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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Wednesday, April 05, 2023

Reflections On Ramadan Last Of Three Parts: Fasting in a Muslim Versus Secular Society

 Reflections on Ramadan: Beyond The Fast

M. Bakri Musa



Last of Three Parts:  Fasting in a Muslim Versus Secular Society


[In Part One I likened Ramadan to a forced “time out,” akin to winter with plants and animals, or the quiet room in a lumber mill where the cut pieces are left alone in a controlled environment for a few weeks to recover from the stresses that they had undergone. In Part Two I related the research on delayed gratification from the Stanford marshmallow studies on pre-school children where those who could restrain themselves did well later in their studies. This trait can be trained but first you must instill trust in the young.]


In this third and last essay I compare my experience of Ramadan in a religiously-obsessed society, Malaysia, versus a secular one, America.


            In Malaysia the religious moral squads are out in full force during Ramadan. If you are caught not fasting, you will be humiliated and paraded around town in a hearse, quite apart from being fined, jailed, or even whipped. This cruel punitive streak, alas far too common, is the very antithesis of the Ramadan spirit. You may be a diabetic, school bus driver, or a trans-Pacific pilot, it matters not.


            During my youth, a school bus plunged into a ravine during Ramadan as the driver who was fasting had dozed off. It was lucky that he was on his way to pick us up. The current trivia consuming the ulama class is when astronauts, like pilots, could break their fast, forgetting that the Qur’an has spared them and other travelers from fasting. This trivialization of Ramadan goes further, as with whether taraweeh (an optional late evening prayer) should be 8 or 20 rakaats (movements).


            Fasting is the most private of our ibadah, unlike praying and undertaking your Hajj where you could be seen doing it. You may openly assert that you are fasting but only you and Allah know in the privacy of your home.


            Muslims in Malaysia must fast; that is the law and not as it should be, a matter of faith. As such the spiritual value is often missed or worse, corrupted. Notice the culinary extravaganzas and ostentatious show of piety bordering on the obscene during Ramadan. Malays rearrange their gluttony, shifting it to nighttime. Ramadan’s spirit of restraint is conspicuous by its absence, replaced by exuberant excesses come sunset. It is a perversity not hard to fathom that many Malays gain weight during this month.


            This punitive aspect of Ramadan has reached the stage such that Malay-looking non-Muslims now display their Identity Card when eating during the day. Imagine the potential suits for wrongful arrest or detention! The harassment debases our faith.


            Fasting in America poses its own challenges. Your colleagues having their usual lunches and the ubiquitous tantalizing food commercials aside, there is the matter of the seasons. As a student in Canada and when Ramadan was in the summer, I wrote to my father of my theological dilemma. After consulting his Imam, my father reminded me that fasting is not Allah’s torture test. If it were to be stressful, then I should follow Malaysian time. He grasped intuitively the essence of Ramadan. May Allah bless his (and the Imam’s) soul for that wise and practical counsel!


            Many Ramadans ago I had a couple of German medical students in my unit. I joined them in the cafeteria during lunch but of course I did not eat. That prompted them to ask me why. When I told them that it was Ramadan, they immediately grasped that, as there are many Muslims in Germany. However over there they separate themselves from the mainstream, more so during Ramadan.


            One Ramadan I had to operate on a complicated emergency case that came in late one afternoon. As a surgeon I know how exhausting and challenging it could be to manage critically injured patients. Recognizing that I would need my full stamina and mental faculties, I broke my fast. My colleague who knew that I am a Muslim saw me, and winked. When I explained that my patient’s salvation on this earth comes ahead of mine in the Hereafter, he understood my action.


            Once I was called deep in the night to the Emergency Room. After fasting for the whole day and then being awakened up deep in your sleep has a way of putting you in a foul mood, more so if the case were to be what we here refer to as “uncompensated care.” I must have made quite a raucous as to awaken my wife. After hearing of my frustrations, she reminded me, “Bakri this is Ramadan. A time to be generous, more so of ourselves.”


            Two observations; one, in secular America hospitals are required by law to treat all patients who arrive at their ER. Meaning, no preliminary “wallet biopsy.” In Malaysia, a diplomat’s son died on being transferred out from a private hospital because his father, being out of the country, could not give the needed financial guarantee in time. Which healthcare system is closer to the Qur’anic imperative? Secular America’s or Islamic Malaysia’s? Two, the irony of my revert wife reminding her Muslim-born husband of the essence of Ramadan!


            The current hot issue in Malaysia is the closing of school canteens during Ramadan. I applaud Minister of Education Fadhlina Sidek for reminding those caterers to consider the needs of non-fasting students. The central issue is serving your community, the essence of our faith. Ramadan does not mean curtailing your trade or services. On the contrary, early Muslims did a roaring trade during the month.


            I am touched by a recent commercial by Saji, the brand of cooking oil made by a subsidiary of FELDA Global Ventures. A pair of young and obviously non-Muslim girls were being harassed as their stalled car was blocking the traffic in front of the mosque. They were rescued by the worshippers nearby. Being in their ‘non-Muslim’ attire, the pair was obviously discomfited when invited into the mosque. Imagine their relief and gratitude when the mosque attendees provided them with instant make-do headcovers, and then served them some drinks even though the men were fasting. Now that is the spirit of Ramadan, of service and generosity, the antithesis of the school canteen closure!


            Fasting is more than a ritual; it is a process that heightens our faith and leads us to generosity and compassion. Fasting should move us closer to the Qur’an, for it was during this holy month that our Prophet Mohammad, s.a.w., received his first revelation. Fasting is good not because the Qur’an says so, rather fasting is good and that is why the Qur’an exhorts us to observe Ramadan. That virtue however is nullified in an atmosphere of coercion.


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