Ramadan: Lessons for the Left

Editors' note: This article by DSA Muslim Caucus and DSA Religion & Socialism Working Group activist Imaan Javeed originally appeared in 2020. We republish it here on the first week of Ramadan 2021. The DSA Muslim Caucus is playing an important role in the RS Working Group's national conference on April 24th and 25th. You can learn more about the conference and register here.

By Imaan Javeed

The month of Ramadan has arrived, and with it, Muslims will be avoiding food and drink from dawn to dusk every day for one lunar month. But Ramadan involves more than just starving oneself. The Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) said it best: “There are people who fast and get nothing from their fast except hunger, and there are those who pray and get nothing from their prayer but a sleepless night” (Ibn Majah). Restricting food and drink is a means to an end – a holistic spiritual pursuit, mobilized through self-control and detoxification. And certainly, these are undertakings from which any socialist could benefit.

Empathy development and genuine intentions

At the core of fasting, like many religious and social activities, is the development of empathy. With every gnaw at their stomach, smack of their parched lips, and stifled yawn from lack of sleep as the worshiper moves throughout their day, they are reminded of the hardships to which those less fortunate have become accustomed. While images of our brothers and sisters crushed under the weight of imperialism in the Global South are first to come to mind, in the era of COVID-19 it is worthwhile also to consider people right here at home, such as the single mother working overtime at her “essential” job, who rations her meals to make ends meet.

Furthermore, like many who suffer, the fasting Muslim is also encouraged not to complain, cut back on their activities, or even give the appearance that they are fasting – a concept that also exists in the Christian etiquette of fasting (see: Matthew 6:18). Doing so emphasizes the purely internally motivated, non-performative nature of the act. This should resonate with any organizer who understands the value of genuinely motivated volunteers over those who are “all talk and no action.” In Ramadan, sincerity is paramount, and no one can judge or reward sincerity but God, as narrated by the Prophet (ﷺ): “Allah said: ‘Every deed of the son of Adam is for him except fasting; it is for Me and I shall reward for it’” (Bukhari, Muslim). The weight of the divine reward a Muslim gets for fasting is rooted not in their physical but rather their mental and spiritual state, just as fulfillment in the material world is best achieved when one’s actions align with one’s worldly goals and intentions.

Finally, at the end of the day, the fasting person may be fortunate enough to break their fast. In fact, many Muslims have the luxury of spending our days fantasizing about the satisfying meal and cool drink to come at sunset. Unfortunately, such dreams will not materialize for the many among us on this planet who are the most vulnerable, both locally and globally. The fasting person is called to keep this in mind.

Reflection and action: the reality of limited time and energy

While the fasting person should make deliberate choices on their food and drink (avoiding salty or sugary foods in the morning that increase thirst, for example), these choices serve to mirror the deliberate choices they should also make regarding where they are directing their mental and emotional energy. We, much like the ecosystems that surround us, exist in a careful physiologic equilibrium that must be maintained (in part) with food and drink. Disrupting this equilibrium is uncomfortable, and in extreme cases, fatal. As many commentators on burnout and compassion fatigue would agree, our mental wellbeing operates on similar principles of equilibrium and reserve. By fasting in Ramadan, a person stretches the limits of these careful equilibria beyond what they may have thought was possible.

It is in line with this concept that during Ramadan, Muslims take pause and consider whether something is a wise use of their energy, and avoid sources of toxicity in their lives. It is a well-known trope on the political Left that we are argumentative, frequently disagree, and are enraged by a world we see falling to pieces around us. We may also surround ourselves in echo chambers that reinforce our views. I am guilty of this myself. This is a time to hold our tongues (perhaps especially our e-tongues) and not get into arguments (Quran 25:63) or comment on issues unless there is clear benefit, or when asked directly. And even when asked directly, we should be careful and diplomatic, so as not to upset ourselves – let alone the other person. Of course, it goes without saying that fasting involves protecting oneself from engaging in backbiting (Quran 49:12) or being mean or crass toward others (Quran 49:11). These habits will serve any serious activist looking to build broad and solid networks well.

Moreover, in Ramadan, many people who find the news overwhelming or upsetting may also take this time to unplug –  to stop compulsively refreshing their Twitter, Facebook, and Google News home pages for the latest developments and hot takes on current events (Quran 5:101). Ramadan demands that we question what in our lives is productive and what is not.

Change does not happen overnight.

All of this is easier said than done, but that is why we fast for a full month: to assist in the development of good habits and self-awareness that can persist beyond Ramadan. Taking this opportunity to detoxify and nurture habits for mental resiliency and productivity would benefit anyone looking to make the world a better place. To be empathetic, internally-driven, deliberate with one’s time and energy, and able to wrestle with the bombardment of negativity coming from both within and outside of us are worthwhile goals to strive for in our lifelong struggle for justice. It is this sentiment that anyone, regardless of their faith or place on the political spectrum, can adopt in Ramadan to carry with them for the future. Consider it an exercise of the mind, body, and soul – three elements that no movement can do without.

Imaan Javeed is a medical student at the University of Toronto

Image created by the DSA Muslim Caucus