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Jakarta Post

View Point: Spiritual purification or the usual hypocrisy?

  • Julia Suryakusuma

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Wed, July 15, 2015   /  06:01 am

Alhamdulillah (thanks be to God), we'€™re finally approaching the end of Ramadhan '€” only a few days to Idul Fitri, or Lebaran as we call it here. Yup, after a month of restraining yourself from food, drink and sex in the daylight hours, it'€™s time for a rave-up!

Things always get chaotic at this time of the year: Traffic jams are worse than ever because of the pre-Lebaran shopping frenzy and many people aren'€™t focusing on work anymore as their minds are on mudik '€” that inevitable, annual Idul Fitri exodus.

In short, they'€™re focusing on activities that are far removed from the fundamental aim of Ramadhan, which is spiritual purification.

Sure, during Ramadhan, there'€™s also an increase in pengajian (Koranic recitals), as well as itikaf (retreats) in a mosque, usually in the last 10 days of Ramadhan. Muslims believe that the Laylat al-Qadr (Night of Decree), when the first verses of the Koran were revealed, was on one of the odd nights in those 10 days. To pray on that night is purportedly better than 1,000 months of worship. Sounds like a massive prayer sale '€” devout Muslims should be stampeding to the mosque on that night!

Ramadhan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, when the Koran is said to have been revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. This is why it'€™s considered to be a holy month and the reason Muslims engage in sawm (fasting), one of the five pillars of Islam. According to a saying of Muhammad, it'€™s a time when '€œthe gates of Paradise are opened and the gates of the hellfire are closed and the devils are chained.'€

Really? Does that mean that during Ramadhan, temptation, ego and negative emotions are more easily kept in check? Hmmm, let'€™s see how true that is.

During Ramadhan, the benefits of fasting are constantly extolled, for both spiritual and bodily reasons. With regards fasting, scientists back up religion. They say that (intermittent) fasting allows the digestive system to take a break and go into '€œautophagy'€, or self-eating mode.

Self-eating? Yup, that'€™s the process by which the system clicks into self-cleansing, purifying the body of toxins and allowing healing and tissue repair. Scientists say that fasting even makes brains smarter this way, inducing neurodegeneration, without which brains neither develop properly nor function the way they should.

Wow, if that'€™s the case, I reckon all our leaders and politicians should constantly be made to fast, to get into self-eating mode and to develop their brains!

The practice of zakat (that which purifies) '€” the third of the five pillars of Islam '€” is another aspect of the purification process Muslims are expected to go through at the end of Ramadhan. Zakat is the obligatory alms-giving and religious tax based on income and the value of one'€™s possessions. At least with regards alms giving, all religions agree, so no fighting over that. Phew!

As the verse Al Baqarah says, '€œFasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, that you may attain taqwa [God-consciousness].'€

The physical fast is actually a symbol and outer expression of the real, inner fast. If the aim is just to feel hungry you can achieve that every day by having lunch at 3 p.m. instead of your usual 12:30 p.m.

In a nutshell, on a spiritual level, fasting during Ramadhan is meant to cultivate gratitude, simplicity and non-attachment, humility and selflessness, empathy and compassion, restraint and self-discipline and to renew solidarity and cultivate positive relationships with one'€™s family and community.

Simple huh? What'€™s the catch? Well, it'€™s a tall order. Religion prescribes, and humans with their unruly egos and all their frailties implement, sometimes well, sometimes badly.

You'€™ve surely heard of '€œroad rage'€: aggressive or angry behavior by automobile drivers. Turns out, there'€™s also '€œRamadhan rage'€: the increase of crime during the holy fasting month. Studies have shown that this phenomenon exists worldwide, as fasting can induce migraines, dehydration, dizziness, nausea, circulatory collapse and even gout.

Besides the medical risks, the side effects of not eating, drinking and smoking in the daytime can result in irritability and short-temperedness, spilling over into violence and crime. So perhaps it'€™s not surprising that anti-social behavior and domestic abuse surge throughout the Muslim world in the holy month.

A 2014 study in Algeria revealed a staggering 220 percent increase in petty crime during Ramadhan. Fights, disputes and assaults rise by 320 percent, domestic violence by 120 percent, various accidents by 410 percent and deaths by 80 percent. The findings of the Algerian study are said to be widely corroborated, from Egypt to Indonesia. On the other hand, in some areas in countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran, crime rates decreased during Ramadhan.

Recently, a friend told me about an incident she experienced with her brother, a haj. She had calmly told him she was disappointed he hadn'€™t informed her about something related to a family project as she felt it was important to coordinate their activities. In front of their aged mother, he suddenly yelled at her, got up in a huff and stormed out of the room. Both my friend and her mother were stunned. By the principles of Ramadhan, he had clearly broken his fast by getting angry. Cognitive dissonance, machismo ('€œNo woman tells me what to do!'€), or simply hypocrisy?

The increased crime rates or flaring tempers have nothing to do with Ramadhan or any other principle of Islam. It'€™s to do with Muslims who fail to uphold these principles, because of their characters, temperaments and sometimes also because of corrupted interpretations of Islam. The fault lies not with Islam or Ramadhan, but in its implementation by weak humans.

There'€™s often a tendency to romanticize Ramadhan. Let'€™s not fall into that trap.

In the end, don'€™t you think that the practice of tolerance, compassion, social solidarity, gratitude, etc. should be practiced all year round?
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The benefits of fasting are constantly extolled, for both spiritual and bodily reasons.
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The writer is the author of Julia'€™s Jihad.

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