8 October 2005

Man cannot live by bread alone

By Jacqui McCarney

One may eat and drink at any time during the night
"until the white thread (light) of dawn appears
to you distinct from the black thread (darkness of night)":
then keep the fast until night"

The Holy Quran

Muslims started to celebrate one of the most important festivals in their religious calendar this last Tuesday. During this ninth month of the Muslim lunar calendar, they will fast during the daylight hours, and in the evening eat small meals and visit with friends and family. Ramadan is the month in which the Qur'an was revealed, it is a time for worship, reading the Qur'an and contemplation. Also a time to family and community ties are strengthened.

What is the relevance of this today? The great quality of all religions at their heart is that they are profoundly radical. Their core values centre on the 'brotherhood of man', generosity, renunciation and personal transformation. These values are clearly at odds with societies that advocate competition and greed. Sadly, religion, throughout the ages has been fashioned to fit human vices whether this means justifying slavery, wars, capitalist exploitation and hunger for power.

We will never extinguish the human hunger for meaning; it may be as necessary as food and shelter. Islam retains a central position in the lives of ordinary people. Its teachings are not abstract ideas to be touched infrequently at weddings and funerals, but part of the rhythm of everyday life. The Holy month of Ramadan, free from the commercialism that all too often dogs Christian festivals, allows Muslims to have a truly religious experience.

All Muslims, if they are fit, excluding pre-pubescent children, fast from all food and drink, from sunrise to sunset. Fasting is common to practically all religions, and its meaning, like the skins on an onion has many layers. It is a practice of self – sacrifice, enabling one to experience what the poor in the world experience on a daily basis. It encourages compassion and generosity and at the end of the month every person will be expected to give to charity, so that the poor too, can celebrate Eid-ul-Fitr, the shared meal and festivities marking the end of Ramadan.

Fasting, for Muslims - as for Buddhists and Christians - is about 'letting go' of all that one does not need. This operates not just on the physical level, but on psychological and spiritual plains too. On the physical level, one is expected to let go of unnecessary food and snacks, but also the habits of endless cups of coffee, tea and smoking. On a psychological level, it means letting go of fillers like TV, magazines, unnecessary shopping, and other forms of entertainment. It also means letting go of ways of thinking that are unkind or egotistical. You fast not only with your mouth but with your ears and eyes and thoughts and from all wrongdoing. This state of nakedness exposes the spiritual, where there is nowhere to hide and we are confronted by ourselves.

This is to awake to our patterned way of behaving, and in that consciousness, we can go beyond habits and begin to live with more awareness. For Muslims, it is also to awake to the presence of Allah (God) in a heightened state of devotion and prayer. Fasting brings spiritual purification and is a cleansing of the heart and oneself.

But Ramadan is not just about ascetics, it is about balance and just as important as fasting is the breaking of the fast. The fast is broken slowly with dates or water and the sharing of an evening meal called iftar. This is a time to strengthen kinship ties and show hospitality to guests.

Kinship ties are of paramount importance to Muslims and the prophet Mohammad said that Ramadan entered into with ongoing conflict between people will be of no merit to either party. All conflict must be resolved before Ramadan, and no conflict should last longer than three days without resolution.

Christians share their religious roots with Muslims; all three monotheistic religions Christianity, Judaism and Islam originate in the Holy Land. Abraham and the prophets are revered by all three religions, we share the creation story of Adam and Eve, and the Garden of Eden and the promise of reward in the after-life. Our common bonds are numerous and yet this commonality is seldom talked about.

I have recently shared some time with local Muslim women and their children, and have been moved by the atmosphere of tranquility and peace around them – a living testimony to the truth that man cannot live by bread alone, and a society that offers only this can never be truly contented.