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Fasting a cleansing experience, not an excuse for idleness

Ramadan brings a sense of peace, serenity and tranquility, even in places where there is conflict and occupation. For every Muslim, even the non-observant or those not very religious, Ramadan has a special feel to it — the customs, the decorations, the traditional meals and drinks, and the general atmosphere of togetherness, piety and generosity, which together create an overall sense of one Muslim community.

Even with some unique and interesting habits and traditions from one Muslim country to another or from one city or village to another, there are more common traditions than differences that create a general collective feeling of being one community. This feeling seems to have spread to other countries where Muslims live around the world. Public iftar meals in the streets or mosques, charity bazaars and events, volunteer work to help the sick and poor, and many other acts of kindness and giving are witnessed and practiced everywhere.

This is Ramadan. It is a month that brings us closer to God, when we try to extract ourselves and distance ourselves from life’s vanities, allures and temptations, and the grinding work cycle and living demands, to spend more time praying, reading the Qur’an, supplicating to God, and giving. It is a time to practice self-restraint and self-reflection, purify our minds and behavior and ask for God’s forgiveness.

Nevertheless, some bad habits exist that negate the whole purpose of Ramadan. Some people take Ramadan as an opportunity to sleep all day and eat all night, taking leave from work just to do that. The amount of food prepared for iftar and throughout the evening, which mostly goes to waste, is shameful. The usual routine and activities of regular days are shifted to evening, the streets are almost empty, the shops, businesses and public services are mostly deserted or working at half or even quarter capacity, and everyone is moving lethargically; these are some of the most common changes noticed during Ramadan.

They might be acceptable and understandable considering the lack of energy and concentration some experience due to fasting, especially those with medical conditions. But in general, and as the body adjusts to the change, the effect of fasting does not hinder a normal level of activity and fasting should not be an excuse for lack of performance. In fact, fasting is a cleansing experience physically, mentally and spiritually. As the fasting days go by, if we follow a balanced and reasonable diet and exercise, we should feel lighter, healthier and calmer.

Ramadan should not be considered as a time to halt all activity and productivity. It never was. Throughout Islamic history, since the Qur’an was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, Ramadan has been loved and cherished as a holy month to pray and to work, and in modern history Ramadan has witnessed many great events and achievements. I cannot understand or accept how people can spend hours and hours watching TV series and silly programs during Ramadan, of all months.

Why has Ramadan become the ideal month to air back-to-back series in hot pursuit of the highest viewer ratings? I think concerned officials, NGOs and charity organizations should consider lining up more engaging activities during Ramadan that reflect and represent its true purpose, which does not have to be only religious activities or lectures. There are more creative ways to raise awareness about various social issues or to do good deeds for the poor and needy or voluntary work for the city and community.

While we celebrate Ramadan this year and enjoy its peaceful glory, we cannot ignore or forget the harsh conditions under which other Muslims are fasting and practicing their religious rights. Our Palestinian brothers and sisters have to struggle every day and with peaceful determination to enter Al-Aqsa Mosque to pray in the face of restrictions and confrontations under Israeli occupation; Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province, it is reported, are monitored by the authorities and face restrictions in practicing their faith; and the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar who fled torture and persecution to neighboring Bangladesh are fasting their first Ramadan away from their homes in refugee camps. In other parts of the world, Syrians, Iraqis, Kashmiris, Afghans and others suffering the consequences of war, occupation and terrorism still hold on to their faith.

While life distracts us year-round and pressures us with demands and obligations, we should take time in Ramadan to think of our inner peace and contemplate the needs of others.

Maha Akeel is director of the Public Information and Communication Department at the Jeddah-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Twitter: @MahaAkeel1

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