The power of Ramadan in a time of the Israel-Gaza war

There is widespread anguish, not just among Muslims, and a feeling of unity for people suffering in Gaza

A shop selling decorative lights in Deir Al Balah in Gaza before Ramadan. AFP
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We have reached that time of year when practising Muslims feel closest to their religion. With Ramadan starting in a few days, preparations for the month are under way. In countless homes around the world, whoever is in charge of cooking has probably been stocking up on food and recipes and even panicking about how everything will get done.

Muslim charities are gearing up for their busiest time of year. And businesses in the Muslim world are combining advertisements and product pushes for their biggest sales period of the year.

But this year’s Ramadan already feels different as it is shaping up to amplify a heightened sense of Muslim identity.

In 2020, Ramadan was unlike any other. The Covid-19 pandemic was spreading rapidly and before the fasting period began, lockdowns were already in place in many countries, affecting countless Muslims. It was one of the first big community-centric times that people faced in lockdown, and it was left to Muslims to navigate how to manage.

Ramadan is about praying together, eating together, doing good work and giving charity together. In that sense, it is a very social four weeks. They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and when being under lockdown prevented most of these traditional Ramadan acts from taking place, people found new ways of reaching the same goals. People prayed across fences, socially distanced, or did so on Zoom. Iftars became virtual but opened up to those who might otherwise have been isolated or excluded. Families, especially mothers, found the opportunity to return to the "true" values of Ramadan in their own homes.

While the pandemic may now seem distant, there have been lasting effects of lockdowns around inclusivity, mental health and perhaps, even around creating a simpler Ramadan – rather than succumbing to the pressure to live up to social media standards.

This year, we are likely to experience another Ramadan that may well have long-lasting effects. The coming month is largely about togetherness, connectivity and a sense of Ummah – the global Muslim nation or family. This year, these feelings have already been awoken among Muslims around the world as a result of the deaths in Gaza. Muslim eyes are glued to events and hearts are torn. It's not just Muslims either. There is widespread anguish and a feeling of unity for those suffering. During Ramadan, these feelings are likely to intensify. After all, the prescription of Ramadan is to understand the pain of others. I have no doubt that many Muslims will talk of the hunger of their fasting paling against the hunger of those living through war.

Some people around the world, including Muslims, are also engaging in consumer boycotts, rejecting products or brands that they believe are fuelling the conflict. Ramadan doesn’t just intensify the feelings of Muslim identity and practice, it also spurs observers to act in ways they feel are important, to put aside day-to-day chores and focus on what they can do to make things better for those less fortunate. It is likely that this impulse will be strengthened during Ramadan as a result of the mood that accompanies a month of self transformation and hard work.

There is also a social element to this. People spend more time with each other and increase the opportunity to scrutinise and challenge each other, leading to a likely viral effect on boycotts of products such as Starbucks, among other companies, that are seen as supporting Israel. And this might feel particularly painful for businesses used to enjoying a bumper Ramadan. Social events during the month may even take on an activist bent, with people gathered and sharing knowledge of events around the world and fundraising for Gaza more so than in previous years, with a focus on the plight of the recipients of aid.

There is talk of a hostage exchange during Ramadan, among other mitigations to the situation. Whatever the developments, people will be finely attuned to events. The month will be transformative in the sense of reigniting a global sense of unity and togetherness over a shared purpose.

As it did in 2020, the meaning of Ramadan will once again come to the fore. Muslims who observe – and those who are not Muslim but enjoy being engaged in Ramadan or align themselves with Muslims – will express what Ramadan means to them. Ramadan is not just about Muslims fasting. This year it will be prompting Muslims as a collective to think of what is right rather than thinking simply about what to cook or eat. That collective transformation is the power of Ramadan.

Published: March 05, 2024, 7:00 AM
Updated: March 07, 2024, 9:21 AM