Without inner meaning and truth, spirituality is reduced inexorably to some social, communal, or legal obligation. Instead of being about the sacred, religion is about “the community” or “the glory of [insert name of group].” For different reasons, modern secular systems of thought tend to see religion as being entirely reducible to (and not only comprising) matters of class, gender, race, and the like. But what about the truth as such? What about the sacred?
When all that is left of religion is its shell, something more sinister will inevitably take the place of the kernel. Rituals, when they cease to nourish the soul and allow participation in a transcendent truth, can become mechanisms of control: you perform the actions and are punished if you do not, and prayer and fasting become gears and levers in a machine designed to build a perfect world. This is the Ramadan of ISIS, where boys are reportedly hung by their wrists for eating during the fast. Only with such a vision of things does it become plausible to say that no act of worship is superior to war, and that a month of fasting and prayer is a special season for bloodletting.
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It is precisely the spiritual power, joy, and generosity of Ramadan that the cynical propagandists of ISIS are trying (and, I would argue, failing) to redirect for their own demented purposes. They will be unsuccessful because for almost all Muslims, Islam is still a beautiful religion whose truths satisfy the mind and whose rituals fill hearts with peace. The idea of Ramadan as a season of cruelty and aggression is not just incorrect but unthinkable. So how does it become thinkable?
A religion is not simply a set of beliefs and rituals. It is a community that enshrines and transmits wisdom across generations and, in the case of Islamic civilization, across continents. Such a tradition enables the believer to know what they must do, but also answers questions like: Why must I do this? What is the nature of the world such that this ritual means something? What is the soul and how will it be changed by this act? Institutions like the Sufi orders, Islam’s philosophical and theological schools of thought, and its vast spiritual literature are delicate and precious, not easily recreated once destroyed or abandoned.
Yet Muslim modernists and “fundamentalists” of many stripes share a conviction that they should jettison over a thousand years of Islamic spirituality, philosophy, and theology, and presume to extract truth and meaning from the Quran and Sunnah (the sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad) all by themselves. For the modernizing reformers (Muslim and non-Muslim), this spiritual deforestation is meant to bring Muslims out of a hidebound and even superstitious tradition into a more progressive future, while for revivalists it is meant to purify the tradition of its wayward accretions.
The effect is ultimately the same: believers bereft of a thousand years of wisdom flailing, at best, to make sense of their sacred texts, or at worst, capitalizing on ignorance among some of their co-religionists to enforce their vision of the world, no matter how brutal.