Monday, August 6, 2012

Fasting: A Cultural Phenomenon

I learned to fast before I learned to pray.

As my long time friend used to say, fasting is easy.  It involves not doing.  Prayer is more difficult.  It involves actions, including some recitations, which need to be learned.

Perhaps because of this nature that most kids in Malaysia complete the whole month of fasting before they perform their five daily prayers regularly. 

I started to perform my daily prayers regularly when I reached the age of maturity (baligh in Arabic, which usually comes with puberty), but I completed the whole month of fasting way before that.  I cannot now recall exactly at what age, but it must have been before I reached ten years old.

One of my nieces completed her whole month of fasting at the age of seven.  She would come to the kitchen around two or three pm and forced her mother to cook.  Her mother would tell her it is much too early to prepare food for iftar (the breaking of fast), but of course a seven year old girl would not listen. 

She learned to fast before that age, when she was about five.  One day, the strain of fasting rendered her motionless, unable to move around, and her parent forced her to break her fast, but she would not bulge.  The next day they did not bother to wake her up for sahur (meal taken before fasting is assumed).  When she wanted to continue fasting, they told her there is no fasting without sahur for kid.

The story is merely to illustrate how easy fasting is.  Even a kid who cannot differentiate between what is right and what is wrong can do that, if he or she has a will.  My niece was a strong willed girl.  Her parent told her she was not required to fast at her age, but since she saw the grown up fasted, she wanted to do it as well.

Others not so strong willed such as myself did not go to that extreme.  When I started fasting, I managed to do it only up to noon time.  The next day, I did it again up to about the same time.  Combining the two, my parent said that I had completed one day fasting, since half plus half is one.  Most other kids learn to fast that way. 

We wouldn’t probably learn to fast that early in our life were not for our parents’ encouragement.  In my case, which was also true to all my friends in my village, we learned to fast early because we wanted to celebrate the festival, known as Eid al Fitri, which comes as soon as the fasting month is over.  It was the most joyous festival for us as kids, partly because the grown up would give us some small change, which they do only during that festival. 

No fasting, no Eid al Fitri, they said.  No Eid, no gift.  So we made an effort to fast.  Once we get used to it, fasting was easy. 

That was how we were brought up, and we never questioned why we have to fast.  The religious teachers did tell us that if we don’t fast, we would go to Hell.  The prospect of going to Hell was not enticing, but we were also told that we can go to Hell for many reasons.  We can go to Hell for stealing, for lying, for missing our prayers, for doing bad things.  But somehow, as I observe among the Malays, and myself to some degree, it is easier to fast than to do or not do other things, in spite of the Hellfire warning.

I know of many people, already advanced in age, who still do not pray regularly, except for Friday Prayer, but would not miss fasting.  Some of them are rich but do not pay the required zakat (alm giving), but still do not miss fasting.  Many others indulge in Hell bound activities such as taking bribes and commit adultery, but would not entertain the thought of not completing their fasting.

It appears, therefore, we take our fasting seriously, while we take other things lightly.  For most Malays, fasting comes naturally.  For many of us, myself included, to not fast during Ramadan is unthinkable.

Which was why, years ago, I was taken aback when a Pakistani neighbor asked me whether I was fasting.  I was in my late teenage year, and it was the first time I fasted in the United States, having pursued my tertiary education there.

His question sounded very odd to me, because I took fasting as given.  As he struck me as a religious man, and since I was familiar with Al Ghazali’s levels of fasting, having read what he wrote in Ihya many years before, I thought that my Pakistani neighbor might have meant whether I was really fasting, not just abstaining from food and drink (of course sex was out of picture, since I was not yet married). 

“What do you mean?” I shot back at him, after a momentary pause.

“Nothing, just asking,” he replied.

“If you ask whether I don’t eat or drink, yes, I am fasting,” I said.

“Alhamdulillah,” he said, and we changed the subject.

Later, I realized that he was only asking literally.  It turned out that many Pakistanis and Arabs whom I used to know in the United States did not fast.  It appeared that fasting does not quite come naturally to many of them, as it is to Malays.  But I also observed that they tend to keep their regular prayers more religiously than the Malays.

Later on, when one of my professors, an Egyptian teaching International Finance, asked me whether I was fasting, I answered quickly without any reservation.  He of course meant it literally. 

I just saw him smoking, so I didn’t ask whether he was fasting, but perhaps because he was feeling a little embarrassed by the fact that he did not fast, he offered me an explanation: “It is not the food or the drink, it is the cigarette.  If I don’t smoke, I get headache.”

I just nodded my head.  It goes without saying that I did nothing more than nodding my head because he was my professor.  If he was my friend, I would have probably responded differently.

Since fasting comes naturally to the Malays, but other matters do not, in the sense that we might indulge in all sorts of wrong doings, but still keep our fasting intact (or not praying, but continue fasting), I wonder whether fasting is really taken as a religious obligation, or merely a cultural phenomenon.

As I wrote in my earlier entry, we fast during the day, and by sunset, we would feast like there is no tomorrow.  The whole exercise of fasting therefore appears lost to many. 

Fasting has long been a natural phenomenon to the Malays, but as far as I can ascertain, feasting is quite a new fad.  When I was a kid, we used to break our fast at home, and we ate simply.  Perhaps feasting is ushered by the prosperity that we have been experiencing. 

It turns out the feasting is not just a Malay phenomenon.  Other nations also indulge in similar activity.   Somalis in Somalia appear to be an exception.  If they are prosperous instead of poor, I suspect they would feast like us as well.

I suppose since fasting is becoming more like a social phenomenon rather than a religious obligation, feasting naturally follows suit.

Then again, since we can afford, or better yet, other people are paying, why the Heaven not.  We have been starving ourselves during the day, have we not?


  1. Ermmm...would it not be more beneficial for our Hereafter if we infaq what we would have used to feast to feed the poor? And feasting after fasting does defeat the purpose!