x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Ramadan’s a time to rid yourself of those bad habits

The holy month is a great conduit to bridge cultural and religious gaps to create better understanding between people, says Fatima Al Shamsi.

It is that time of year again – time to bring out all the extra prayer mats, make sure you are properly stocked up on dates, get your bottles of Vimto dusted off and begin a rewarding month-long exercise in self-control. In addition, this time around you will have to tweak your sleep schedule not only to adjust work hours and extra night prayers, but to accommodate the second leg of the World Cup. Once again, the Holy Month of Ramadan is upon us and it is definitely one of my favourite times of the year.

Ramadan usually gets mistaken for one of two things: either a dreary month of enduring daily deprivation, or four weeks packed with overindulgent get-togethers after the sun sets. While there might be some truth in both, they do not paint the correct picture. The Holy Month of Ramadan is not merely about abstaining from food and drink; it is also meant to be a time of fasting for the soul, the eyes and ears. It is meant to teach us to be mindful of all our different senses – what we expose them to and how we use them. Finally, Ramadan is meant to remind us of the blessings we have in order for us to be more grateful people, as well as to allow us to empathise with those who aren’t as fortunate. That way we can adjust our behaviour accordingly.

The month of Ramadan is about being able to carry on with your everyday life with the additional pressure of fasting so that you can learn to be patient. It is normal to be tired and even get irritable when you are deprived of sustenance, but the aim should be to keep your cool and show respect to your family, friends and co-workers. Fasting is not meant to be an excuse for any shortcomings during the Holy Month.

In addition, Ramadan is supposed to help you get away from things that could be harmful for your physical, as well as mental health. The idea is not to simply put a hold on habits, knowing that you will come back to them in four weeks. I just hope that those who do want to capitalise on the experience of Ramadan do not get too caught up in huge iftars, stay up until dawn and enjoy all the festivities that are great to have, but are not the focal point of the month.

At the same time, we have to steer clear of being too rigid and seeing any deviation from the usual practices as blasphemous.

I heard a great lecture recently that addressed the fact that so many people do not properly understand the idea of fasting during the month of Ramadan. Fasting, the scholar argued, is not simply depriving yourself of food. It is also part of a larger attempt at self-awareness and self-control for the individual who is supposed to devote extra time to his or her spiritual growth.

More importantly, he pointed out that many people only felt they had to behave “well” for half the day; from Fajr prayer until Maghrib prayer. He said that people who were fasting needed to be on their best behaviour each day throughout the whole month and even beyond that. Your time is supposed to be focused on spirituality and in thinking about religion and life, and how to improve your relationship with God and with members of your community.

Growing up, I had to observe Ramadan in non-Muslim countries, most of the time. Ramadan was always about trying to recreate the atmosphere back home all the while learning about how Muslims from different nationalities mark it.

From Saudi iftars to Senegalese taraweeh, I have always enjoyed trying different food and traditions, as well as learning what others focused on during the month. Moreover, I always enjoyed celebrating with my non-Muslim friends, who would often fast a day or two to keep me company and to learn about Islamic practices.

I believe Ramadan is a great conduit to bridge cultural and religious gaps to create better understanding between people around the world.

Ramadan is meant to be a growing experience not only for the individual, but also for the community at large. So perhaps this year, we can go to prayer before we go out to see friends and still participate in the various celebrations, all the while engaging each other in spiritual matters so that our intellectual growth and personal development stays stimulated. Wishing you all a blessed month of Ramadan.

Fatima Al Shamsi is an Emirati who recently returned from New York City after pursuing a master’s ­degree in Global Affairs at New York University