Thursday, August 9, 2012

Fasting: Let There Be Hunger

Our religious teachers and preachers keep telling us that we fast so that we would be reminded of the pain of hunger experienced by the poor.  TV presenters and radio deejays also jump into the bandwagon and keep repeating the same message.

I have been hearing this since I was a kid.  And I must say that since many years back, I have grown tired of this stale message.

Like most kids in my village, I was born into a poor family.  My friends and I were not unfamiliar with hunger.  We often went without food for a lengthy period of time.  Hunger used to be part of our lives.

If fasting is to be reminded of the pain, or rather pang, of hunger, people like us need not fast.

They also extol the virtues of fasting, saying that it is good for health.  Our stomachs have been working hard for eleven months.  They need a break.  Fasting would give that much needed break.

Sound advice, it seems.  We as Muslims are lucky people.  Our religion seems to take care of everything, including the preventive maintenance of our bellies.  But I wonder how much good would fasting be, taking into account that, as soon as the sunset comes, we feast ourselves to the brim, with all sorts of foods, many of which are unhealthy.

These two cannot be the reasons as to why fasting is made an obligation to the Muslims.

For instance, how many rich people pay attention to the poor as a result of fasting?  Those who help the poor do so because of their generosity, not necessarily because of the “lesson” from fasting.  The miserly among the rich, and they appear to be in the majority, would remain as tightfisted no matter how much they fast, saying that the poor are poor because they are lazy, or are not creative enough to make a decent living.  I have never heard of rich people suddenly become generous because of the experience in hunger due to fasting.  There might be other reasons, but generally not the one caused by fasting.

Furthermore, if fasting is to remind us of the pain of hunger experienced by the poor, then Allah needs not prescribe fasting as one of the Pillars of Islam.  The generation of the Prophet and the Companions knew what hunger is all about.  Aisha, the beloved wife of the Prophet, was reportedly saying that the Prophet’s house often went without lighting fire to cook food for many months continuously.  They simply did not have meal to prepare, and survived only on water and a few dates a day.

The Prophet and his companions often tied stones to their bellies to withstand the pang of hunger.  The Prophet used to chew grass because he was too hungry.  Not that the grass can fill his stomach, but the pang or the pain of hunger was too much to bear.

Abu Hurayrah used to say that he always followed the Prophet wherever the Prophet went, and he was most happy if there was food as well.  He was a homeless when he joined the Prophet in Madinah, and used to sleep in the corner of the mosque, and had to rely on other people in order to survive.  Hunger was his middle name when he was young.

Or we can quote the story of Sa’d Abu Waqqas, the conqueror of the Persian Empire.  Before he eventually became quite wealthy, he was very poor.  One night, he went to answer the call of nature.  He noticed a certain sound as his urine hit the ground.  He took it and realized, in the darkness of the night, that it was a dried camel’s hide.  He washed it properly, and boiled it until it became soft, and that was his food for the whole week or so, having nothing else to eat.  His mouth was blistered for a few days because a dried camel’s skin was not exactly melting in his mouth as he chewed, in spite of many hours of boiling.

In short, the Prophet and his companions were poor people whose hunger was their daily “staple,” especially in the early years of Madinah era.  If the purpose of fasting is to be reminded of the pain of hunger experienced by the poor, then fasting need not be part of religious duty.

In this connection, the Prophet used to say: “How many of those who fast get nothing from it but hunger and thirst.”

Well, we reap what we toil.  If the purpose of fasting is to be reminded of the pain of hunger experienced by the poor, then we belong to no more than the group alluded by the Prophet in the above Hadith.  And these are the losers.

Needless to say, fasting can remind us of the hunger experienced by the poor, but to highlight it nauseatingly is idiotic.  Similarly, fasting is good for health, but it is not instituted as a religious obligation for that reason. 

Nowhere in the Quran is mentioned that fasting is prescribed so that the Muslims would be mindful of the pain of hunger experienced by the poor.  Neither does the Prophet talk about fasting in this light, except to remind us that such should not be the case.  After all, it is known that some women throughout ages would go to extreme hunger just to look nice.

Nor does the Quran prescribe fasting for health reason.  For health reason, people often go for diet.  That dieting may involve fasting does not make such fasting real, religiously speaking.  While fasting for health reason is as old as human civilization, Quran does not prescribe fasting to the Muslims during the Prophet’s generation, as it was similarly made obligatory to the previous generations, for this reason.

Thus, while these preachers, religious teachers and others are not exactly wrong in highlighting these virtues, they should have toned down these aspects a bit.  Fasting is a religious obligation, prescribed for a very specific reason.  It is this specific reason which should be highlighted, not on some secondary benefits.  By repeating these secondary benefits nauseatingly long, again and again, their message is beginning to sound idiotic.

If we look at the matter slightly deeper in our society, the whole picture does look somewhat idiotic.  You see, while the preachers are busy extolling the virtue of fasting, reminding us of the hunger experienced by the poor, we are busy feasting ourselves as soon as iftar  (fast breaking) time comes, as we have mentioned in the previous entry. 

If that does not seem idiotic enough, then consider the fact that, as soon as the fasting month enters, many of us would be busy thinking about the new dress for the Eid Festival, or the new curtain for the house, or what assortments of cakes, food and drinks for the Eid.  And we haven’t talked about which house to go back for the festival, either the husband’s or the wife’s side, which, in the case of the Malays, has always been a real issue. 

None of these activities is religious.  They are cultural, like fasting itself, which appears to be more like a cultural phenomenon among the Malays, as we have mentioned before.

In short, all I am saying is that we should not cheapen the obligation that Allah has deemed to be very important.  That it is one of the Five Pillars of Islam indicates that fasting is of paramount importance in Islam.  Its importance cannot be measured by the experience of hunger or health benefit.  We should be highlighting the purpose of fasting as Allah Himself has deemed it.

Perhaps it would be a good idea to talk a bit about it in the next entry.  Stay tuned.

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