which the consumer self operates can be understood via Byung-Chul Hans’s book, Psycho-politics, where he speaks of smart power. [4] The effectiveness of this power lies in the fact that it does not operate by means of forbidding and depriving, but by pleasing and fulfilling. As Han argues, such a power says yes more often than no and it controls us not through repression but seduction and not through dispossession but consumption. This is the type of power that Satan and nafs al-ʾammārah together deploy against the believers. In Sūrat al-Hij’r, we hear of Satan’s promise to Allah, that he will surely make disobedience attractive to us and that he will adorn the path of disobedience. [Qur’an 15:39] Such a power does not offer us free choice, but instead offers us a free selection from the preexisting sins on the menu. In this manner, smart power does not manifest as coercion, but it assumes a more friendly form. It presents itself as freedom, which is simply another name for a state of being in which you no longer have to carry the weight of “remembering” Allah, a state that conceals from our eyes the inevitability of meeting Him. It is a state that conceals from us death, despite its omnipresence and ineluctability and makes the remembrance and pondering of it both undesirable and difficult.

The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ called death the destroyer of pleasures while the self that consumer capitalism fashions is one that sees the pursuit of pleasure as the ultimate pursuit. For if we remember death often, how will the market of pleasure work? The remembrance of death forges a self that feels more oriented towards the masjid than the market, since it feels a greater sense of belonging towards the former which outlives death. It creates a self that feels more predisposed towards giving as opposed to gathering. When a man asked the Prophet ﷺ about what makes the believer the wisest, the Prophet ﷺ responded by saying that those who remember death often and have best prepared for it with good deeds are the wisest. 

And as Mariem Masmoudi expresses, Ramadan, if preserved in its spiritual and moral moorings and not divested of them through unrestrained gluttony, is also an embodied rejection of the desacralization of life and mechanization of time. Ramadan, according to Masmoudi, reminds us of the importance of harmonizing our life with the cycles of nature, rather than structuring our life around a 9 to 5 existence. We see this harmony in the way Ramadan is heralded with the sighting of the new moon, and in our every fast that begins with the rise of the sun dawn and ends at its descent. Allah has already ordered our day-to-day existence around the five salat, the timing of each salat conveying not randomness but a cosmological order that mapped a harmony between a man’s material needs and his transcendental purpose.

As a native of Kashmir, I also feel that Ramadan is a time to rethink the extent and substance of our solidarity with the Muslims living in places like my homeland and Palestine. Ramadan is the month of the Quran which privileges the oppressed – the mustadhʿafin. The Quran tells us to see things not from the gaze of the oppressor, but from the prism of the oppressed, not from atop but from below. In this regard, Muslims have a dual obligation towards Kashmir. The first obligation stems from the fact that its people are Muslim. The second is the augmentation of this obligation by virtue of their oppression. Allah’s Messenger ﷺ said, “Help your brother, whether he is an oppressor or he is an oppressed one.” People asked, “O Allah’s Messenger! It is all right to help him if he is oppressed, but how should we help him if he is an oppressor?” The Prophet ﷺ said, “By preventing him from oppressing others.” In the case of Kashmir, the oppressed are not merely oppressed but it is their Muslim identity that has resulted in their oppression. Thousands of Kashmiri Muslims will break their fast in the prisons of India, and we ask ourselves if the Prophet were to come back to dunyā today, who would he break fast with? The Muslims of Kashmir who suffer for identifying with the call of Muhammad ﷺ? Or the participants of glutenous feasts in the Gulf, who award the murderers of Muslims like Modi with the highest awards?

Works Cited:

[1] Jackson, Sherman A. 2011. Islam and the Blackamerican : Looking toward the Third Resurrection. Oxford: Oxford University Press
[2] Talal Asad. 1997. Genealogies of Religion : Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press
[3] Wael Hallaq. 2014. The Impossible State : Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament. New York, Columbia University Press
[4] Han, Byung-Chul, and Erik Butler. 2017. Psychopolitics : Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power. London ; Brooklyn, Ny: Verso

Photo by David Monje on Unsplash

About the Author: Ahmed Bin Qasim is a writer and student from Indian-occupied Kashmir. He is currently doing a BS in Anthropology, and also BA in Interdisciplinary Studies in Islam. He is the founder and host of Koshur Musalman Podcast, one of the first podcasts in the Kashmir region, that delves into subjects like settler-colonialism, cultural imperialism, decoloniality, comparative political theory, Critical Secularism Studies, Critical Muslim Studies. 

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