Islam's holy fasting month of Ramadan should be a time of spiritual reflection and a reordering of the Ummah's collective priorities. Unfortunately, in the age of globalisation, unmitigated consumption and a self-centred, individualistic approach to life, our relationship with Ramadan is veering away from its intended goal towards something else entirely.
Ramadan is usually the most charitable month for Muslims, a time that is dedicated to prayer; to giving and sharing; and to seeking forgiveness. It is an amalgamation of the individual's spiritual rebirth on the one hand, and the strengthening of the Ummah, the global Muslim community, on the other.
It is during this month that it feels as if political boundaries are removed and Muslims claim a new sense of collective identity, regardless of where they are in the world. Their point of unity becomes the communal fast and its associated activities, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, caring for the orphans and so on.
It is misleading to understand Ramadan simply as a time when Muslims refrain from eating or drinking from dawn to sunset. Yes, it is that too, but Muslims are also required to refrain from much more; to refrain from committing bad deeds, speaking disparagingly of others, lying, cheating or even harbouring animosity towards others.
But is this truly transpiring in Arab and Muslim countries at the moment? With the globalised media making Arab audiences, for example, a single lucrative market, Ramadan is now affiliated with a booming entertainment industry, measured in terms of billions of dollars every year. From Ramadan TV series, to talk shows and concerts and much more, Ramadan is now the most financially rewarding month for the Arab media. Rarely does the essence of Ramadan itself register as a central theme in any of this frivolous entertainment.
According to a recent Carnegie Corporation study, "About 250 million people out of 400 million across 10 Arab countries, or two-thirds of the total population, were classified as poor or vulnerable." The report refers to this as "mass pauperisation", indicating that a poor Middle Eastern family in the present time is likely to remain poor for several generations to come.
The Middle East remains one of the most unequal regions in the world. In fact, according to Carnegie, it is already the most unequal, as governments are either unable or unwilling to provide basic services to their own populations.
Young people, including university graduates, have few job opportunities, with no hope of any looming on the horizon, leaving them with limited options. For many of these youth, migration becomes the best-case scenario. It is in these communities that radicalism often presents itself as the answer to despair.
From food insecurity to gender inequality to rampant illiteracy, the Arab world is rife with problems. Unlike other regions in the developing world, many Arab countries do not really seem to be developing at all. One of the reasons behind the stagnation, if not the outright collapse, is the fact that the Middle East is in the throes of seemingly never-ending wars. In truth, no matter the outcome of any of them, neither democracy nor socio-economic reforms, equality or human rights are likely to be delivered to the people by those who rule them.
During Ramadan, one is compelled to reflect on all of this. Yes, we are meant to kneel down in prayer and to raise our open palms to Heaven, beseeching God for mercy and forgiveness. But we are also meant to look and reflect upon our own affairs, our own nations that are crumbling, imploding or losing their sense of collective mission entirely.
Throughout Islamic history, stories have been told of how the Ummah felt the pain of an oppressed individual no matter how far she or he was from the centre of power. "The parable of the believers in their affection, mercy, and compassion for each other is that of a body. When any limb aches, the whole body reacts with sleeplessness and fever," said Prophet Muhammad in one of his many ahadith — sayings — that illustrate the notion of solidarity in Islam.
Where are we in terms of that elevated notion of love and concern for one another? Muslims everywhere are suffering, in the Middle East, in Asia and as far as China, France and the Central African Republic; the Muslim body is aching all over. This reality manifests itself in the flood of refugees pouring out of Muslim countries and regions in every possible direction. The whole Ummah is in anguish.
It is baffling to see precious opportunities being wasted. Instead of using Ramadan as a platform to reset the Ummah's energies so that Muslims may spring forward with a determined strategy to deal with the many compelling problems being faced, Ramadan has become an opportunity for useless, low-quality entertainment that is designed to distract the people from their urgent challenges and those precious opportunities to reconnect with each other in a meaningful way.
Ramadan is not a time for eating, but fasting; it is not a time for singing and dancing, but reflecting and praying; it is not a time for the accumulation of wealth, but for generosity and charity. More, Ramadan is the time when the Ummah should, once more, rediscover its identity and collective strength, for the sake of all Muslims; in fact, for the sake of humanity at large. Ramadan Mubarak.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.