As a Christian living in London, it is easy to forget that it is Ramadan. I keep offering Muslim colleagues coffee. It’s taken in good spirit: A simple “no thanks.” In one meeting, I pushed; she had been late and looked as if she could do with some water. “I’m fasting,” she said, eventually. I felt my face redden as I mumbled an apology.
Despite the discretion with which most Western Muslims go about their fast, some regard it as a problem or, worse, a political opportunity. Last week, the Danish Immigration and Integration Minister Inger Stojberg described the fast as “dangerous for all of us.” Apparently she was afraid that hungry bus drivers might crash, or a sleepy surgeon might slip on their scalpel. It is appalling that piety and restraint should be used as the motive for a political attack by someone so senior in government.
This display of deep ignorance about such an important spiritual discipline ignores the fact that fasting used to be widespread in Western Christianity (many of the Eastern Christian churches still fast extensively).
In fact, rather than being a “danger,” there are marked benefits to fasting. According to one 2014 study, controlled fasting can help to “reduce weight, delay aging, and optimize health” — and even help your body to fight cancers. It is developing something of a faddish following, the 5:2 diet being a form of intermittent fasting. As the metabolism slows, one sweats less — an especially useful side effect when Ramadan falls in the summer. Of course, if one is seeking to exploit the fast for health benefits, then some self-control at iftar and suhoor is also required. Some Muslim friends complain of putting on weight through Ramadan. The festive atmosphere and heaving tables that line the Arab restaurants in London’s Edgware Road are indeed enticing.
But this beneficial side effect is merely a support act to the main attraction. It is the spiritual benefits that make religious fasting special. For Muslims through Ramadan, community is strengthened: The fast begins and ends with family and community in celebration; the Qur’an is read in its entirety; there are special communal prayers for the more committed. Then there is the rhythm of the month, with the spiritual drumbeat growing louder and more fevered the closer it comes to its culmination.
“Louder and more fevered” is certainly a criticism that is sometimes levelled at Muslims and mosques during the month in the West. On its Ramadan timetable, the East London Mosque (one of London’s major mosques) includes a note more commonly seen outside the capital’s pubs and bars: “Please respect our neighbors when coming to and leaving the mosque.”
For the Abrahamic religions, rhythm and community are essential. It is all too easy for the mundane to distract us from the divine; spiritual rhythms give us focus. Communal worship bolsters our own connection with God. The three faiths (and many others) all follow annual calendars that remind us of the different aspects of God’s connection to humanity.
In the Christian monastic tradition, fasting was as much a part of the discipline as the seven daily prayers. The Rule of St. Benedict (the regulations of the Benedictine monastic order) prescribes weekly fasts on Wednesdays and Fridays, as well as “private prayers and abstinence from food and drink” during Lent (the closest equivalent Christianity has to the month of Ramadan). Many non-monastic priests and laity would also observe regular fasts or special dietary restrictions as part of their spiritual discipline.
This is still done in much of the Christian world, but in the West it gradually fell out of favor after the reformation, to the point that Lent is now frequently passed by without notice, or treated in the same way as a New Year’s resolution: “I will cut down on my coffee intake.”
Collective experiences are rare in Western societies these days – we are missing the community spirit of Ramadan fasting.
Part of the reason for this might be the way that Western Christianity has become an individual pursuit, rather than a communal one. Although there remains regular communal worship, the year has lost much of the spiritual rhythm that is still held by Eastern Christianity, Judaism and Islam. This is a shame, not least for the community cohesion that such shared activities engender, or the spiritual boost that is provided for the rest of the year.
The individuality of Western religion is reflected in Western politics, but the community spirit that a collective fast engenders reaches beyond the group performing it. Many mosques in the West during Ramadan will invite non-Muslims to join them in breaking the fast: Both dignitaries and ordinary people. This reflects the rightful status of Muslims as citizens of their respective countries and an integral part of their local communities. Politicians concerned about integration should encourage this behavior. There is nothing threatening about Muslim religious practice that affirms the place of Islam in wider society; in fact, it can strengthen the bonds of society as a whole.
There are few collective experiences these days in Western society. Even sport no longer feels the same, with the FA Cup final merely a low-key adjunct to the Premier League calendar rather the season-ending national occasion it once was. The royal wedding of a couple of weeks ago — watched by about two billion people around the world — is an exception. But the thirst for communal activity is clear. A fast seems as good a candidate as any; even if it is just as the latest health fad.
- Peter Welby is a consultant on religion and global affairs, specializing in the Arab world. Previously he was the managing editor of a think tank on religious extremism, the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics, and worked in public affairs in the Arabian Gulf. He is based in London, and has lived in Egypt and Yemen. Twitter: @pdcwelby.