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Fasting for the environment this Ramadan

  • Published at 12:04 am May 19th, 2019

Detox the body, decolonize the mind

Muslims worldwide are about to enter the second half of Ramadan, a month widely known to the public as one for fasting. However, growing concerns around the environmental crisis and social struggles across the globe have lead Muslims to consider its deeper meaning. 

For an increasing number of Muslims, Ramadan is interpreted as a time when they distance themselves from material needs, reconnect with nature and spirituality, acknowledge the suffering on the planet and challenge destructive behaviours. It is a time for resistance to consumerism and oppression.

In the UK, an increasing number of Muslims are becoming aware that consumer culture is hijacking Ramadan. In 2018, brands unashamedly turned the sacred time of suhoor -- the meal before dawn -- into a party, and called for Ramadan to become the equivalent of the Christmas season in terms of its commercialism.

But a powerful counter-narrative and a new generation of Muslim change-makers are on the rise. Young, skilled, and highly motivated -- volunteers from grassroots groups have been working to bring local solutions to their neighbourhoods. People who are campaigning for the protection of the environment. 

Growing environmentalism

The Muslim Action for Development and the Environment, or the MADE initiative, advocates for mosques to become eco-friendly, while the Herbal Blessing Clinic organizes well-being workshops in the English countryside to sensitize Muslims to the protection of the environment through the use of foraged local plants. 

Both take their inspiration from the Quranic concept of khilafa -- that the role of the human being is to be a steward, a source of mercy for the environment and the society. For these volunteers, my research has shown that Islam is much more than a religion. For them, being a “radical” Muslim is to practice environmental and social justice. Taking care of others and the planet are acts of worship.

Another example is Rumi’s Cave, a community hub in north London. Small, flexible, innovative, small organizations such as Rumi’s are extremely attractive to young people looking for ways to get involved locally. Organizing regular soup kitchens, workshops and open-mics, Rumi’s Cave has been a pivotal cradle for the British Muslim activism and arts scene. At times when Muslims are increasingly targeted and excluded, Rumi’s is a space for healing, hope, and self-love. It is one of the rare places where people have critical discussions about people’s responsibility towards making a better world.

Yet, at the same time, Ramadan has become a race for money, when multi-million-pound mega-charities promise donations for tickets to paradise. Similarly, playing on the recommendation for people to wear their best clothes for Eid, Muslim social media “influencers” use this opportunity to showcase sponsored cosmetics, some of which have scored poorly in ethical consumer rankings.

However, these examples of Muslims being drawn into consumerism are only symptoms of a global neo-liberal culture, built around a cult of performance, numbers, individualism, and competition. 

A month for decolonizing

My interviews with young Muslims show that some understand consumerism to be only the tip of a greater iceberg of oppression. Society pushes minorities to adapt their culture, faith, ethics, looks, and identity to conform to the dominant society. But these young activists argue that the branding around Ramadan reinforces the narrative that Muslims can only be accepted as a minority if they are consumers. 

A growing number of scholars and organizations emphasize that Islam, at its inception, has been a driving force for ending slavery, racial supremacy, oppression against women, and class privilege. They argue that beyond the detoxification of the body, Ramadan should be a month for decolonizing the mind. 

William Barylo is a British Academy Research Fellow, University of Warwick. A version of this article first appeared in The Conversation UK.

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