The Ethics of Fasting

Empty dinner plate on white background

Many people are initially reluctant to approach the topic of fasting from a critical standpoint given that they fear they have no authority on the matter for the sole reason that they themselves are not a part of that particular culture that participates in said custom or tradition. This is one of the severe shortcomings of modern-day liberalism, which oftentimes will declare cultures to be immune from serious analysis and questioning under the guise of tolerance. This idea of abstaining from the judgment of ideas seriously limits one to partaking in the analysis of only their own particular culture. This ignorance of a culture thus fosters an unspoken acceptance of it, dismissing any judgment given that the critic “does not understand” that culture’s perspective. On a surface level, this haste refusal to judge a culture appears noble, by not initially creating an opinion of something on which one is not knowledgeable; however, by thinking of more extreme examples, one might begin questioning the very nature of cultural relativism’s premise, which states that any question of “right and wrong” ultimately falls within the realm of a particular culture, thereby implying that there is no explicit universal truth, or standard, that could be applied to any culture. If a culture partakes in human sacrifice, one must surely understand that something is not ethically right here, under the apparent presumption that one acknowledges the undeniable suffering that is brought about by the barbaric practice of slaughter. It may very well be possible that they are unaware of the wrongdoing of their actions, perhaps by not understanding the concept of the universal suffering in sentient beings. Even if one is not extensively learned in a particular culture, it is still possible to understand certain actions and deem them to be ethically acceptance or unacceptable. One of the assets of cultural relativism is acknowledging that any one particular culture is not necessarily better than any other, but rather, certain aspects of various cultures are to be commended while others condemned. Acknowledging that it is permissible to question a culture with which one is unfamiliar, one should feel at least a little more at ease upon exploring the ethics of fasting, even if one has never been directly immersed in such a culture.

The intention behind fasting is to abstain from food and drink for a limited amount of time in order to experience the suffering of those less fortunate, thereby fostering a stronger sense of empathy towards all of humanity through the deprivation of a fundamental need. The notion behind its intended effect is that actually participating in this action will have a more profound impact on a person than if they merely thought about the matter. Based on the general premise that was delineated above, this piece will be divided into two types of arguments: the preliminary or softer arguments and the crux of the matter.

The weakest argument, yet still important to the matter, is not so much an argument against fasting itself but rather is a critique of the methods by which fasting is performed. The first item to understand is that in the Islamic tradition, a typical fast begins at sunrise and breaks at sunset. This being said, many Muslims will actually try to lessen the burden on themselves by sleeping through a vast majority of the daytime, claiming that this does not actually disrupt the legitimacy of their fasts. Of course, no one can truly know what counts as a valid or invalid fast. Those individuals who believe that the month of Ramadan exists simply for the literal and physical deprivation of food, regardless of internal dispositions will often tend to lessen their own suffering by either sleeping or preoccupying themselves with other matters to keep them busy. This, however, would be considered by many others to be, in a sense, cheating one’s way out of the true meaning of fasting. Those who believe that the reason behind fasting is to internalize and contemplate the suffering that comes along with the absence of food will state that by sleeping throughout the fast, one never consciously experiences internal dialogue that leads to the understanding and acknowledgement of suffering. This idea of action and intention extends to a number of other domains as well in religion. One of the most notable ones being prayer, as some believe actions alone will suffice while others vehemently claim that actions themselves are empty and meaningless without the proper disposition and mindset to comprehend the meaning behind each act.

Instead of trying to decide which relationship between action and intention is the correct one, it may be more helpful to think about what each possibility would reveal about the divine being that legitimately accepts each form of devotion. The first, and arguably more simplistic form of physical action constituting as legitimate devotion, regardless of internal comprehension is rather telling of a divine being as one who would accept this as completely genuine. Surely if one simply deprives oneself of food they would be then viewed in a righteous light under such a divinity, even if that person is physically coerced out of his or her own desire or will to do so. This would then imply that the deity merely cares about the lack of food aspect during a given timeframe, completely disregarding any thought process that may take place during that time. Said form of fasting ought to become even more apparent as the less legitimate method, especially when compared to the other type, as the first type completely dismisses rationalization, the very attribute that distinguishes humans from other animals. This would imply that as long as the correct course of action is taken, the deity does not care for, or rather does not prefer, any one mindset to another. This divine being would be just as content with sophisticated individuals as it would be with mindless buffoons.

