Vision Setting in Ramadan

Entering the last ten days of Ramadan, by now most of us will have become well-tuned to the daily fasting cycle. For some, perhaps this year is the first time they’re not able to fast due to ill health or old age. For others, perhaps, it is another year of fasting thinking about what more spiritual awakening it will bring or the hardship it might entail. And for others fasting for the first time, perhaps, it is full of excitement. Whatever the situation, we are all on our own Ramadan journeys. In this short essay, I want to reflect on a very important topic, one that I’ve been advocating for years. This is the work of formulating a vision for British Muslims that articulates the role and value of the Islamic faith in society and the place of believers, in the act of godliness, within it. There is no better time than Ramadan to start reflecting on this. It will not be an easy feat to achieve of course, but if we can crack it, we will have sown the seeds of tajdid: a purposeful regeneration and renewal of Islam in our lives contextualised to the needs of our time.

It’s pleasing to see continued improvement in our communities this year. More mosques are now providing space for women to pray taraweeh in a congregation, and there’s a growing number of them attending. We shouldn’t forget that taraweeh offers a commemoration of the unending wonders of the Qur’an through beautiful recitation, and women should not be denied that. We also seem to have got over the decades-long identarian fuss about whether it’s 8 or 20 raka’at taraweeh, realising there’s bigger fish to fry, especially now that the threat of Salafism on traditional usul has significantly dissipated. There’s more awareness of eating in moderation at iftar and growing efforts are taken for a better diet at suhoor. Many mosques are teeming with taraweeh-goers, keeping to the trend of growing populations, fuelling yet more talk of further mosque/prayer space expansion. Recitation quality continues to improve, gone are the days of only South Asian-accented “Ferrari-reciters” with questionable knowledge of tajweed (rules of Qur’anic recitation).

Public iftar events (e.g. Big Iftar, iftar events at work, mosque iftars, Ramadan Tent Project, interfaith iftars etc.) have become more prevalent – routine even – and less contrived, reflecting perhaps deeper cultural familiarity and organic celebration of diversity in wider society. In good and bad ways, there is growing popular culture about Ramadan in Instagram or TikTok reels, which are contributing to wider awareness and normalisation of fasting in the Western public imagination. More and more corporates and organisations are adopting fasting challenge days and holding “get to know” sessions to improve Ramadan and Islam awareness, allyship and knowledge-sharing in how managers can make well-worth adjustments for fasting employees. Perhaps this isn’t surprising given the prominence of diversity and inclusion (D&I) policies with proven business-benefiting outcomes. Similarly, retail outlets from supermarkets to clothing shops are all increasingly adopting Ramadan and Eid marketing and at least trying to sell culturally-appropriate products for Ramadan and Eid. Perhaps not surprising given that over £150m of incremental supermarket spend alone is expected this Ramadan.  Lastly, the rush to do good actions on account of multiplied rewards in Ramadan continues to propel charity activities, with total charitable giving likely to exceed £150m this year.

Whilst as a collective we have much to pat ourselves on the back for, not to be forgotten there is a less optimistic side, too. Ramadan timetables continue to be a car crash, particularly for suhoor time end, which varies 30 minutes between mosques in Luton for example. There is yet more negative marketing by the likes of Muslim Aid whose strapline on the jumpers of presenters fundraising on Islam Channel, “The Ulama’s approved Zakat policy,” seems to incorrectly imply that the ‘ulama are monolithic and unable to hold nuanced and varying positions on zakat. In terms of food, whilst our awareness of a good diet continues to improve, we’ve yet to embrace eco-iftars (e.g. avoid the use of plasticware for example) and do more to eliminate food wastage. Whilst retailers are tuning in to the needs of the Muslim demographic, cultural stereotypes around Eid and Ramadan in supermarkets (e.g. 5-litre bottles of vegetable oil, 20 kg bags of whole wheat flour, big packets of Bombay mix etc.) and clothing shops (e.g. Pakistani salwar kameez outfits) are increasingly not so inclusive for diverse Muslims. Muslims come from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds and cultures but the products (both clothing and food) on offer seem to be focused on only the traditions of Pakistani heritage. Though to an extent this is to be expected because of the dominance of ethnocentric Islam and British Pakistanis being the biggest Muslim ethnicity the retail sector is merely reflecting cultural intelligence relative to this market demographic. Religious literacy, political theology, professionalism in scholarship, understanding of the Qur’an, the quality of our salah, the ability to overcome ethnocentric religion etc. remain significant ongoing and long-term challenges. Whilst there are more of these issues that I can write about, my biggest disappointment this year is that this Ramadan will be yet another when British Muslims will have missed the opportunity to forge a strategic collective vision of what we want our faith identity to be known for in the act of godliness.

Now, part of the immediate challenge here is getting British Muslims to recognise that there is indeed a need for a broad vision that provides direction and positioning of our faith identity in the context of wider society. Denial of course serves to maintain us in our own comfort zones and self-promoting biases. And the sense of collective burden (fard kifayah) means that no one has the courage to take on the burden of being that group or network of people that take on the challenge. Especially as there are well-known scars with just the simple notion of “group” with the many groups that have tried and, well, not just flatly failed but, in recent decades in the UK, substantially added to the problem in the process. If it’s not that, it certainly is a diffusion of responsibility when we fail to act because we assume that since other Muslims whom we think are more endowed (scholars, da’ees, mosques or well-funded organisations etc.) are not acting, action is not appropriate. And then there is the challenge of, as individuals, not knowing God’s revelation well enough to have the introspective lenses to examine our current condition. Put all this together and it’s quite easy to see why not every generation is able to renew religion, tajdid. Tajdid is not to be confused with islah, the rectification of bad character, which of course can, and does, go on irrespective. But what tajdid is, is a more purposeful regeneration and renewal of religion contextualised to the needs of one’s time.

