Fasting month, feasting season

If fasting, through self-deprivation, is supposed to imbibe self-control, then the actual results are highly dubious. In practice, rather than being a month of deprivation, Ramzan is a time of high consumption. The eating cycle merely shifts from day to night.  People actually eat and drink more than usual, but under the cover of darkness, literally speaking.

(Published in Daily Times, 13 October 2005)

Being the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, inevitably the holy month of Ramzan has arrived and Muslims are fasting again.  Every religion prescribes some form of fasting for its followers. It ranges from total abstinence from all food and drink for as long as 25 hours (Judaism) to avoidance of solid food only for a lesser period (Hinduism).

Islamic fasting is probably the most structured and rigorous, as well as the longest. Imam Abu Hamid al Ghazzali described three degrees of fasting for Muslims during Ramzan: 1) Ordinary fasting (sawm-ul-‘umoom); 2) Special fasting (sawm-ul-khusoos); and 3) Exceptional fasting (sawm-ul-khusoos al-khusoos). 

The first level of fasting is the abstinence from eating and drinking, sexual activity, bickering, etc.  The second requires, in addition to these, keeping one’s ears, eyes, tongue, hands and feet, together with all the other senses, free from sin.  The last (and the noblest) demands, besides all the above, the avoidance of bad thoughts, worldly worries and anything which may distract from total submission to Allah.

If fasting, through self-deprivation, is supposed to imbibe self-control, then the actual results are highly dubious. In practice, rather than being a month of deprivation, Ramzan is a time of high consumption.  Far from heralding courteousness and consideration, fasting is open season for rudeness and uncouth behaviour.  Whether, in reality, fasting banishes “bad thoughts” and “worldly worries” from people’s minds is also questionable.

The eating cycle merely shifts from day to night.  People actually eat and drink more than usual, but under the cover of darkness, literally speaking. The quality of food consumed becomes richer and consumption increases manifold. It is the season for iftar-cum-dinner parties, with the government, political leaders and high officials setting the trend. Everyone who is anyone must invite and get invited. An invitation to an official iftar party is a mark of recognition and a badge of honour.  The poor can only watch in awe as the rich are consumed by a veritable feeding frenzy.

Retailers welcome Ramzan as a time when business is brisk and profits are good.  As iftar time approaches, markets not just come alive, but resemble a bee-hive in reverse, with shoppers running home dripping with provisions. The buying spree forces the government to issue warnings against profiteering and to assure the public that it would ensure adequate supplies of foodstuff.

Price hikes resulting from higher consumption during Ramzan are not confined to Pakistan. According to a report in the Egyptian Al Ahram, “although [Ramzan] is a month of fasting – which might give the impression that people eat less than usual – the consumption of food commodities during this period tends to increase dramatically.”

The Khaleej Times reports from the UAE that “the holy month of [Ramzan] signals heavy shopping”.  In Morocco, it “always brings skyrocketing increases in prices, aggravating the suffering of the poor”.  In Indonesia, too, “ironically, total food consumption increases during the fasting month”.

The Middle East Times quotes the CEO of an advertising company:“During [Ramzan] you look out the window in the evening and what do you see?  You don’t see a single car in the street. Why? Because [people] are at home, eating and watching television”.  The report observes that Ramzan is a good time for advertising on television and radio. 

Efficiency, pathetic in the best of times, hits rock bottom during Ramzan.  Nevertheless, President Ziaul Haque, who promulgated the Ehtram-i-Ramzan Ordinance, believed otherwise.  The American journalist, Richard Reeves, wrote in Passage to Peshawar (1984) that when he mentioned to the general that he had observed a massive decline in productivity during Ramzan, the latter disagreed, contending that, in fact, productivity increased during the fasting month.  Reeves comments: “I thought it wise not to pursue the argument with the Chief Martial Law Administrator,” or words to that effect.

Another American journalist, P. J. O’Rourke, who lampoons everything he surveys, writes of his experience in Calcutta in 1998 in his book The CEO of the Sofa: “I spent the next four days trying to accomplish something in India again. . . . This would take twenty minutes.  Adjusting the clock to Indian Daylight Wasting Time, that’s four days.”

What’s true of India is certainly true of Muslim countries, but during Ramzan inefficiency also acquires an aura of sanctity.  Working hours are officially reduced, but people still arrive at work late and, with official acquiescence, leave early.  While at work, they do not even pretend to work but just sit there looking at their watch. Some affect a pious look and engage in religious activity when they are paid to work.  Even in the holiest of months, not much regard for rizq-e-halal!

While the men work less, women do more.  Typically, the women of the household wake up first, in the very early hours of the morning, to cook sehri.  They have standing instructions from the men to be woken up just in time for them to brush their teeth and finish eating before the siren announces the beginning of the fast, when they resume their sleep. 

The women finish the morning’s business by cleaning up the dishes and tidying up the kitchen.  They can barely catch a couple of hour’s sleep, for soon it is time to prepare the kids for school.  After that, other chores have to be attended to, like washing, cleaning etc.

In the early afternoon, it is time to serve lunch to the children who return home from school. Soon the men are back from work or college.  Exhausted from “work”, and weak from fasting, they are a bit grouchy and must be handled with care.  Deserving of rest, they help themselves to an afternoon nap while the women begin to cook the iftar and dinner.

This being the month of fasting, the cooking is rather elaborate, for the items are many and varied.  As iftar time approaches, the men assemble around the table, or more usually in a circle on the floor.  Their mouths salivating, they watch with yogic concentration as the women and children lay the freshly-cooked pakoras, samosas, dahi baras, chholay, etc, before them.

At the wail of the siren, the women join the men briefly to break the fast, then return to the kitchen to prepare the dinner. Iftar accomplished, the men rush to the mosque for the maghrib prayer. They return home to find the table (or the floor) laid out with dinner, following which the more pious disappear again for taravih prayers, while others watch television or go out to meet friends before retiring to bed. 

The women are the last to go to bed, having cleaned up the kitchen and done the spadework for the next morning’s sehri.  They work more than ever while fasting to keep their menfolk well-fed and in good humour.  No matter if she’s a working woman.  She must still act like a good housewife, which means all of the above.

The holy month seems to give Muslim men – some of them, at any rate – a license to be unpunctual, lethargic, inefficient, inconsiderate and rude. Idleness and arguments in offices, fisticuffs in buses and bazaars and road rage on the streets – that is the order of the day, while gluttony takes over as darkness descends. Tell me about self-deprivation and self-control!

by Razi Azmi


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3 Responses to Fasting month, feasting season

  1. Nadeem says:

    Very interesting article. I thought, Ramadan is an opportunity for reflection, giving thanks for all that we are blessed with and for acts of charity. It is also a time of deepening our spiritual life and strengthening ties within our family, friends and community. BTW here in Sydney both Coles and Woolworth located in Muslim populated suburbs have reduced the prices of dates. Very true about women’s working hours and eating under the cover of darkness.

  2. Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur says:

    Razi Sahib, it seems that though the Satan is put in chains his Muslim minions are let loose on the world. You have depicted the violations during the Holy month very well but just forgot the racket that continues incessantly from the loudspeakers in name of piety. People don’t realize that piety must be seen to be observed in month of Ramzan alone, it is a life time job if it is to have any value.
    Thank you for sharing this old brillian piece of yours. It will always remain relevant, of course until people change their behaviour.

  3. Javed Agha says:

    You have covered all activities from morning to dusk. So true………….

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