OVER A COFFEE : Rationalising the rituals of Ramzan — I — Dr Haider Shah
The month of Ramzan with its distinctive social discourse has always been an important feature of our culture. If the ratings-hungry private TV channels have commercialised news and current affairs programmes, how can they spare religion in their cutthroat competition? Leading showbiz personalities that masquerade as distributors of heavenly rewards can be seen doing brisk business after commodifying the holiness of the month of Ramzan.
It is always a daunting exercise to examine a ritual that enjoys the emotional support of an assertively vocal majority in an unbiased and scientific manner. Faith and scientific analysis do not happily go together. Does this lead us to conclude that the potential Galileos, Brunos and Darwins of our society should remain permanently silenced by the muzzling authority of the majority? Descartes’ famous line is, “I think, therefore I am.” By abdicating our birthright of free thinking, we not only turn ourselves into wandering zombies or remote-controlled robots, we also rob society of continuously growing and adapting to the changed times. No doubt freeing oneself from the cobweb of culturally dominant conversation is itself a perilous and an injury-prone adventure. Those who reclaim their inalienable right of free thinking soon find themselves lost in the wilderness of a social community where no one understands their language and they are treated as social outcasts. Despite all these hazards, rationalists should speak their mind with sincerity of purpose.
With this in mind I am setting myself the task of reviewing the social discourse that accompanies the month of fasting every year. I am quite keen on sharing the line of argument presented by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan in his commentary on verses relating to fasting in the Holy Quran. But before engaging in that discussion I deem it appropriate to first deal with the issue at a more fundamental level.
The basics of social science research tell us that any assertion or claim made by a proposer is treated as a hypothesis. Taking the positivist scientific perspective, no preconceived notions can, therefore, be allowed to interfere with our analysis. We can easily identify a few hypotheses that are prominent in the discourse of religious scholars that appear on television or in the daily conversation of a layman. One, Ramzan is a month of blessings and special rewards. Second, it helps in minimising vices as we practise self-restraint by fasting for a month. Third, it is a divine recipe for health improvement. Fourth, it promotes feelings of social bonding by making us aware of the sufferings of the hungry. Fifth, it provides contentment and happiness when families and social groups dine together at sehri and iftari times. All these claims have some merit in them but for a rationalist analysis we need to suspend our judgement till we have empirically tested the hypotheses with some credible data-based evidence. Both in the physical and social sciences, that is how textbook-based theories are tested and improved.
For the ‘blessings’ claim we need to collect crime data during Ramzan and Shawwal for, say, the last 10 years and then compare with the crime patterns of the remaining months. If significant changes are spotted then we can be persuaded to believe that the claimed relationship between communal fasting and crime does exist. Similarly, if the correlation is there then over the years we should expect a gradual reduction in crime rates due to the blessings effect in all societies where fasting is practised. More importantly, the crime rate in Muslim societies must be then significantly less as opposed to those societies where fasting is not practised. To test the claim of purification of the soul by fasting, we need to have some quantifiable ‘constructs’. Perhaps the classical demand and supply law of economics can be helpful, which says that the price of commodities is determined by the gap in aggregate demand and supply. If the demand is more than the supply, prices rise, and conversely, if the supply is more than the demand, prices drop to restore equilibrium. Now as the whole society practices restraint in food to feel the pain of the hunger-ridden poorer sections of society, one would expect a sharp decline in aggregate demand for food in the month of Ramzan. This would in turn result in a slump in the prices of food commodities. In reality, we see a surge in prices, which suggests that aggregate demand for food increases. Thus, the actual observations fail to support the hypothesised relationship between fasting and self-restraint known as ‘taqwa’ in the scripture-led discourse. As Durkheim argues, religion is a social construct to perform certain social functions. We see that iftar dinners in reality are a social contrivance to facilitate a brazen display of our love for sumptuous food and waste.
The health-related argument is often emphasised when some rationalist discussion is done by scholars. Giving rest to the digestive system occasionally is no doubt a good idea. But disrupting the natural cycle of food consumption and stuffing the stomach with a massive intake of food and fluid twice a day does not necessarily help in health improvement. In hot, humid weather, our bodies need a regular supply of water and minerals. Rebelling against this law of nature results in a heavy toll on our body, which ranges from commonly observed lethargic and irritated behaviour to more severe consequences like dehydration, heat-strokes and seizures during Ramzan. These observations notwithstanding, if the health statistics of Muslim societies can be shown as significantly better than those of non-Muslim countries, then the health argument would be a clear winner.
(To be continued)
The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of the Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at email@example.com