Every prophet had a vision that coupled worldly benefit and productivity of their society with salvation in the Afterlife. They were intelligent and understood society’s needs, helped of course by God’s direct orientation. If you ask an average Muslim to think with a faith context about what the purpose of their life is, they will probably reply something like “to worship God” or “to do good” etc. Whilst that’s a good start it is nowhere near to where it needs to be. If you then ask, “Does your religion give you a vision for society and your place within it?” the answer will be less forthcoming. Probing further, “What value does your faith bring to the rest of society,” we might by now feel stumped. These questions no doubt irk some Muslims, particularly those on the political left, who might see them as unfair questioning of Muslim belonging to the UK, and will no doubt protest that such a line of questioning would never be sought of other communities.

Whilst I do have some sympathy for this, I also think having a defensive attitude isn’t quite right either, especially when these questions are asked respectfully or in safe spaces. As Muslims we’re meant to be actively thinking about these questions; we’re meant to be searching, introspecting, and progressing our thoughts and actions. That’s what God wants of us. Why else would God ask to “enjoin in good and forbid wrongdoing” and why would He give believers concepts like zakat (looking after the impoverished), wasatiyyah (goal-seeking best, honest truthful balanced way), being khulafah al-ard (stewards of the earth), giving sadaqah (acts an act of kindness delivered in the absence of an expectation of something in return), possessing istiqamah (steadfastness), seeking God’s bounties on earth, establishing justice, having ihsan (excellence) and so on. That’s what all prophets wanted their followers – Muslims – to be doing, and that’s what the Prophet Muhammad wanted us – Muslims of the UK – to be in the business of doing.

So what exactly is a vision? The dictionary defines vision as, “the ability to think about or plan the future with imagination or wisdom.” Vision gives direction to making goals and establishing purpose, which then drives our thinking, approach, and actions to achieve that reality. To understand what we want British Muslims as a faith identity to be known for, our own unique selling points if you like, we must have a clear vision. Once we understand that vision, we can create strategies to underpin it, and in turn, our actions will become clearer and more meaningful. A vision will also offer us a better way of controlling our narrative (as opposed to today where it is completely dictated by geopolitical events, extremists, media stories, the antics of individuals, controversial topics etc.) gain common ground and alignment of agendas and priorities across disparate and diverse Muslim communities. Ultimately a common vision will allow us to plan for the future of our communities, make decisions about how we want to organise and develop them, and with it gain greater purpose and meaning. We’ll also be able to identify what to prioritise, what to invest in, what to discard, and what to stay away from etc.

The do-nothing scenario is that we will perpetuate our current state, which we can summarise as one where: (a) Islam will continue to suffer an image problem; (b) Muslims across communities will struggle to come together for mutual benefit and to solve shared problems; (c) we’ll continue to waste resources and fail to use talent to maximum effect and reach; (d) we’ll continue to struggle to create standards, reputable institutions and platforms; (e) we’ll bear the greater opportunity cost of being unable to maximise synergies and economies of scale; and (f) we’ll remain unable to bring the benefits of God’s revelation to wider society.

Left unattended, it is likely that the dominant secular liberalism of wider society will eventually erode Islamic exceptionalism. Religion will continue to be seen as at odds with modern society, unable to add value or direct its motivations. What we are doing today, despite all its value, is not enough to help us move and direct our purpose here in the UK amidst the demands of the 21st century.

So why should we start thinking about this during Ramadan? The simple answer is that fasting should make us better thinkers and enable us to focus on things better. If we’re ever to have the clarity of thinking to formulate a vision it is perhaps during Ramadan. The fasting state, which most people will enter between 6 to 8 hours into a fast, leads the body to burn fat for energy releasing ketone bodies, which in turn leads to an uptick in cognitive performance, mental clarity, and a general sense of energy and well-being. There is also increased production of other cognitive-stimulating substances, such as brain-derived nootropic factor (BDNF), which improves long-term memory, coordination, and learning. Communal fasting engenders a sense of breaking daily habits, particularly useless habits, and thus should free up our time for more useful work. And not to mention, we’re more individually aware of God as collective religious consciousness enlarges during Ramadan. Ramadan thus has all the necessary ingredients to make us ponder deeper questions of meaning, vision, where are we heading, and so on. In fact, the power of an entire month of fasting, more generally speaking, should be making a lasting impression on us if we do it properly.

Now, I am not naive to think that vision setting can be achieved overnight or in a few single sittings of like-minded believers. For a start, it requires a level of religious literacy that quite frankly British Muslims, including those in positions of authority, are far from. It also requires a level of alignment and recognition of the problem among a critical mass of believers, which we are far from. Let’s not forget that we struggle to organise and agree on suhoor time in the same town, so how can we be expected to form a broad vision? It also requires mastery of skills in problem-solving, professionalism, holistic thinking, stakeholder management, influencing skills to get buy-in from others, and the ability to hold multiple competing opinions and agendas within a decoupled framework, which are all in short supply. Lastly, it requires long-term planning, with horizons looking out to 2030, 2040 and even 2050, but such mentality and commitment is scant.

But what I do think we can start doing, is bringing greater awareness of the problem and seeding our thinking among like-minded believers. The blessings of Ramadan are for us to reap, and it is God who propels us in the paths that we choose.

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