A well-meaning acquaintance unknowingly summed it up in a nutshell. “The world is in the grip of Covid,” she said, with a sympathetic smile. “And now you have Ramadan to contend with.”
I understand what she was trying to say. Covid 19 has indeed had the world in its grip, with millions infected and countless hundreds of thousands having lost their lives. There is nothing like an illness to make us realise our vulnerability. And there is nothing like a pandemic to make us realise that this vulnerability is universal: no-one is immune from sickness, and certainly, no-one is immune from death.
Death, of course, is largely a taboo subject in most societies. Most human beings spend their whole lives trying to avoid even the slightest hint or intimation that they are destined to die, and much of what passes as human culture can be seen, perhaps, to simply be a whole amalgam of strategies and mechanisms to enable us to forget our mortality.
Modern society seems in many ways to be geared towards the mass anaesthetising of its citizens in order to distract them from reality and keep them in a state of subservience to atheistic materialism and liberal secularism. In that particular world, anything which reminds humankind of its needs, its weakness, is quickly airbrushed out of existence.
But to need is something innate. Need is a basic characteristic of being human: we are creatures who are defined by our neediness. And we are created needy for a reason: need is the key to understanding who the true Owner is: Allah.
Need is the key that opens the door to true awareness of ownership. Need is there to show us that, in and of ourselves, we are, and we have, nothing. Consider what we come from – a sperm and an egg. Consider how we were weak and helpless babies, reliant on the compassion of our mothers – and, by extension, on our Creator – for our sustenance.
Consider how that neediness never really goes away, for even as adults, with apparent strength and health, we are at every second of our lives in sheer and absolute need. Our stomachs are always in need of food; our lungs are constantly in need of the next breath of air; our bodies are constantly in need of protection from harmful bacteria; and as a whole, we human individuals are constantly in need of the universe to carry on existing. For it, like us, is in need: in need of the wise, compassionate touch of its Creator to keep it at every second in existence.
You would think, then, that as modern human beings we would be aware of our existential poverty. Because modern society has an almost monomaniacal obsession with needs. Indeed, it is the satisfaction of need that drives all our actions, all our endeavours, all of our behaviours.
In this ‘entitlement society’ in which we live, the gratification of desires – repackaged as ‘needs’ – is considered to be a basic human right. In many ways, needing has taken the place of thinking, and one may even characterise modern humankind as a race that lives by the credo, “I need, therefore I am.”
Needs are looked upon today as though they are sacred: needs have become our gods, our idols, and we move heaven and earth in order to satisfy them. As a result, to ignore a need, or suppress a desire, has become the secular equivalent of sin. “Whey deny yourself?” is a common question, particularly during Ramadan, as it happens. Why suppress your ‘natural instincts’? Why say ‘no’ to your desires?
This is something of a paradox. Because while modern human beings are arguably the neediest of all beings, they are at the same time the best at denying their weaknesses. And that is why needs – which are acknowledged only to fuel the advertising industry, as it happens – simply have to be satisfied!
For if we moderns fail to satisfy our needs, we will be confronted by the frightening truth that, deep down, at base, we are weak. And not just weak: in reality, we are totally and utterly impotent. If we fail to get instant gratification, we are faced – albeit momentarily – with the terrifying reality of our own existential poverty. Hence the rush to gratify our desires as soon as they occur, as quickly as possible, and by any means available. Don’t worry! Do what you want! Be happy! Enjoy yourself!
And since modern human beings have to gratify their needs quickly in order to suppress that painful awareness of their own underlying weakness, they do not use ‘need’ in the way in which its Giver intended. Instead of our needs making us more humble and more aware, they have the tendency to make us more arrogant, more ignorant, and more oppressive.
The wisdoms behind Ramadan are many, and I’m sure that no-one needs to be reminded that it is not just about eating and drinking. It’s not a health regime and it’s not about self-perfection – mainly because the self – the nafs – needs to be curbed and lessened, not perfected.
And while it is to an extent about learning to have sympathy for the poor, there is only so far that one can nurture empathy for those who are always hungry – particularly when we know that we are going to be breaking our fast at the end of the day.
In my opinion, the most important aspect of the Ramadan fast is to focus on the painful fact that it is we who are poor. Each and every one of us. However much we appear to be, or to have, in reality we are all absolutely impotent, absolutely weak, absolutely poor, absolutely needy and absolutely dependent.
Done properly, the Ramadan fast will produce temporary hunger, thirst, weakness, and lethargy – all of which can, and should be, seen as windows onto the truth.
We begin as a sperm and an egg and we end as ashes, and in between these two states any sense of ownership we have over our own selves is a fiction. A necessary fiction, but a fiction nonetheless. All that we have and all that we are is dependent for its existence at each moment on the grace, generosity, compassion, wisdom, and will of the All-Glorious Creator.
Unless we get in touch with our poverty, we cannot possibly give worshipful thanks to our Creator, Who is utterly Self-Sufficient and devoid of all lack or need. If we think we are something, or have something, we cannot get in touch with our reality, which is utter dependence, at every moment, on the continuing grace and munificence of our Lord and Maker.
Only by understanding what we are not can we even begin to understand what He is.
May everyone abstaining in Ramadan come to realise the true meaning and purpose of need. May our fasting break the bonds of our fictitious ownerships and may it help us to keep arrogance and heedlessness – our two greatest enemies – in chains.
Ameen, Ya Rabb, al-Ghani al-Hakim.
Dr Colin Turner is Chief Executive of the International Foundation for Muslim Theology