Ramadan is Not a Poverty Simulation Game

Ramadan is a time of self-excavation. It is a time to dig deep for patience, compassion, and humility. It is a time to practice God-consciousness and mindfulness as prescribed to us by Allah (SWT):

“O you who have attained to faith! Fasting is ordained for you as it was ordained for those before you, so that you might remain conscious of God.” (Qur’an: 2:183)

Ramadan is not the time to pity or romanticize the struggles of poor, food insecure Muslims.

Poor Muslims, rich Muslims and Muslims all over the world fast, first and foremost, because we are asked by Allah to do so. If we dig into sacred texts, we see over and over the purpose and virtues of fasting as related to building taqwa, or God-consciousness.

“Verily, the most honourable of you with Allah is that who has At-Taqwa [i.e. God-consciousness, mindfulness and piety]. Verily, Allah is All-Knowing, All-Aware.” (Qur’an: 49:13).

To fast, then, is to build taqwa. And to build taqwa is to look inwardly and do the deeply difficult work of trying to get to know ourselves; of reflecting on how we spend our time and energy; of taking into account how much energy we use throughout the day and how much energy we waste. Building taqwa is to be conscious of the elevated sensations in our core, spirits, and hearts and how this translates to our daily actions.

If Ramadan indeed was a time to center the experiences of affluent Muslims and their stint with hunger, where does that leave poor and working class Muslims with fasting? If Ramadan was a time to “feel compassion for the poor,” why do poor Muslims also fast?

In regards to fasting, the Prophet (PBUH) said, “Whoever does not abandon falsehood in word and action, then Allah has no need that a person should abstain from food and drink.” Again, this stresses that fasting is about working on the self. It is not to feed the self by thinking that the ummah is now more equitable because rich Muslims didn’t eat for some hours of the day. If our souls, minds, and tongues are not engaged in the fasting experience, Allah has no need for our fasts.

For middle-class and rich Muslims in the Ummah who have never experienced chronic hunger, we cannot use Ramadan as a time to claim we viscerally understand  the lived reality of those who are malnourished while we voluntarily abstain from food and water. While learning compassion is an integral component of Ramadan, reducing poor and hungry Muslims simply to objects of suffering does not build compassion.

Fasting has many virtues and benefits, but we cannot claim it allows us to foster  genuine empathy  from “imagining” other people’s pain as a learning tool to better our deen. Mainstream narratives about hunger usually focus on the plight of the “unfortunate” rather than recognizing that hunger is part of a man-made system created to benefit and reward the “fortunate.” What does it mean to deem ourselves as the “fortunate” servants of Allah while simultaneously treating poor, hungry Muslims as objects we can “save” from “misfortunes”?

By reducing the Muslim world into abstract and mystified notions of “fortunate” and “unfortunate,” we overlook the linguistic origins of zakaat. Zakaat, which is closely tied to the month of Ramadan, translates to “to cleanse” and “to purify.” The literal meaning of zakaat is not about “saving” others, but rather purifying our souls in an effort to foster a more socially just Ummah. As Muslims, our deen requires us to be accountable for living in a civil society where the scales are unbalanced 12 months of the year, not just when we feel pangs of hunger for one month.

To think of fasting primarily as a corporeal experience and saying “we fast to develop empathy for the poor” directs focus away from the work we need to do for ourselves, and instead makes it seem like we are fasting to help someone else. This is not the case. We fast for the sake of Allah and to purify ourselves. Poor and hungry Muslims do not benefit from our fasting. We are not sacrificing meals so that others can eat. If we live in excess (corporeally or otherwise), our fasting does not redistribute resources to those living in systematically designed depravity.

During Ramadan, rich non-Black Muslims in the diaspora reference Muslims in war-torn countries living in abject poverty to invoke feelings of guilt and gratitude for our own privileged lives. If we begin to construct Other Muslims as those we “save” this Ramadan, how are we acting as Westerners who reproduce the same exploitative power relations? How do we reduce oppressed Muslims to lessons in “suffering” when we talk about the suffering in Palestine, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, etc? The desire to know the “Other” Muslim becomes a form of consumptive empathy. When our “empathy” becomes focused on consuming other people’s pain, it can no longer be characterized as empathy; it becomes a spectacle of suffering. It only further shifts the lens to those who witness struggle versus those who must survive while in constant struggle.

So this Ramadan, as you break fast night after night over warm meals, reflect on you. Reflect on the sacredness of these nights and on the ways in which the fast spiritually nourishes you. Realize that the fast is not an experiment for you to temporarily feel guilt for causing others to live in poverty. Realize that fasting is never intended to be a poverty simulation game.

Written by Zeinab Khalil and Annie Sajid