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One man’s quest to rediscover the frugal traditions of Ramadhan
FILE | NATION Muslims break their day-long fast with snacks at the Mombasa Municipal Stadium. There are concerns that too much money is spent on food and entertainment during Ramadhan whereas frugality should be encouraged.
FILE | NATION Muslims break their day-long fast with snacks at the Mombasa Municipal Stadium. There are concerns that too much money is spent on food and entertainment during Ramadhan whereas frugality should be encouraged. 

Daily Nation
Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The world’s estimated 2.1 billion Muslims have been observing Ramadhan, the month-long period of fasting, obligatory on all healthy adult members of the faith.

The ancient ritual – one of the five basic pillars of Islam – is at the core of Muslim spirituality and underpins their sense of collective religious identity.

Ramadhan offers believers an opportunity to restore health to the organic bond linking the Muslim ummah – the global community of believers – cement familial ties and bring down social and class barriers.

For individuals, it is a chance to strive for deeper spiritual reflection and edification. More important, it is a time for “getting closer” to the creator (taqqarub) and achieving a spiritual metanoia – a theological concept common to the Abrahamic faiths (Christianity, Islam and Judaism) which denotes genuine repentance that leads to transformation.

As a spiritual and socio-cultural tradition, Ramadhan has remained resilient and largely unaltered throughout the millennia

But its practice and observance is increasingly under assault from the disruptive influence of globalisation and consumerism. Many are increasingly concerned at the mindless commercialism and culture of profligacy and excess that is undermining the core spiritual values and verve of Ramadhan.

For one man, the last three Ramadhans have been a personal struggle to resist these pressures, rediscover the frugal roots of the ancient ritual as taught and practised by Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and the salaf ul-salih (the early generation of exemplary Muslims).

The man is Qasim, a lanky accountant in his mid-40s and a father of four.

He lives with his family in a suburban home in a “gentrified” part of Nairobi. He is amiable and soft-spoken and shuns publicity, but occasionally meets like-minded Muslim professionals intrigued and eager to hear more about his concept of “frugal Ramadhan”.

Qasim says Ramadhan is a month of fasting, prayer and doing good deeds and at its core is simplicity and frugality, most especially in diet.

“Today, we (Muslims) — notably those of us with good incomes — have turned our backs on these values. We eat too much and waste too much. Excessive consumption and materialism is undermining the spiritual foundations of Ramadhan”.

Average household spending during the month normally goes through the roof, sometimes by up to 100 per cent, Qasim argues, citing figures.

Foods with high sugar, salt and fat content are consumed in great quantities.

A lot of electricity is also consumed – sometimes by excessive refrigeration and extra demands for air conditioning in hotter climes.

So what does a regular iftar (fast-breaking dinner) at Qasim’s house look like?

Austere and decidedly frugal. It starts with three pieces of dates and a glass of water followed by a prayer interval. Then comes a small bowl of soup – his favourite is fish soup with plenty of garlic and onions – and pita bread. The last course comes late in the evening and is usually a mixed fruit dessert. This he does with a bit of guilt, he admits.

Does he put his family through this strict “frugal” dietary regime as well? “No,” Qasim says.

“I use some persuasion to try to change their habits, but I am not too strict.”

Qasim’s frugal Ramadhan philosophy is not just restricted to diet. It also embraces green values. He faults the culture of wastage and decries the “plastic and carbon epidemic” that is polluting our environment.

He generates his own electricity, has an incinerator in his back garden, and uses African clay pots filled with beach sand and gravel to filter tap water.

“How cheap has your Ramadhan become since you embraced this change?” I ask.

“We have cut our household expenditure by 50 per cent and we feel more spiritually fulfilled as a family.”

“Do you want to start a movement?” I finally ask.

“No way. I have no such desire. We have too many movements. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see.’ ”

But could these all be just a symptom of middle class angst? Or are we seeing the early signs of a profound Muslim backlash against the consumerism and commercialism that is corroding the spiritual values of Ramadhan?


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