In our secular and material world, ritual can be lacking in daily life. From praying in a house of worship to participating in a family dinner, time honoured rites have become less common. The demands of efficiency do not care for the intangible worth of ritual.
A couple of weeks ago marked the end of the month of fasting for Muslims across the world, one of the great mass human rituals. Ramadan as it is known asks Muslims to abstain from eating or drinking, from sunrise to sunset, for an entire month. Its end is signalled by the sighting of the new moon, formalised in some Muslim communities in Sydney by the dispatching of the quaint but authoritative moon viewing committee.
This committee usually travel to the Blue Mountains the night before to confirm the new moon has been seen. The celebrations can then begin the next day, marked by communal prayer and unadulterated feasting.
It is indicative of the Muslim community’s emphasis on ritual that in the 21st century some elderly, bearded men can hold sway over when thousands of people will celebrate.
Almost all cultures have some tradition of fasting. Whether it is Catholics avoiding meat on Fridays, the Jewish tradition of Yom Kippur, or Native American tribes fasting to stimulate ecstatic experiences: fasting is culturally ubiquitous.
In modern times fasting has become more associated with political protest than religion. Gandhi is perhaps its most famous proponent, but more recently in Australia, asylum seekers have become the torch bearers. Only last month two Bangladeshi asylum seekers refused to eat or drink unless they were granted permanent visas.
For a self-confessed cultural Muslim, who does not always see how Islam fits with modern life, fasting is one of the few traditions that holds great attraction.
In my younger days, eating in the wee hours of the morning, just before dawn, was more likely to be after some crazed dance party. In Ramadan it is a considered, droopy eyed bonding session with family and my stomach. Food takes on a particular significance when you know it will be your last meal for almost 14 hours. A glass of water feels more like an elixir of eternal life. Timing your life with the sun suddenly provides links with nature that few bushwalks could match.
Fasting in Australia is particularly difficult. From Gallipoli to the Olympics, Australians have long seen themselves as hardier than their European cousins. Now Australian Muslims are carrying a similar baton when compared to their global counterparts.
In parts of the Middle East, the daily timetable is effectively turned upside down during Ramadan. This makes a mockery of the reasons for fasting, allowing people to sleep during the day when they should be attempting to abstain from food. It’s like exploiting the loophole in God’s word. It is a wider comment on the kind of spiritually barren Islam that emanates from countries like Saudi Arabia.
In Australia, the combination of daylight saving, hot weather and a populace that is not aware and therefore does not cater for Ramadan, means fasting requires greater mettle. Furthermore, our working hours hover among the highest in the OECD. If fasting were an Olympic event, Australian Muslims would take out gold every time.
But fasting is not meant to be a cause for gloating or competition: nor is it ultimately about food. Its deeper purpose of instilling self-control and a greater spiritual awareness could benefit everyone grappling with the complexities of modern life. While all the signals we receive from the mass media encourage immediate consummation, fasting demands patience and sacrifice. Its benefits are the mortal enemy of the credit-card industry. Environmentalists would also be thrilled by the resonance with natural rhythms it inspires.
The day of celebration is called Eid-Ul-Fitr. While all the usual messages of tolerance and understanding remain important regarding Muslims, especially with the introduction of the new anti-terror laws, a message regarding the importance of ritual and community in our lives is perhaps equally important.
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Dr Tanveer Ahmed is a psychiatrist, author and local councillor. His first book is a migration memoir called The Exotic Rissole. He is a former SBS journalist, Fairfax columnist and writes for a wide range of local and international publications.
He was elected to Canada Bay Council in 2012. He practises in western Sydney and rural NSW.