We are deeply connected to the world around us. Ramadan starts by sighting the new moon. A simple pre-dawn meal sustains us. At sunset, we break our fast with water, dates or fruit. Our schedules begin to sync with the cycles of night and day. We consume less, give more and ground ourselves in prayer. The reward, Allah says, is a return to nature.
This reflection is rooted in the first half of the second juz’ (2:142-188), in which we encounter the verse of fasting, “Oh those who believe! Fasting has been prescribed on you as it was on those before you, so that you may learn self-restraint.” The reading starts with our orientation in prayer, toward the Kaaba, and states that Allah is the Lord of the East and West, and that the Muslim community is to remain balanced and be a witness for humanity. We will be tested with fear of hunger, loss of wealth or life, but we will endure through patience and prayer. Other verses speak of the signs in the creation and that the food we eat should be halal and ethical. We also should not consume what belongs to others (Qur’an 2:188). We are reminded that righteousness is not only personal belief and devotion but also realized in service to others (Qur’an 2:177). The rest of the juz’ (Qur’an 2:189-253) speaks to Hajj rites, family matters and giving Allah “a goodly loan.” It ends with the story of the Talut, or Saul, whose people were tested at a stream, and Prophet David, who defeats the giant Goliath and his forces. The movement in the text suggests a relationship between the ritual fast, the natural world and social transformation.
During this month of reflection, we search for meaning and employ self-restraint to overcome our artificial appetites and excessive tastes. Most teachings about fasting emphasize its mechanics and spiritual merits yet often neglect to derive meaning from our devotions. The value of our sacred rituals and traditions is in fact their relevance to contemporary questions of human purpose and flourishing. For the faithful, fasting is both ritual and ethic, cure and commentary on our present condition. This month of fasting requires that we ultimately move beyond our bodies and monthlong attempts at a moral ascent to broaden our concerns and understand more deeply the private and public dimensions of the fast. The Prophet Muhammad said, “Some people only gain from their fast hunger and thirst,” referring to those who abstain as unconsciously as they eat and drink. And Allah says, “Fasting is for Me.” Our sacrifices this month help to remove competing self-interests and make us more conscious of serving our Creator, our families, the poor and the marginalized.
We are reminded that righteousness is not only personal belief and devotion but also realized in service to others.
Ramadan is a time of radical change. The fast, an embodied protest against our inflated sense of self. We break free from our usual routines and spending habits, causing us to consider our deeply rooted ideas about acquiring and possessing material things and how our daily lives often reflect deeper contradictions within society. In its essence, Ramadan invites us to consider alternative ways of being and living, one that encourages moderation, shuns waste and sanctifies the mundane. The Prophet Muhammad once asked Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas while he was washing for prayer, “What is this excess?” Sa’d replied, “Is there excess with water in ablution?” The Prophet said, “Yes, even if you were standing next to a flowing river.” So the natural world should never be treated as merely a means to an end. Human beings should not be either.
Allah wants us to grow in empathy for the poor and the hungry but also to think critically and morally about structures that prevent human beings from flourishing – and how those systems are constantly shaping who we become. Our responsibility as Muslims, working with others, is not just to receive the world but to conceive and remake it. Our self-examinations this month, and the spiritual transformation we seek, should move us to question our personal life choices and the systems that work to influence them.
Modern society has in many ways broken the community covenant, with its emphasis on individualism and self-fulfillment, and therefore, broken a sense of fairness and awareness beyond one’s self and toward others. Today’s economic approach – based on greed, not need – creates a machine-like global economy that runs on the manipulation of the “self-centered” human ego and the freedom to pursue our economic and material interests. The issue, however, is not about owning the latest trends and material goods, but rather gross consumption and dominance over the earth’s resources by a privileged few as others struggle to meet their basic needs. To worsen matters, the continued neglect of ecological issues by Muslims and others – such as the evils of environmental racism and food scarcity in poor communities across this country – hints at the interplay between the environment and our economic realities.
In Islam, nature is to be read as a revelation. As with the Qur’an, its signs and stories are rich with beauty and prose, yet also are guidance for practical everyday matters. For many, the rhythm and isolation of city life make us strangers to nature. Ramadan forces us to slow down again and pay attention to our bodies and the natural world. What is the earth saying to us about her burdens? What wisdom is being revealing about more sustainable ways of living? What does nature’s economy teach us about equitable distribution of wealth? Cultivating a healthier respect and relationship with nature and our bodies can help us reimagine an alternative future.
Ramadan practiced with meaning can lead us to become more socially conscious and abandon wasteful habits that hurt our personal lives and collective identity.
Today, there is an opportunity for religious communities to offer countercultural alternatives on how to live rightly in the world with others. Faith communities are here to challenge the economic model, not serve or adapt to the system without engaging in one’s own ethics. For Muslims, that is Islam, interpreted through our scripture and traditions, informed by our historical and cultural experiences with justice.
Compassion, self-limitation, fairness and sacrifice are themes in most religions and should be common ground for dialogue on social issues. Fasting, as revealed, is an inherited practice with both spiritual and practical benefits. Ramadan practiced with meaning can lead us to become more socially conscious and abandon wasteful habits that hurt our personal lives and collective identity. A new vision for society entails making sacrifices and carrying more burdens so the less fortunate have equal access to life’s resources. The state of nature and the widening gap between the rich and the poor calls for a new liberation theology that frees us from our excessive appetites, liberates others and deems the natural world as sacred. Ongoing dialogue with “those who came before you” about shared concerns may ultimately help sort out a vision of how human beings should be living on the earth.
What we ordinarily consume reveals our degree of awareness and relationship to being and having. Over the next few weeks, many of us will come to an abrupt realization: we don’t need as many things as we think we do. Of course, our charity – and critique – starts at home. While we ask our Lord to forgive and save us, we must also ask ourselves, How have our families and neighborhoods been impacted by capitalism and consumer culture? In what ways do we uphold oppressive structures through our spending? How can we start to live more fruitful, healthier lives? Christian theologian Sallie McFague recommended that people adopt a “philosophy of enoughness” that puts limits on their lifestyles and considers the poor and marginalized.
Muslims can offer a different way of conceiving human life and the economy, one that restores meaning, puts justice before resources and treats nature as integral to human survival. It is the reimagined ethic of the balanced and beloved community, based not on material things but on spiritual life and equal access to our most essential needs. Ultimately, what Ramadan affords us is an opportunity for reflection, spiritual growth and an honest assessment of how each of us – and the societies that feed our appetites – relates to wealth, consumption and the natural world.
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Khalil Abdullah is the Assistant Dean for Muslim Life in the Office of Religious Life at Princeton University. He works closely with students on campus to support their diverse cultural and spiritual identities while helping to strengthen their religious literacy and mutual respect for others. In addition, Khalil offers pastoral care to students and regularly hosts campus dialogues on various topics related to faith, identity and meaning.
Professionally, he has held various leadership and management roles, as well as taught in public and private schools. Khalil is active in interfaith dialogue, minority male mentoring and various social justice efforts. His academic interests include religious pluralism, ethics and spirituality, and the history of Islam in America.
Prior to Princeton, he was the Muslim and Multifaith Advisor at Dartmouth College.
Khalil holds a Master’s degree in Religious Studies from Hartford Seminary, where he also worked as its Major Gifts Officer. He is a member of the National Association of College and University Chaplains and the Association of Muslim Chaplains.