The second possibility includes the deity recognizing the internal thought process and intention behind the given action of fasting. This divinity would value thinking and contemplating one’s behavior, thereby implying that the purpose of fasting is in fact to understand the suffering involved instead of only physically enduring it. It is exactly this type of contemplation that distinguishes humans from animals, as even an animal is fully capable of, unintentionally presumably, of forgoing food from say sunrise to sunset and thereby “fasting” for that day. But once the component of understanding the situation is involved, those who accidentally, unwillingly, or unconsciously deprive themselves of food are not rewarded for mere coincidence. In other words, God is not a consequentialist. Instead, said deity respects thorough thought and contemplation of the matter. Upon understanding the merit of consciously experiencing the fast one must acknowledge that contemplating the matter will be considered to be better than to merely abstain from food. Thus, sleeping through a fast, which inherently indulges in the unconscious, will not be considered to be a legitimate fast by anyone who believes in understanding the suffering behind fasting and valuing rationalization over simple physical occurrence.

Up to this point, the argument has primarily dealt with the proper way to fast, if there is to be one. Henceforth the argument will predominantly focus on exposing the shortcomings of fasting to the point of exposing it as an exploit of the poor as a luxury for affluent Muslims as a psychologically self-serving deception. The first premise which will be argued against is that by fasting one empathizes with the poor who are suffering and therefore may respect them more and understand their hunger as a legitimate concern. Firstly, there is little to no respect in the action of fasting as it is observed today. If anything, it would be the complete opposite. It is actually insulting to the poor and hungry, as this commercialized, publically announced affair of abstaining from eating is followed by a breaking of the fast with lavish foods in exquisite restaurants, grand parties, or in the comfort of one’s own home, all luxuries that the truly poor can only dream of one day experiencing. There is nothing inherently wrong with dining in restaurants, attending gatherings, or living in a pleasant abode; however, when one attempts to compare oneself to those who are truly less fortunate and without all of these luxuries, it becomes rather insulting that these people compare their temporary abstaining from food to real poverty, one involving an insufficiency of food that annually leaves millions dead. To add to this already unfair comparison of suffering, these fasts are not opened with regular meals, but usually involve indulging, going above and beyond simply eating a meal. This evident form of gluttony by devouring excess food to compensate for the lack of food in the preceding hours should be rather revealing of the once again offensive comparison that is foolishly made between those who are truly suffering and those who merely do it for customary reasons or for showcasing and broadcasting their piety. Through this systematic fasting, the impoverished effectively become a spectacle, something upper-middleclass Muslims have the luxury of attempting to emulate while commercializing the entire month, pretending to partake in the suffering of others, fully convincing themselves that they are actually doing a noble deed while actually attempting to partake in a horrifying socioeconomic condition that ought to be exterminated, not routinely imitated.

The goal of this argument is not to promptly dismiss the reality of the destitution that exists in the world, but rather to find a way to understand this without the need to condescendingly partake in it. Surely it must be admitted that not enough people understand the severity of the malnourished throughout the world, but this mandate is not the right way to go about solving this pressing issue. As an extension of the logic that one must experience hunger to understand the seriousness of hunger, one could then argue that one will only truly understand the horrors that face burn victims only by lighting oneself on fire as well. Truly this cannot be the case as this simply reduces all forms of education to physical experience. One of the beauties of education is to learn about an experience without necessarily having to repeat it. Self-inflicted harm, marketed as “suffering in solidarity,” is not a sufficient or appropriate way to go about any issue. Many will argue that if anything fasting at least calls to attention the very important problem of world hunger. This is undeniable. However, one must realize that there are significantly better ways of dealing with this problem than self-induced harm. Instead of depriving oneself of a basic necessity, the effort should rather be made to extend this necessity to others in an active and positive fashion. Imagine for a moment the profound effect that would emerge if Muslims, for instance, spent the entire month of Ramadan cooking and donating food to those who needed it while educating the general population on the levels of disparity on a global scale. As of now, there are very few real world outcomes, never mind solutions, that emerge after the fasting period reaches an end. After the traditional fasting month ends, people often are thankful temporarily for the food they are fortunate to have and many will acknowledge that there are millions who need help. This does not in any sense guarantee a legitimate course of action to be taken. By instead extending this effort in a productive manner, one could make legitimate differences in the lives of others by diminishing suffering at a much more extensive level than ever before. By utilizing this authentic concern for the poor and hungry worldwide, one could materialize it in an effort to make a significant difference, one that evidently does not arise from skipping a meal or two for a couple of weeks.

This article was written by Amar Ojha, founder and writer at dusk magazine. 

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