Reflections on Ramadan: Beyond The Fast
[Presented at the South Valley Islamic Community’s Iftar, Morgan Hill, Ca, July 13, 2013.]
When giving talks on religious topics especially during Ramadan, it is customary to quote generously the Koran and hadith. In deference to those who are far more knowledgeable on matters hadith and those whose tajweed are exquisite when reciting the Holy Book, I will depart from tradition. I do not wish to strain their patience!
Instead I will share my perspective on Ramadan drawing on three insights: one, my earlier experience as a surgeon in an Oregon lumber town; two, the findings from a landmark experiment in social psychology; and three, comparing Ramadan in Malaysia to America.
Surgeon in Oregon
As a young surgeon in Oregon, I treated many workers with severe injuries from the huge local sawmill. To better understand their injuries, the manager kindly took me on a tour of his factory.
Those massive logs were effortlessly thrown by giant cranes onto steel conveyors with the ease of your tossing away used chopsticks. Then the logs were spun around by rollers with stubby studs to be de-barked, much like a housewife peeling carrots. Then high-speed circular saws would slice through the logs back and forth, reducing them to pieces of lumber. If not for the bone-shaking floor vibrations, the high-pitched sound reminded me of a plugged-up vacuum cleaner.
Those pieces were then mechanically sorted and then forced through yet more spinning saws to be cut into specified lengths. Finally they were subjected to human touch and scrutiny as they rolled towards the finishing line, pieces with splits, nodes and uneven cuts having been shunted aside. Then they were stacked and carried into a special room to be “cured.”
This curing room was quiet and cool, its humidity, temperature and airflow strictly controlled. The lack of noise and vibrations was instantly felt; it was a tranquil oasis in marked contrast to the rest of the mill. On the factory floor we shouted and hand-gestured; in the curing room we whispered and cupped our mouths. Even the rhythm of our walk changed, from brisk noisy strides to soft silent steps, as in a mosque. We feared disturbing the sanctity of the room.
The manager told me that after the stresses of being cut, pushed, spun and thrown around, the lumber needed “rest time” so they could withstand the inevitable subsequent stresses at the construction sites or furniture factories. Without this curing, the lumber would readily bend, splinter or even break, soiling the factory’s brand.
If an inanimate object – wood – has to be “cured” before it faces its next phase of stresses, imagine how much more humans would need this time and space. This is what Ramadan means; a “time out” so we could pause and reflect. After all we too have been through the mill in our regular daily lives!
Plants and trees too need this change of pace. The forced dormancy of the long cold weather ensures a full bloom come spring, and with that a bountiful harvest. Winter is the plants’ Ramadan.
Children and their Marshmallows
My second insight comes from the Stanford marshmallow study on preschool children. They were each given a marshmallow, with instructions that should they refrain from eating it for 15 minutes, they would be rewarded with an extra one. As expected, some devoured theirs right away, others took longer. Nonetheless there were those who successfully restrained themselves and were thus duly rewarded. The study shows that individual differences towards instant gratification could be discerned very early.
If that was the only conclusion, the study would not be regarded as “one of the most successful behavioral experiments.”
Years later when those kids were of college age, the lead experimenter, prompted by anecdotal accounts, decided to do a follow up study. It turned out those “impulse controlled” children (those who successfully deferred devouring their treats) did better academically as well as disciplinary-wise in school. Indeed, the ability to delay eating marshmallows was a better predictor of scholastic achievement than IQ tests or parent’s educational level!
This insight is fully leveraged by enlightened educators. The largest operator of charter schools in America, KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), emphasized character building as well as a rigorous curriculum. It is remarkably successful despite its students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds.
This marshmallow study has other vast implications. If a culture is predisposed to immediate gratification, its members would not likely save. Low capital formation (from lack of savings because of this propensity for immediate gratification) leads to economic stagnation. Malays would do well to ponder this.
The marshmallow study also helps explain why those who acquire wealth through inheritance, lottery, or preferential treatment rarely keep it while those who acquire it through hard work do. The latter have self-discipline – key to their success – and more importantly, to maintaining that success. Again, a point for Malays to ponder!
If the ability to delay devouring marshmallows for fifteen minutes among preschoolers is strongly associated with later academic and other successes, imagine the good if we could delay it for the entire daylight hours! That is the value and significance of Ramadan; to instill self-discipline and acquire the habit of delayed gratification.
