For most Muslims around the world, the month of Ramadan marks a yearly renewal, a time to turn inward in spiritual reflection, upward to God in worship, and outward toward other human beings in acts of charity. It is a time when many Muslims who do not offer the five required daily prayers or have much to do with religion for the rest of the year still refrain from food, drink, and sex during the daylight hours of an entire lunar month for the sake of God. Among the five pillars of Islam it is the fast of Ramadan, not the daily prayers, that is the most universally observed Muslim practice worldwide, behind only belief in God and the Prophet Muhammad. People fill mosques at night to offer extra prayers in congregation, and some even spend part or all of the last 10 days of Ramadan in a state of spiritual seclusion following the example of the Prophet. It is a month when many Muslims pay their yearly required alms (zakat) and when generosity reaches its peak in Muslim societies, especially through giving free break-fast meals (iftar) to the poor.
In a way, Ramadan combines the spirit of Christmas with the inwardness of the Easter season. Indeed, Muslims consider Ramadan to be the month that the Word of God (the Quran) first descended into the world through the revelation to Muhammad, as Christmas is the time when the Word of God (Jesus) came into the world through the virgin birth.
The Ramadan fast is marked by its anonymity and intimacy with God. The Prophet said that God says, “Every good deed is [rewarded] 10 times its like, up to 700 times, except for fasting. It is for Me, and I will reward it.” No one but God can see you fast. The Prophet said that especially while fasting one should not shout or return insults, but respond to an abuser by saying, “I am fasting. I am fasting.”
Just a day without food and one realizes how fragile the body is, how it becomes harder not only to move but even to think! It is a bodily experience of emptiness and poverty that Sufi Muslims say should be the state of the soul before God at all times. Muslims are reminded of the dependence of human beings upon that which is other than themselves for their happiness, and through the daily Ramadan ritual they practice breaking free of even their wholesome and licit desires in order to turn inward. It is an exercise of the spiritual heart overcoming the ego. The Prophet directed Muslims to the inner nature of the fast by warning, “Many people get nothing from the fast but hunger and thirst.”
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In contrast, at the beginning of the current month of Ramadan, an ISIS spokesman said, “Aspire to battle in this noble month … make Ramadan a month of disasters for the unbelievers.” It was a message that mangled lofty teachings about the holy month drawn from sayings of the Prophet and combined them with warmongering rhetoric whose spirit was summed up in the spokesman’s declaration, “No acts of worship are equal to [military] jihad.” On Friday, the second Friday of Ramadan and just days after the release of the statement, vicious attacks struck three different countries. ISIS has claimed responsibility for the atrocities in Kuwait and Tunisia, but not, as yet, France. The group’s brutality has also escalated in Syria, where at least 145 civilians were reportedly killed in the town of Kobani.
It is tempting to view ISIS’s Ramadan statement as a manifestation of dueling (and tiresome) narratives between a fringe and a mainstream—“ISIS is Islamic!”, “No, it’s not!”—but in reality there is something deeper going on.
A great danger in all religions is the drift from the inward to the outward, resulting in a focus on the shell at the expense of the kernel. When this happens, rituals like fasting are seen less as interiorizing and illuminating ways of approaching God, and more as measures of conformity and participation in a greater human project. For those people who are usually but misleadingly called fundamentalists (even the most peaceful kind), the pursuits of truth, law, contemplation, and social life are often mashed together into a mechanistic fervor in the service of a supreme goal: the fulfillment of an ideological blueprint. These people fuse and confuse the spiritual and the material, and measure all goodness in terms of adherence to a pre-ordained program and vision of what society (and perhaps the entire world) is supposed to look like.
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.