Fasting the extra mile
By KEVIN TAN and ANGELIN YEOH
THE holy month of Ramadan is a time when Muslims the world over not only abstain from food and water from dawn till sunset, but also devote themselves to spiritual reflection, the cultivation of empathy for the less fortunate, and the practice of self-discipline.
In our modern age where distractions are at every corner, that can be a tough task.
And that’s why some young Muslims in Malaysia have decided to take the challenge of not only fasting from food and drink, but also from other “distractions”, like the Internet, social media, music, television, and even junk food.
Fasting of the ears
Shahirah Elaiza, 24, has decided to abstain from secular music throughout Ramadan, and this is her second time doing it.
“I want to make the most of Ramadan as it is only here once a year. I realised how music took up a lot of my attention and time, and it made sense for me to fast from music as part of my efforts to honour this blessed month,” said Shahirah, who recently graduated from the University of Otago in New Zealand with a degree in communications studies.
Shahirah, who is also a blogger, pointed out that the concept of giving up a luxury or something you love as a form of spiritual purification gives us a chance to attain a special closeness to god.
She continues to explain that she chose to fast from secular music because some of its content may not be agreeable to the Muslim faith.
“Today, most of the popular music played repeatedly on the airwaves may not be morally conducive and can be detrimental to a Muslim’s faith, which aims to purify the heart,” she explained. “Many Muslims don’t realise this and reduce Islam to only rules and rituals.”
She added that the way the music industry thrives by creating “idols” out of musicians and instilling a false sense of identity in their fans (e.g. “Beliebers”, Lady Gaga’s “Little Monsters”, etc.) goes against the Islamic belief that one should become more attuned with a person’s natural state of being.
She even quoted an American Islamic scholar, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, who said: “Idols of primitive culture were made of sticks and stones. The idols of modern culture are made of flesh and bones.”
Dr Mohd Farid Mohd Shahran, senior researcher at the Institute of Islamic Understanding Malaysia, says the main reason for Muslims to fast during Ramadan is to protect themselves from doing things that could affect their spiritual state; and hence abstaining from things like going online or listening to music – if one finds them to be distracting – could help.
“If you tend to eat too much, you’d feel bloated or uncomfortable. Some activities could cause your mind to be occupied with unnecessary information. For Ramadan, your mind and physical state should be focused on the good things,” explained Farid.
Iman Ihsani, 27, a senior executive at a local TV station, is committing herself to fasting from rice, carbonated drinks and any form of junk food – even after breaking fast.
“This year I took the pledge to turn a new leaf in terms of my eating style and also lifestyle.
“They say at a certain age you will wake up one morning feeling like a bus has hit you. Well, I felt it recently and I knew that my eating lifestyle was the cause of it. So I needed to change,” said Iman.
Abstaining from junk food may seem easy – until you try it. Iman says that she struggled the most on the first few days because she couldn’t choose freely from menus.
Nevertheless, she says her choice to perform the fast has helped improve her self-control, especially when it comes to indulging in food.
“I don’t feel bloated any more and you won’t hear me saying ‘I ate too much!’, which happens quite often during the fasting month,” she said.
For Shahirah, her fast from secular music has also helped re-focus her attention, especially now that she’s listening to Nasyid (Islamic music) and Quran recitations instead. She says it has made her feel more empowered to make better choices in her daily life.
“It seems like a small thing, but not listening to music has given me more mind space and time to focus on being a better Muslim. It’s like I de-cluttered my mind from unnecessary things,” said Shahirah.
When it comes to distractions for young people, social media and the Internet are probably the biggest culprits.
Student Muhammad Zulthaqif, 22, admits he’s a little addicted to social media, which is why he has decided to abstain from it throughout Ramadan as well.
“When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I do is check for updates on Twitter. One simple Twitter update will lead to another and I find myself spending almost 15 hours a day online just reading up on things,” he said.
Zulthaqif has been tweeting since 2008 and said he also relies on the site for social interaction. He calls himself a homebody who doesn’t like to go out much.
“I like Twitter because it doesn’t require me to add friends. It’s relatively simple and I can follow whoever I want. I can just read text and I don’t have to scroll through endless pictures or videos.”
On July 20, Zulthaqif announced to his friends that he will be going offline for 30 days. He even told his housemates to change their WiFi password.
His move was inspired by tech writer Paul Miller, who announced on April 30 that he’d stay away from the Internet for a year.
“Actually I’ve been wanting to go offline for some time now. Then I decide to finally do it for the month of Ramadan as I felt it will be more meaningful,” he said.
To prepare for his fast, Zulthaqif downloaded all his university lecture and tutorial notes in advance.
“I was fully prepared for my fast. I did all my group work that required online research before starting the fast.”
He admits the experience hasn’t been easy. His housemates have been teasing him, saying he wouldn’t even last a week.
“When we hang out, my housemates will whip out their smartphones and say things like ‘Oh man, you got to check out this tweet!’, or ‘Hey, I have something really funny to show you on YouTube’. I try my best to resist it.”
By now, Zulthafiq says he feels like he’s run out of things to do: “I don’t have anything else to watch or read. The Internet has become such a necessity in our daily lives.”
Justin Johari, 32, says he is staying away from movies and the cinema for the whole month to focus on more productive things.
“If I were to spend two-three hours watching films several times a week after work, I would have missed the opportunity to pray more and I would spend unnecessarily for entertainment and then have less to give to the needy during this month,” he said.
Justin adds that movies these days carry a lot of subliminal messages, violence and over-the-top humour which can affect him psychologically and emotionally.
“Hence by avoiding films and music, I feel I would be at the best state for self-reflection and remembrance of God,” he explained.
According to Institute of Islamic Understanding Malaysia senior researcher Dr Mohd Farid Mohd Shahran, choosing to abstain from social media and other things on top of the Ramadan fast is fine – as long as one remains “reasonable”.
“During prayers, Muslims should detach themselves from worldly matters and focus on their worship (ibadah) to Allah. Putting their attention away from mobile devices and other forms of media is a great way to focus on spiritual matters.
“But there are also a lot of good things you can do on the Internet. For example, you can use it for research, or to keep yourself updated with news. On television, there are a lot of good religious programmes you can watch especially in the month of Ramadan.”
Shahirah, for instance, uses her blog to discuss and learn new perspectives about Islam. Farid was quick to remind that fasting from things like the Internet, music and TV isn’t necessary. It all comes down to what your intentions (niat) are.
“It depends on the individual and what they do with their time on the Internet, or how they consume other forms of media,” he said. “If you listen to music with good intentions and don’t mix it with elements like alcohol or ill social interactions, then it’s encouraged.
“As I’ve mentioned, not all forms of media are bad. It all depends on the content, objective and perhaps even song lyrics. You should look into that instead of abstaining wholly from these things. Just don’t get carried away.”