Ramadan is upon us again, and each year seems to bring on a new twist. These days, in between fasting and all the other good deeds one is meant to do this month, comes Ramadan-related chatter on social media.
Some of it are tips and advice about what you should do when fasting (how much water to drink is a very popular subject). Others talk about where interesting Raya-related offers are. And a fairly vocal segment talk about Ramadan-related news, for example Kelantan’s policy of closing shops for two hours every night, or how politicians find the time, resources and visas to go on umrah.
But the one that really caught my attention is #nsfr. It stands for “Not Safe For Ramadan”, and it is a tag that some on Twitter are promoting to be used to mark posts that may not be “Ramadan-friendly”.
They ask people to be “considerate of those who will be fasting” and as an example include using the tag on posts that contain subjects like “food, nudity, anything nsfw (not safe for work), kissing and pda (public displays of affection), and explicit language”.
One thing the Internet doesn’t like is being told what can and cannot be done. There is now a backlash against the use of the #nsfr hashtag because, well, do some Muslims feel so weak-willed that they need to beg to be protected from everything bad and evil on the Internet? If so, why bother going on the Internet at all?
Although I somewhat agree with the sentiment that faith should not be something that needs coddling, I also believe that each person should practise their faith in the way they believe. And certainly, psychology studies have shown that being faced with temptation makes you more likely to succumb to that temptation (so if you’re trying to stop smoking cigarettes, don’t keep company with people who smoke).
So if you think a photo of the latest food fad is what will push you over the edge while you’re fasting, then I guess there is a case for avoiding Instagram.
But asking people to take the extra step and say “this is food, don’t look at the photo” seems excessive.
Later this month I’ll be doing some work in China, and I know they will have lunch meetings and presentations. I will, of course, inform them I am fasting but I don’t expect them to keep me separate in a hermetically sealed bag just in case my spirit is weak.
The truth is, for me, I don’t really consider Ramadan a hardship. What I mean by that is that I don’t see it as an obstacle to overcome, or temptations to avoid.
I do agree there are additional issues. For example, I have to work during the day without the comfort of a teh tarik by my side. And if you’re the sort to wake up at 4am to get food ready for everybody else, you’re probably a little short of sleep as well.
But this novel state of being means that you’re mindful about what is happening to you this month. To put it philosophically, it makes you be mindful of who you are and your place in this universe. More candidly, to be thinking what it means to be a Muslim.
I once read an article about a Muslim surgeon in the United States who made the point that he wouldn’t delay or interrupt a surgery for prayers. Instead, he would make up for them after, he said, adding “I don’t care if this goes against what some scholars say”.
I think his comment goes to the heart of the issue at hand. People want to be good during Ramadan, so there is advice to remove all temptation to do otherwise. But perhaps the thing to do is, well, to do good.
This is the choice. To cloister yourself away from all temptations so you do no harm to yourself. Or to step up and be a better person to those around you and contribute to society. Not all of us are surgeons saving lives, but I would like to think that what we do matters, and hopefully not just to ourselves.
What we practise in religion helps us be mindful of our place in this world. But I also hope that we use what understanding we get to make the world better for everyone.
And of course it doesn’t have to be just during Ramadan. The more cynical out there will say, why not be good all year round? Why make a special effort for just one month in the year? Perhaps it’s because, sometimes, people need reminding that they can be better.
So charitable donations do go up during festive seasons like Christmas and Ramadan. I can see it in action on social media as people organise donation drives and invite all to contribute.
What I would like to propose is that apart from focusing only on the special one-off, once-a-year events, how about improving what you do day to day anyway? The deliberate practice of improving your actions will hopefully be the start of better habits for the rest of the year.
The obvious areas are to do with piety and charity-giving. But look for opportunities for improvement elsewhere too. It could be how you do your work. Or how you relate to friends and family. Because if you can do this while distracted by being tired and hungry, you should be able to do it for the rest of the year.
So maybe that’s what these guys on Twitter should do. Not to shut out the evil (if only because it’s still there whether you look at it or not), but to encourage and be inspired by good deeds in posts labelled #gfr, Good for Ramadan – although in reality it should just be #gfa, Good for Anytime.