Photograph by SR via Unsplash

When fasting becomes starving: Why Ramadan 2024 is unprecedented for many Muslims around the world

Kinza Shekhani

April 9, 2024

Every year, Muslims take part in a month of fasting called Ramadan, which entails abstaining from food, water, intimacy, and any type of sin from dawn to sunset. The concept of fasting is prescribed in the second chapter of the Holy Qur’an:

“Oh you who believe, fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you so that you may attain taqwa.[i] (2:183)

As described in the verse, fasting is not specific to Islam and was not newly revealed as a commandment for Muslims. It is a practice that was and continues to be prevalent in several faiths and cultures in some form. While the most apparent aspect of fasting is abstaining from food and water, the primary purpose revealed in the Qur’an is attaining taqwa. Fasting helps strengthen our discipline and makes us mindful of our actions through the day, which in turn, helps increase God consciousness. Learning to say “no” to things that are normally allowed (i.e. food, water), makes it easier to say no to sin and bad habits that we just can’t seem to shake otherwise.

Although the ultimate goal of fasting is spiritual enrichment, for many, it is also a joyous time to build community, especially when breaking the fast at sunset with a meal called iftar. In some cases, extravagant spreads fill tables as people celebrate the achievement of fasting together.

However, this Ramadan has brought with it vivid coverage of those suffering from famine and starvation due to the critical situation in Gaza. As we witness these circumstances, our hearts sting as we see full platters in front of us, especially when we see uneaten food going to waste. While we have natural cravings that we hope to fulfill with the iftar meal, we now wonder how selfish it seems to follow our cravings when there are others unable to fulfill basic nutritional needs. We realize that, for many, fasting happens out of necessity, even outside of Ramadan, and looks more like a permanent state of starvation. As we gather for the iftar, we find ourselves less concerned with helping ourselves to another serving and more with how we can help those in need. As we post on social media, we refrain from sharing images of our plates as we imagine the empty hands of those suffering. As famine and the loss of civilian lives plagues Gaza, our intentions and actions this Ramadan seem to be reverting to the prescribed intent of fasting – attaining taqwa and utilizing our time and resources carefully to do more good.

This Ramadan has brought with it vivid coverage of those suffering from famine and starvation due to the critical situation in Gaza. As we witness these circumstances, our hearts sting as we see full platters in front of us, especially when we see uneaten food going to waste.

This shift in perspective begs the question – shouldn’t we always be mindful of these things and act accordingly, regardless of which faith we follow, and regardless of whether we are fasting? Haven’t there always been people suffering and in need? Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him[ii]), who is believed to be God’s final messenger in Islam, following other prophets like Noah, Abraham, and Moses (Peace Be Upon Them), said:

“He is not a believer whose stomach is full while the neighbor to his side is starving.”[iii]

This guidance teaches us that taking care of those in need is not limited to a particular time.  Whenever a neighbor of any faith or background is suffering, it should make us check ourselves. As we move into this line of thinking, we may find ourselves confronted by uncomfortable feelings. Witnessing injustice can make us feel guilty for having privileged lives. While our kids laugh and play, other kids are being oppressed. While we have comfortable, heated and air-conditioned homes, others have no place to call home. While we have our plates full throughout the day, others struggle to find even a bite to eat. Sometimes this guilt becomes so strong that it prevents us from feeling any sense of joy. In an effort to avoid guilt, we may want to turn the news off and look away from the injustices being committed, as if by pretending they don’t exist, we can make them go away.

It’s a tough balance. If we turn away from our lives and immerse ourselves in the problems of this world, we may grow hopeless, paralyzed from being of any benefit to ourselves or others. If we turn away from the problems of this world and immerse ourselves in our own lives, we grow selfish with hardened hearts. Perhaps we can start finding this balance by getting comfortable with feeling uncomfortable; for uncomfortable feelings, such as guilt, can be reflective of a compassionate heart. We can, then, transform the shadow of guilt into the light of passion that drives sincere, positive action and prayers. As Ramadan comes to an end and the suffering in the world continues, we hope to attain taqwa that will forever shift our hearts to be conscious of God and use His blessings to bring about a better world.

Kinza Shekhani is a member of the Interfaith & Outreach Committee of the Muslim Community Center (MCC) in Morton Grove, Illinois.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

[i] Taqwa (Arabic) – God consciousness, mindfulness of God.

[ii] The phrase is used after names in Islamic practice to show respect to prophets of Islam. While Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) is considered to be the final messenger of God, Islam reveres Adam, Abraham (Ibrahim), Noah (Nuh), Moses (Musa), David (Dawud), Solomon (Sulayman), Jesus (Isa), and many others, as prophets too (Peace Be Upon Them.)

[iii] in Al-Sunan al-Kubrá lil-Bayhaqī, 19668.

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