I would like to start with a couple of verses from chapter 102 of the Quran, which is sūrat al-Takāthur (Striving for More). This chapter criticises human’s preoccupation with the piling up of worldly gains, reminding them that they will be brought to account on the Day of Resurrection for such gains. The verses say: “(1) Striving for more distracts you (2) until you go into your graves. … On that Day [Day of Resurrection], you will be asked about your pleasures.” It is in the light of those verses that a Muslim should read and experience the month of Ramadan. Ramadan comes to challenge what I call the Culture of Maximalization, by asking the Muslim to move from the culture of physical maximalization to that of physical minimalization; to take a rest from striving for more and discipline the soul by striving for less.
Ramadan offers four types of minimalizations. First, the minimalization of food (taqlīl al-ṭa‘ām). Al-Ghazālī (d. 1111) wrote: “The purpose of fasting is to discipline your desire and weaken your appetite, so you can have the strength to increase your taqwa (mindfulness of God). If you eat in the evening as much as you missed eating during the daytime, then there is no benefit in your fasting, and you have placed a burden on your stomach. A human being has never filled any vessel which is worse than his own stomach.” Therefore, if your intake of food in Ramadan rather multiples, then know that Ramadan will offer you little help in your spiritual journey.
Second, the minimalization of talk (taqlīl al-kalām). Prophet Muhammad highlighted this when he said, “Whoever does not give up evil speech and acting upon it, God is not in need of his leaving food and drink (, i.e. He will not accept his/her fasting).” Third, the minimalization of human interaction (taqlīl al-anām). If your human interaction rather increases during Ramadan, then know that you have missed another dimension of the month. The modern human has largely become accustomed to striving for more interactions, leaving little time for developing his relation to God through seclusion and solitude. Ramadan also comes to modify such attitudes. Fourth, the minimalization of sleep (taqlīl al-manām). Al Bukhārī narrated that the Prophet would decrease further his sleeping, keep awake at night for prayer and devotion, and prepare himself to be more diligent in worship.
A Muslim can measure the effectuality of his/her fasting against those four minimalizations. With Covid-19 lurking in the background, it is interesting to note that Covid restrictions may well contribute towards those minimalizations, as it had already minimalized our activities and interactions in significant ways. Therefore, a Muslim is expected to make the best use of such circumstances by observing those four categories of minimalizations.
That said, I wish those who observe Ramadan a blessed month that brings them closer to God, contributes towards the development of their characters, and re-energizes their spiritual, mental, and physical strengths.
Mohammed Gamal Abdelnour is a postdoctoral researcher of Islamic Studies and Comparative Theology at SOAS.