The Inspiration of Ramadan

The Inspiration of Ramadan 4 August 2014


Eid Mubarak, Happy Eid al- Fitr to Muslims everywhere, especially to former colleagues in Bangladesh.

It is tragic that so many families in the Middle East will not be enjoying the festivities of Eid this year, a time normally associated with feasting, gift giving and reconnecting with family, much like Christmas in the Christian calendar though without the crass commercialism. And it is sad that the message of Ramadan is being obliterated by violence.

It is an inspiring message. Ramadan is a time of spiritual reflection. During the month of fasting Muslims refrain from consuming food, drinking liquids, smoking, and engaging in sexual relations during the daylight hours between sunrise and sunset. In some interpretations, Muslims also refrain from other behavior that could be perceived as sinful, such as swearing, engaging in disagreements, backbiting and procrastination.

The act of fasting is said to redirect the heart away from worldly activities, its purpose being to cleanse the soul by freeing it from harmful impurities. Ramadan also teaches Muslims how to better practice self-discipline, self-control,sacrifice, and empathy for those who are less fortunate, thus encouraging actions of generosity and compulsory charity.

If only those who wield power, those who are pulling the triggers and firing the rockets could hear this message. Our hearts go out to those caught up in the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel and Palestine. We hope and pray for peace in these countries.

And our hearts go out to the men, women and children locked up in detention centres in Nauru, Manaus and Christmas Island. We hope the message of Ramadan is heard by our government and bureaucrats, who continue to administer this inhumane policy in our name. This, too, has to stop.


When I worked in Bangladesh with Save the Children I used to marvel at the self – discipline of staff during Ramadan. During May, a month of long days, searing heat in the 30s and heavy humidity leading into the monsoon, the urge to replenish liquids must have been overwhelming. But staff maintained discipline. They rose at four to eat the pre fast meal, or suhoor, before going to prayers. During the day they maintained the fast, waiting for the sunset at around eight for iftar, the fast breaking meal.

The Save the Children driver, Sattar, a more handsome Omar Shariff look-a-like, was particularly disciplined. Despite the heat of the day he even refused to swallow his own saliva and was constantly spitting.

During a seven hour trip to the field one day he was forever winding down the window to spit. As much as I admired his self discipline, I found the habit annoying. And I didn’t want him getting dehydrated.

‘We’re travelling. It’s ok to break the fast.’

Islam exempts travellers, the sick and menstruating women from the obligation of fasting. But Sattar could not be led astray. He acknowledged me with a wobble of the head.

‘I am fine, brother,’ he said, spitting out the window yet again.

My senior colleague Atiq was more willing to exercise the get out clause. When we crossed the Jamuna River in a ferry he would go behind the white curtain that separated those fasting from those not, to have his pan – betel nut wrapped in betel nut leaf with lime paste. The curtain spared the devout from having to watch other people eat and drink, while preserving the anonymity of those who couldn’t or chose not to fast.

Bangladeshis were pragmatic about these things. No one expected field labourers, rickshaw wallahs, men carrying bricks on their heads, or women working on road reconstruction hauling baskets of dirt on their hips in searing heat, to maintain the discipline of fasting. It was not physically possible. Fasting was the obligation and privilege of the relatively well off.

Eid Mubarak to Muslims everywhere.


1 Comment

  1. George Lombard

    Phil I also remember other behaviours from that hot Bangladesh Ramadan – people sneaking out behind some obstacle to have a cigarette; the care which Christian and Buddhist Bangladeshis took to avoid ostentatious consumption by mouth during the day in apparent solidarity with their Islamic friends; the sheer delight of all those sweet carbohydrates at iftar. And of course the shared joy of Eid ul Fitr, quite a contrast to the weirdly barbaric (to my then as yet culturally unconnected eyes) Eid ul Azhar. And also a contrast to our own weirdly barbaric Christmas 🙂

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