In northern countries like the UK, Sweden and Norway, the period of fasting extends from 3 AM to approximately 9.30 PM, if it falls during the summer season. My non-Muslim colleagues curiously ask me: do I really abstain from food and water for almost 18 hours every day for the entire month? The experience and the fear of the pangs of hunger, make human beings think about the fragile nature of life, and the value of food and drink. You would think the human race would naturally do their utmost not to waste food and drink, which is essential for survival, yet, despite witnessing poverty, there is huge wastage every year, especially in the wealthy nations.
Apart from abstinence, Ramadan is also a time for giving and sharing. Whenever I would go to any Mosque with a couple of dates to break my fast, I would come back fully satisfied and in some occasion with a bag full of food, because everyone rushing to give something away to collect the spiritual reward. If the Muslims were in this frame of mind for the entire year, there would surely be a huge reduction in hunger and wastage of food.
When you witness so many people walking away fully satisfied, even though many hardly brought enough for themselves, it suggests that when the majority are actively engaged in giving and sharing there will be enough to satisfy everyone with leftovers. This is something I also experienced during my university years; we used to attend the weekly gathering at the local Mosque run by the group Tablighi Jamat. For most of us, it was an excuse for socialising; the students were not really interested in the boring sermons that were needlessly repeated every week. After the lectures came the main event – dinner and catching up on the events.
Some individuals brought food for themselves, but many did not. It was shared, and people grouped themselves in an ad hoc manner and ate on the floor. At the end, surprisingly everyone was full, and plenty of food was left over. How was that, given that not everyone brought food? It demonstrates a simple point about sharing and satisfaction. When the food is shared there is more available and individual consumption is not likely to be as high, because they don’t feel compelled to finish everything, and know that there are others who need to eat as well. So one eats just enough to satisfy the hunger; otherwise, human beings tend to eat more than their bodily requirement as individuals. Human greed is the age old vice, even mentioned in the ten commandments of the Bible. The proof of greed is there all around us, obesity has become a major problem in most wealthy nations.
If we amplify this model of sharing, most communities can collectively satisfy themselves; those with excess food and those with very little will balance out, and those with little requirement and those with more will also balance out; thus, the extremes of gluttony and poverty can be avoided to some extent. However, in the real world, there is famine in places like Africa and obesity in the wealthy nations. Despite all the technological advances, poverty has not been eliminated. Rather than a space-race, a race to eliminate poverty and disease would have been far more useful.
Those fasting in Ramadan will get a glimpse of the suffering endured in poverty, where people are forced to fast continuously; the people in poorer parts of the world will not have abundant amount of food and water waiting for them, when the time approaches to break their fast.
The solution to poverty suggested by Islam is to share and distribute, and this is reinforced by the general command to ‘circulate’ wealth. There are many verses that extol the believers to donate money, not just to help the poor, but also to relieve the obligation on their neck. On the Day of Judgement, it is the wealthy and rich that will be accounted on how they spent their excess wealth. The solution focuses on ‘distribution’ of wealth rather than production, because mankind will naturally produce driven by need and profit.
The real test is: can the human societies collectively share the wealth, where people of diverse capabilities and various levels of needs exist? The capitalist doctrine is to maximise production and let the wealth trickle down to the poorer sections of society. However, those who have acquired wealth do not let it trickle down sufficiently; consequentially, the wealth gap increases with the passage of time. Indeed, why should they rich behave in this way, given that the economic philosophy encourages profit maximisation, meaning wealth accumulation, not wealth distribution?
I often wonder with amazement how large corporations with billions in their pockets would go to great lengths to deprive the small competitor, the underlying trend is to monopolise the market and deprive others. But why, isn’t there enough for everyone? How much can a human being consume in his life time? Why are there so many billionaires and millionaires? Can one really consume that much money over a life time, given that a third of that is spent sleeping?
The experience of hunger through fasting should also lead to a change in attitude towards food; it should be treated with respect, not wasted needlessly. Yet, our habit is to accumulate more food than we can consume out of fear of poverty, or driven by greed. The households in the UK and other wealthy western nations, including oil-rich Muslim countries waste large amounts of food every year, even through the recession. Just think, if you spent less, the excess money could be given in charity which would mean helping someone in genuine need, rather than wasted food ending up in the bin. It might be one small contribution to eliminate the food-mountains in one place, and transfer some of that to where it is scarce.
Originally Published on 3rd August 2011