The Other Side of Ramadan
OP - July 15, 2013, 01:00 PM
It’s that time of year again, when practising Muslims fast from dawn till dusk. It is also the time when, according to a saying of Muhammad, “the gates of Paradise are opened and the gates of the Hellfire are closed, and the devils are chained.” (Sahih al-Bukhari 3277)
But for some people, forced to fast during this month, Ramadan itself might be likened to a state of purgatory, in which the chains supposedly used to restrict the devils are also used to imprison people whose conscience rejects the precepts of Islam in part or in entirety.
That some practising Muslims question some aspects of how the fast is observed has received little attention.
For example, here’s what Shirin, a liberal Muslim woman I know, told me: “It's hard to get many Muslims to speak honestly about Ramadan because they feel as though they need to defend the whole thing. I try to explain this to my Muslim friends, but they just don't get it or don't want to admit it. They just reply ‘oh you'll be fine, you get used to it after a while’. But what harm will 18 hours without water do to the body? Maybe I'm just a bad Muslim. I've been told that I should not really fast because my health is not so great, but at the same time I feel guilty because fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam and if others can muster through then why can't I?”
As for ex-Muslims, many of whom are unable to freely express their apostasy, the month of Ramadan is even more of a trial, in which every tyrannical aspect of Islam is magnified, and every hypocrisy of piety exposed. It becomes in microcosm a representation of their condition. They are coerced into following the outward observances of a religion they cannot leave or openly criticise because of fears for their safety and the reaction of family and community. Social pressures and honour codes act as a policing force. They are unable to express their free conscience and are negated by the communal demands of a religion that stifles their conscience and snuffs out dissent and non-conformity.
The elevation of Ramadan into an event to be romanticised by the media and the establishment as an expression of multicultural understanding, puts ex-Muslim’s in an invidious position – caught between an Islam from which they dissent, and a wider society which wilfully ignores the darker, coercive, hypocritical side of Ramadan.
In this sense it is also a microcosm of some of the dilemmas that ex-Muslims and dissenting Muslims face in getting their voices heard in general.
In some ways the liberal idealisation of Ramadan is an understandable response to overly reductive notions of Islam that are peddled by extreme right-wingers who have an agenda of fomenting anti-Muslim bigotry. But in countering that with an image of religious practise that is itself simplified, that ignores the complexities of reality for Muslim non-conformists and apostates, there is a risk that religious dissent and the oppression caused by certain aspects of religiosity are denied. And to deny that is to deny the complexity and right to dissent that mainstream liberal society takes for granted for itself
As much as Ramadan is “celebrated” in British society so should the virtues and qualities of those ex-Muslims and non-conformists who dissent from the "holy month" be recognised and celebrated. The rights of the individual over those of a collective, freedom of conscience, religious dissent and a rejection of coercive community pressures are central to our liberal secular society.
Perhaps one day, the voices of those who dissent from the pieties of Ramadan will be listened to and their experiences valued as enriching the fertile traditions of British society in ways that the religious of every stripe all too often seek to ignore or snuff out.
(published in conjunction with rationalist.org.uk)