Ramadan: Not a time for secular religiosity

Ramadan: Not a time for secular religiosity
Whilst much emphasis is placed on self-reflection during the holy month of Ramadan, this shouldn’t be separate to thinking about what is happening around the world and taking action against the oppression of Muslims, writes Asim Qureshi.
6 min read
20 Apr, 2022
Muslims around the world, from China to Yemen, continue to face hardship and oppression during the holy month of Ramadan. [GETTY]

I’m not going to pontificate on what the true meaning of Ramadan is.

Many Muslims will inform you that it’s about spiritual detox, or a time for reflectiveness, or a time of giving. I think all of those are true. For me, I see Ramadan as the potential to be the best Muslim that I can, in a month that Allah quietens the worst devils in your ear. It’s a period that your heart can more fully embrace your own frailties, but also the potential for who you can be outside of it.

I’ve seen some online explain that it’s better to not think about what is going on in the world and instead focus on developing a relationship with Allah. While I can very much understand where this sentiment comes from, I’m also worried that for Muslims, this can encourage a form of secular religiosity, where real religion, is confined to the space of the heart and has no bearing to the world around you.

It’s pleasing for me to see many Muslims across the world performing the minor pilgrimage, Umrah, at this time of the year. Saudi Arabia is hot and to fast through the holy month while performing the Umrah is no small feat. My happiness for them is only accentuated by the fact that I am not able to travel to the country over my holding the Saudi state to account for its crimes of torture – it’s a true blessing to be invited by Allah to visit the Ka’ba.

''Being concerned about the oppression of other Muslims, and about the world we live in is an inextricable part of the spiritual life in Islam. As we fast and abstain from all manner of things we otherwise enjoy, we can ask ourselves what we might be willing to abstain from for the sake of rescuing those that the Qur’an describes as must’adafin – the oppressed.''

The very morning that I write these words, I found myself posting about Uyghur men who are facing extradition to China after having been detained by the Saudi authorities two years ago when they went for Hajj. They inevitably face detention and being forcefully placed through China’s oppressive reprogramming. How can we square such violence taking place simultaneously to our desire to have a private worship with Allah?

The fact that Saudi Arabia is home to Makkah and Madinah, unfortunately means that the Muslim world is beholden to control of the holy sanctuaries. Of course, I’m not going to say that people should stop performing Hajj and Umrah, it’s not for a layman like me to do so. However, this month of fasting is also a month to reflect on the Qur’an. In the twenty-fifth verse of Surah Hajj in the Qur’an, Allah speaks to those who were in control of Makkah:

“Indeed, those who persist in disbelief and hinder ‘others’ from the Way of Allah and from the Sacred Mosque—which We have appointed for all people, residents and visitors alike—along with whoever intends to deviate by doing wrong in it, We will cause them to taste a painful punishment.”

Considering the Saudi devastation wrought on Yemen, raising the cases of these Uyghur men might seem like I’m focusing on something relatively small in comparison to other things that the Saudi state has done recently – the murder and dismembering of Jamal Khashoggi being one of the most explicit examples. However, I feel it is precisely in the reconfiguring of the Muslim spiritual relationship – in this month in particular – that we can gain a true feeling for the significance of these moments. As I was raising the case of the Uyghur men, a narration of the Prophet Muhammad (saws) came to me. While he was circling the Ka’ba, he said to it:

“How pure you are and how pure is your fragrance! How great you are and how great is your sanctity! By the one in whose hand is the soul of Muhammad, the sanctity of the believer is greater to Allah than your sanctity, in his wealth, his life, and to assume nothing of him but good.”

I am struck by this narration, particularly as I circle back to the notion of Ramadan being about a personal spiritual experience – that we should somehow forget about what is taking place in the world in order to reflect on ourselves. A holistic reading of Islam, suggests that while there are entire books and tracts written about the Ka’ba and the importance of visiting the Masjid al-Haram and worshipping there, that in the schema of the Prophet Muhammad (saws) he saw the mosque’s sanctity as being less important than the life of a single Muslim.

I want to reiterate that I am not at all advocating that quiet contemplation of Allah and our relationship to Him is not an important aspect of the Ramadan period. In fact, millions of Muslims will be seeking seclusion with Allah by living in a mosque from 10 days to the entire month in an act of worship called ‘itikaf. What I am advocating, is that we don’t establish a false secular dichotomy between what is considered to be part of the spiritual life of the Muslim and the problems we see in the ‘real world’.

Being concerned about the oppression of other Muslims, and about the world we live in is an inextricable part of the spiritual life in Islam. As we fast and abstain from all manner of things we otherwise enjoy, we can ask ourselves what we might be willing to abstain from for the sake of rescuing those that the Qur’an describes as must’adafin – the oppressed. Even for those in ‘itikaf, they are encouraged to leave their worldly matters behind, but the concerns of the global Muslim community – the ummah – are not worldly matters – they are concerns of our heart.

We must broaden our understanding of spirituality as an extension of doing good towards those in need. How can speaking about issues, raising awareness, boycotting, letter writing and even something as simple as pressing a retweet button, enter the circulatory system of carrying out good deeds in this month?

Those who focus on efficacy and impact of these actions miss the fundamental truth of them for the Muslim spiritual life, that worldly results are not the metric by which good deeds are carried out, but we do so for tawbah (repentance), ajr and barakah (divine reward and blessings). In a system of extreme capitalism, a secular religiosity can sometimes make us forget that.

I wish all Muslims in the world peace this Ramadan, and alleviation from their difficulties, ameen.

Dr Asim Qureshi is the Research Director of the advocacy group CAGE and has authored a number of books detailing the impact of the global War on Terror.

Follow him on Twitter: @AsimCP

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.