Globally-speaking, religion has not seen as bad a time since the death of Zeus! In Europe, Christianity is all but dead and seemingly unresurrectable. Unquestioning belief is waning in India and if you think the ‘Arab Spring’ was more about demanding democracy than questioning the role of Allah in the lives of the Internet generation, then you need to think again. Would it be too foolish to expect Ramadan to survive this growing, worldwide trend?
Abstaining from food and drink (including water) during daylight hours for 28 days even at the height of summer arguably makes Ramadan the most demanding of religious events practised in the modern age. In northern European countries, this could mean going 18 hours without nutriments. In some countries, Muslims have to endure the searing heat of 40+ degrees without a drop of water to quench their thirst.
Whether the social change is religious or cultural in nature, that pattern of change is the same. It is not a strict liner pattern. It has its ebbs and flows, but its ebbs never quite return to their original strict adherence. Its flows continue to reach further out. Ramadan is following this pattern …well, religiously!
A very early stage is unofficial re-interpretation. This is happening to religious doctrine in general. Individual followers re-interpret their holy book to meet their personal conveniences and beliefs. Gay Muslims will point out that Allah is about love not just heterosexual love. This re-interpretation process is gradually happening in the rituals associated with Ramadan. Taking a break or two from fasting during the month and doing the ‘lost days’ at some point in time during the rest of the year is becoming a more common practice.
This stage usually goes hand in hand with the stage of Confined Social Acceptance. This is to say: In a wider setting, change won’t be accepted or even tolerated, but in a smaller, defined social group the change in attitude is not only accepted, but sometimes encouraged. Occasionally, these defined social groups are created or bonded by that acceptance of social change. As the number of people in these groups grows and the groups merge, the confines of this acceptance begin to blur and fade away.
The social grouping that is most effected by, and the biggest instigator of, this stage of any social change is the young adult group. Peer pressure, and the desire to rebel against and question the perceived norms handed down by the older generations are the driving forces at play here. The result is millennials sat in MacDonald’s munching away on burgers and fries, safe in numbers that are growing annually.
Inevitably, these stages lead to Unofficial Social Acceptance. When people see the evidence of change all around them, they eventually – reluctantly – grow to tolerate and then accept that change. In many instances that change then becomes the established norm and is subsequently rebelled against by a future younger generation.
Already we see people’s attitude change towards the practises of others during Ramadan. “It’s none of my business.” “It’s Allah who will judge” and “Islam (Ramadan) is about the individual’s relationship with Allah” are just some of the comments of tolerance and acceptance one can hear during the holy month.
What follows are the final stages of change: Official Tolerance then Official Acceptance. This is represented by officials such as the police, government and religious leaders ignoring the change they see spreading around them. They, then adapt the law to reflect the change in attitude amongst the general populous.
This is always a difficult hurdle to get over. These latter stages of change cannot be seen to undermine the authority of the establishment in any of its guises. No official can admit they got it wrong for so many centuries. “You didn’t have to fast after all,” is not something Muslims are going to hear from their Imams. No! Instead, interpretation of ‘fasting’ will slowly change and the focus will shift to the time period: 28 days of reflection and contemplation. A period of time to show gratitude, show respect, be extra charitable. Part of that reflection and contemplation will be to go without something enjoyable: Thus – the new interpretation of ‘fasting’; almost unperceptively brought into existence over a number of generations through an ‘ebb and flow’ process of change.
It is the young who are tasked with the responsibility to carry on traditions. Speak to them about Ramadan and the talk is of the social aspect: Spending more time with family and friends, late night café conversations and video gaming until the early hours when they finally go to bed and sleep through much of the otherwise long period of hunger and fasting. Lip-service is paid to the notion of understanding the plight of the poor. There is little mention of Allah.
The sun might never set on Ramadan as a concept, but the holy month rituals are changing and will continue to do so to such an extent as to become unrecognisable in comparison to what they once were and even what they are now. Whether that can be seen as sunnier times is a matter of opinion.