That this trait could be detected as early as the preschool age suggests that it is more “nature” than “nurture,” or stated differently, more genetic than environmental. This is reinforced by an earlier study by the same psychologist (using candies instead of marshmallows) comparing Black and Indian (subcontinent) children in Jamaica. As a group, the Black children had difficulty restraining themselves. Another significant variable was the absence of a father in the house. Surprisingly, socio-economic status was not a factor.
In Jamaica there are significant differences in the economic, educational and other achievements between those two ethnic groups. I wonder what the results would be if the Marshmallow study were to be done on Malaysian children! Of course one would have to substitute pisang goreng instead! But then the UMNO folks would insist that Malay children be given two bananas right away, and be rewarded after successfully restraining themselves for only five instead of the full fifteen minutes!
In a recent twist to this classic study, the children were first “primed” before participating in the marshmallow experiment. They were randomly assigned into a “reliable” or “unreliable” group. In both, the children were each given a bag of crayons with instructions that if they were not to open it until the supervisor returned, they would be given, in addition, a bigger and newer set.
For the “reliable” group, the supervisor would duly return, and as promised the successful children were rewarded. For the “unreliable” group however, the adult would return but apologize profusely for not being able to bring the promised bigger and newer bag to those who had been successful.
This crayon experiment was again repeated, this time using stickers. This done, the two groups were tested as per the original marshmallow study.
Nine of the 14 children in the “reliable” group successfully delayed eating their marshmallows, as compared to only one in the “unreliable” group. Children in the “reliable” group also waited longer (four times more) than those in the “unreliable” group before eating their treats.
This suggests that we can train our young to delay their gratification; meaning, we can effectively instill self-discipline at a very young age. This tilts the balance towards “nurture” over “nature,” contrary to the Jamaican data. For this training to be effective however, you must first establish an atmosphere of trust. The children must first have faith in their adults.
Relating to Ramadan, when we encourage our young to fast, we are training them to delay their gratification; we are instilling self-discipline.
There is yet another valuable insight to the marshmallow study, and it comes not from the quantitative data rather from directly observing those children. The “impulse controlled” kids were busy actively distracting themselves as with singing, sitting on their hands (lest they be tempted to grab the marshmallow), closing their eyes, or kneading their skirts, analogous to mythical Greek sailors stuffing their ears with bee’s wax or Ulysses tying himself to the mast to restrain themselves from the call of the Siren song.
Returning to Ramadan, it is easier to fast if we are working or otherwise occupied. Indeed, the Koran and hadith exhort us not to sleep or idle ourselves when fasting. That would be makhruh (non-meritorious).
Fasting in a Muslim Versus Secular Society
Last, I draw from my experience of Ramadan in a religiously- obsessed Asian society, Malaysia, versus in an essentially secular Western one, America.
In Malaysia, the moral squads are out in full force during Ramadan. If you are caught not fasting, you will be paraded around town in a hearse (to remind you of death), quite apart from being fined, jailed or even whipped. Never mind that you may be a diabetic or had just stepped off a trans-Pacific flight. This cruel punitive streak, alas far too common, is the antithesis of the Ramadan spirit.
Malaysians must fast; it is the law and not as it should be a matter of faith and personal conviction. Consequently the spiritual value is often missed, or worse, corrupted as manifested by culinary extravaganzas and ostentatious piety. Malaysians simply rearranged their gluttony from daytime to nighttime. Where is Ramadan’s spirit of restraint?
Fasting in America poses its own challenges. Your co-workers having their usual lunches and the ubiquitous tantalizing food commercials aside, there is the matter of the seasons. When in Canada and Ramadan was in midsummer, I wrote my father of my theological dilemma. He gently reminded me that fasting is not Allah’s torture test and that I should therefore follow Malaysian time. My late father grasped intuitively the essence of Ramadan. May Allah bless his soul for that wise and practical counsel!
Obsessed with the rituals, Malaysians have reduced fasting to a series of acts to accumulate religious Brownie points. Fasting is more than a ritual; it is a process. As important as fasting is, the greater import is where it would take us. It should take us to heightened faith and greater compassion. It should take us deeper into the revelation of the Koran, for it was during this holy month that our Prophet Mohammad, s.a.w., first received his revelation from Allah.
Fasting is good not because the Koran says so, rather fasting is good and that is why the Koran exhorts us to observe Ramadan.