Ramadan: wealth and poverty

Ramadan is a time of sharing and contemplation: what lessons can it teach us in today’s world of famine and inequality?
Yamin Zakaria
18 August 2011

Don’t worry, this is not a religious sermon. I am neither an Imam, nor a priest of any kind. Although fasting in the month of Ramadan is a spiritual act for Muslims, it may offer valuable lessons that are beneficial to all humanity, and provide some insight into human nature.

To abstain from consuming food and drink, and sexual intercourse, is to break from the usual routine. Observing this annual fasting gives the hard working organs in the body a bit of a rest, allowing them to recuperate, like the annual service done on a car. But although there are physical benefits to fasting, I am more interested in the collective social benefits that can be derived from the notion of fasting.

In countries like the UK, in the summer time, this period of fasting extends from 3 AM to approximately 9 PM. My non-Muslim colleagues ask me with curiosity every year: do I really abstain from food and water for almost eighteen hours every day for the entire month? The experience and the fear of hunger pangs make human beings think about the fragile nature of life, and the value of food and drink. You would think the human race would naturally do their utmost not to waste food and drink, which is essential for survival, yet, despite witnessing poverty, there is huge wastage every year in the wealthy nations of the world.

Apart from abstinence, Ramadan is also a time for giving and sharing. Whenever I would go to the beautiful Mosque (Masjid) in Medina or some other major Masjid with a couple of dates to break my fast, I would come back home with a bag full of food, as everyone rushing to give away something and collect the reward from their Creator. If the Muslims were in this frame of mind for the entire year, there would surely be a huge reduction in hunger.

When you witness so many people walking away with more food than they brought in, it proves that when the majority are actively engaged in giving and sharing there is an abundance of food. This is something I experienced during my university years; we used to attend the weekly gathering at the local Mosque run by the group Tablighi Jamat. For most of us, it was an excuse for socialising; the students were not really interested in the boring sermons that were needlessly repeated over the weeks. After the lectures came the main event – dinner.

Some individuals brought food for themselves, but many others did not. It was shared as people grouped themselves in an ad hoc manner and ate on the floor. At the end, everyone was full, and plenty of food was left over. How was that, given that not everyone brought food? It demonstrates a simple point about sharing and satisfaction. When the food is shared there is more available and individual consumption is not likely to be as high, because people don’t feel compelled to finish everything, and know that there are others who need to eat as well. So one eats just enough to satisfy the hunger; otherwise, human beings tend to eat more than their bodily requirement as individuals.

If we amplify this model of sharing, most communities can collectively satisfy themselves; those with excess food and those with very little will balance out, and those with little requirement and those with more will also balance out; thus, the extremes of gluttony and poverty can be avoided to some extent. But, in the real world, there is famine in Africa and obesity in the western world. Despite all the technological advances, poverty has not been eliminated. Rather than a space-race, a race to eliminate poverty and disease would have been far more useful.

Those fasting in Ramadan should certainly appreciate poverty, where people are forced to fast continuously; the people in Somalia today will not have an abundance of food and water waiting for them when the time approaches to break their fast. The solution to poverty suggested by Islam is to share and distribute, and the general command is to circulate wealth. There are many verses that extol the believers to donate money, not because it is a favour to the poor, but to relieve the obligation on their neck. On the Day of Judgement, it is the wealthy and rich with excess wealth that will be accounted and not the poor and destitute. The solution seems to be focused on the ‘distribution’ of the wealth rather than production of wealth, because mankind will naturally produce driven by need. The real test is: can they collectively share the wealth amongst them where people of different capabilities and needs exist?

A knee-jerk response to poverty is to maximise production and accumulate; this is the doctrine of capitalism, and individuals are taught to be greedy and selfish, which dents the notion of wealth circulation. Those who have acquired wealth do not let it trickle down enough.

In contrast to hoarding, there is something magical about sharing, it binds the human family, which we appreciate less and less because living in a materialistic society, our values and our traits tell us to accumulate as much as possible, even if it means monopolising the market and depriving others. I often wonder with amazement how large corporations with billions in their pockets would go to great lengths to deprive the small competitor. Isn’t there enough for everyone? How much can a human being consume in his life time? Why are there billionaires and millionaires? Can you really consume that much money over a life time? Even if we live for an average of 60 years, a third of that is spent sleeping.

The experience of hunger through fasting should also lead to a change in attitude towards food; it should be treated with respect, not wasted needlessly. Yet, our habit is to accumulate more food than we can consume out of fear of poverty or driven by greed. The households in the UK and other wealthy western nations, including oil-rich Muslim countries, waste large amounts of food every year, even during the recession. Just think, if you spent less, the excess money could be given in charity which would mean helping someone in genuine need, rather than wasted food ending up in the bin. It might be one small contribution to eliminate the food-mountains in one place, and transfer some of that to where it is scarce.

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