Ramadan is an occasion for spiritual and communal growth
Last year I was in Mecca for part of Ramadan. I have vivid memories of sitting one afternoon in the open courtyard of the Kaaba, among other pilgrims, reflecting upon the universal lessons that I should take from the month of Ramadan.
Despite scorching summer heat the mosque was bustling with pilgrims from all corners of the Earth. Some were immersed in prayer, Some, evidently overwhelmed with emotion, were calling upon God for their needs. Others were making Tawaaf, the circumambulation of the Kaaba.
People were focusing on strengthening their relationship with God. But surely, I thought, striving for spiritual purification does not give us carte blanche to neglect morality in our behaviour toward others.
There is, I believe, a global decline in morality, among religious and non-religious people alike. But why? Why is there such a decline in concern for and being considerate towards others? What is happening to the core concepts of justice and kindness?
The truth is that in our consumer society, we have been forced to become automatons, succumbing to our own desires.
Sadly we sometimes lose the spirit of building relationships with other people, which are essential if we are to create a society based on mutual care and concern.
It is unfortunate that in our postmodern society we tend to be oblivious to the fact that everything that we do has an effect on others and that the independence we enjoy comes with responsibilities to others.
Sadly, perfecting morality is sometimes overshadowed by an intense focus on spirituality. The Arabic word for fasting, sawm, literally means "restraint and self-control". Ramadan is a time to purify the soul and strengthen one's relationship with God.
Fasting does not consist only of abstention; it is not merely a ritualistic act. Rather it is a combination of physical discipline and spiritual reflection; a time to cleanse the body and soul from impurities, and focus one's self on the worship of God. Reflection, devotion to God, sacrifice, charity and generosity are all fundamental to the spiritual development of the fasting person.
Sometimes people tend, I think, to forget that fasting has a much deeper meaning and purpose and that is to develop one's character and relationship with God.
Ramadan is an opportunity for filtering out bad habits; habits that become part of character through repetition and consistency.
Aristotle said: "We are what we repeatedly do." Habits become conditioned responses; they are formed through consistent repetition and thus become unconscious behaviour. Ramadan is an opportunity to unlearn bad habits.
But Ramadan is also a time for feeling empathy for those who are less fortunate than ourselves, a time when we generate feelings of sympathy and compassion for such people. It is also a time for reading and contemplating the teachings of the Quran - and of committing oneself to doing good deeds.
During Ramadan Muslims can work to improve their moral character and cultivate good manners. Prophet Mohammed said that the best among you are those who have the best manners towards others.
Morality is a core principle of Islam and needs to be perfected on a two-fold level. On an individual level, we can do this by striving to adopt certain universal principles such as sincerity, honesty, justice, and compassion into our daily lives. On a communal level we can try to interact with other citizens in a positive manner.
For example, we may find a way of making a positive contribution to society by extending kindness and justice to all people, regardless of race or religion, and simply by being helpful to others.
Adhering to faith can be very challenging. To me it is about sacrifice and putting others before yourself. Being self-centred and focusing on me-me-me is not part of Muslim values.
If Ramadan is about having an effect on people's inner character, then this must be demonstrated on an individual and communal level. We can do this by displaying principles such as integrity and morality in our daily lives, at all times and towards all people.
Sajda Khan is an academic and writer based in Britain
Published: August 1, 2011 04:00 AM