Cleansing Your Spirit, or Just Your Conscience? Towards a Class Struggle Ramadhan



by Noaman G. Ali

For Muslims who want to create a socially just world, it’s time to rethink the way in which Muslims relate to ‘the poor’ during Ramadhan.  We are told and we tell people that empathizing with the poor is an important aspect of fasting.  As the story goes, Muslims experience (if only for a few hours) what millions if not billions of underfed people around the world go through.  Those who are unable to fast are instead supposed to feed poor people.  Not only that, Muslims are encouraged to give more charity during the holy month.

I was in Rawalpindi, one of Pakistan’s larger cities, on the first day of this year’s Ramadhan. I was in a market that would otherwise be crowded, walking around, looking for tafsirs [interpretations] of the Qur’an. It was really hot, around 40°C plus humidity, and I was feeling dizzy and even nauseous. It wasn’t the hunger so much as it was the thirst. Then I came upon workers who were unloading big sacks of grain off of trucks, carrying them on their backs or pulling whole carts with their bare hands.

I got in a taxi and I asked the driver, who was struggling with keeping away from tobacco, if those workers were fasting. He said only God knows what the level of their faith is. But what does faith have to do with it? Faith isn’t some kind of a bulletproof vest that enables you to bypass hunger and thirst while performing hard labour. It doesn’t free you from having to work to provide for your family. If anything, Ramadhan makes it harder, because the prices of basic foodstuff shoot up as demand increases. So workers have to find a way to make more money to pay for the same amount of food, or, they have to go into greater debt.

Wealthier Pakistanis move to colder areas with resorts, like Kalam or Murree, because they don’t want to have to deal with the heat. Pakistan’s richer tend to have better access to electricity, which can keep fans going, and may even have air conditioners. But the poor have none of that, power outages (load shedding) are common, so even if you can scrape by the money for a fan it won’t be working. In the cities, the shaded indoors can be crowded and suffocating, and the humidity means that you sweat a lot and get dehydrated easily. Imagine having to abstain from water for 16 hours in these conditions.

Outside of Ramadhan, I found that workers have it the hardest. I was supposed to meet a farm worker in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for an interview in June, but his people sent his apologies. He had suffered heat stroke. The doctor who came to see him had charged 500 rupees, when the worker’s casual daily wage was 300 rupees. This is the story over and over: workers barely make enough to scrape their families by on casual work, and there is practically no permanent work to be found.

Workers often go hungry — a 2011 study showed that 58% of Pakistani households are food insecure, nearly 30% with moderate or severe hunger. Their children often cannot afford to go to government schools — never mind private schools — because they are out looking for work or because they can’t pay the nominal fees. Meanwhile, workers toil in difficult conditions, often not getting paid on time or not getting paid at all by more powerful bosses. Workers can’t even go on strike because there is a whole crew of other workers desperately looking for jobs who would render any strike useless. They work in the heat, they work in the cold, they work all the time.

The overwhelming majority of Muslims around the world are poor. The poor are not the minority. Many of them are un- or underemployed people looking to scrape together livelihoods by any means they can find, many are workers who build things or work in factories, many try to hawk wares and goods or start tiny businesses, and many are poor farmers without enough land or farmers with land who don’t get the prices they deserve. So many are women who put in long hours of work at home and then, the poorer they are, often working outside of the home as well.

So what does it mean to empathize with the poor during Ramadhan? The neat package of empathy with the poor during Ramadhan sounds kind of hollow. After all, check out some of the massive iftars [communal breaking of the fast] that people put on; or the fact that a lot of people put on weight during Ramadhan, even though we’re supposed to be eating less and praying more; or the fact that a lot of people spend the day sleeping and the night eating. What’s more, those few hours of fasting throughout one day are actually incomparable to the feeling and effects of chronic starvation and lack of nutrition.

This empathy story is directed at a middle-class audience; assumed to be the typical, average kind of Muslim. The poor may exist, out there, separate from the typical normal Muslim, and if they do form part of the Muslim communities it’s through this condescending relationship of charity. People are encouraged to give to the poor, but not to ask why they are poor in the first place.

Couldn’t a deeper form of empathy involve struggling against the conditions that produce poverty? This wouldn’t come from a place of charity but from a place of solidarity, from a sense of oneness rooted in acknowledging our differences, but seeking to overcome them through struggle against structures of oppression and exploitation. The struggle for good, permanent, well-paying jobs; the struggle for higher wages; the struggle against unsafe working conditions; the struggle for cheaper agricultural inputs and fair prices for agricultural produce; the struggle for land for the landless or better cooperative uses of the land; the struggle to socialize domestic labour performed largely by women; the struggle against imperialist aggression; the struggle against tinpot dictators and fake democrats — all of these struggles have a direct impact on poverty.

What’s more, these kinds of struggles have precedent in the Islamic tradition, in the Qur’an, Sunnah and struggles of pious people. But it is precisely these kinds of struggles that are not emphasized by most scholars these days. The kind of Islam being marketed and produced on television in Pakistan or Egypt or in glitzy conferences in North America is not intended for the poor majority of Muslims.  It’s meant for a middle-class audience, and the kind of Islam on offer is personalized and meant to make people feel better about themselves. It’s one thing to revive the spirit, quite another to change conditions that produce class disparities. This kind of self-centered spirituality — which we find across all religious traditions —  becomes reactionary and unjust when it tells us that we cannot change these ‘God-given’ conditions, and halts any attempts by the people to change these conditions.

Solidarity with ‘the poor’ — the oppressed and exploited majority — is the only way to break out of the cycle of self-absorption and to move toward a more just society.  Otherwise, the message of empathizing with the poor during Ramadhan is little more than a shallow exercise to allow the minority of more privileged Muslims (or even the most filthy rich Muslims, who are actually part of the problem) to feel better about themselves; or worse, feign that they actually care about ‘the poor’. It’s time for Muslims to use Ramadhan to intensify the struggle for human liberation, not just from temptations of the flesh, but also from oppression and exploitation.

Noaman was in Pakistan for research.




One Comment;

  1. Fariah Chowdhury said:

    Hi Noaman! First off, amazing article. It was the best thing I have read in a long time regarding the true spirit of Ramadan. I have been saying a lot of this stuff to friends and family for a long time – thank you for putting this piece together.

    I had a question about one particular part of the article where you write:

    “What’s more, these kinds of struggles have precedent in the Islamic tradition, in the Qur’an, Sunnah and struggles of pious people. But it is precisely these kinds of struggles that are not emphasized by most scholars these days.”

    Do you have specific references from the Quran, Hadith or Sunnah that discuss these type of struggles? Just looking for some references here because whenever I say this to people, they are like “show me where it says that!” and then I have nothing specific to say. Let me knw if you can help! Thanks in advance :)