By Imad Alatas
May 31, 2018
We are almost halfway into the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a time when Muslims around the world fast from dawn to dusk. The duration varies: 10 hours in Australia, 14 hours in Malaysia, and 20 hours in places in the northern hemisphere such as Finland. But regardless of the distance between a Muslim and the sun, life goes on, right? Or so it seems.
For the whole day, Muslims are not allowed to eat or drink, among other restrictions. This undoubtedly affects their energy levels at the office or school. For some Muslims, however, Ramadan is an opportunity, maybe an excuse, to “close shop”. Ramadan is taxing on the body, so why work? It is better to rest at home for practically a month and look forward to breaking fast than to be productive throughout the day.
I am not speaking about all Islamic countries or places where Muslims fast. Nor am I assuming that the practice of Muslims closing their businesses during Ramadan exists everywhere in the Muslim world. Malaysia will be my case study.
The practice of Muslims in Malaysia closing their food stalls during Ramadan has not been a recurrent theme since time immemorial. It is a recent phenomenon that is state-sanctioned, with stalls being allowed to sell food but at limited hours.
In 2014, for example, the Islamic Affairs Minister Jamil Khir Baharom announced a rule where Muslim eateries were not allowed to sell food before 3pm to Muslims who were fasting. This was to ensure that they did not skip their fast. Other-worldly matters were more important than serving customers, be they Muslims or non-Muslims. Eateries that violated this rule risked the seizure of their equipment.
But the fact is, Islam does not proscribe Muslims from operating their food businesses during Ramadan. Imposing a limit on when food can be sold is unfair, to say the least, to Muslims who can’t fast for various reasons and need to buy food.
There are stalls which go a step further, not even operating at all! Apart from the fact that there are non-Muslims who wish to eat at these stalls, especially during their lunch breaks, the practice of closing down during Ramadan sends the message to both Muslims and non-Muslims that Ramadan makes Muslims weak and unable to function normally. Ramadan is supposed to have the opposite effect. Ramadan is a time for spiritual introspection, but not at the expense of providing material goods and necessities to the people who demand it.
The hypocrisy in all of this is the sumptuous Ramadan buffets in hotels and at various events. Spiritual introspection during the day turns to the exorbitant consumption of food with the sound of the Muslim call to prayer at sunset.
The cycle repeats itself for the rest of Ramadan: sleep, eat (a lot), pray, repeat. Policing religiosity is a priority, at least during fasting hours.
Closing shop when you’re supposed to work like any other day, only to come out of hibernation at sunset to feast, does not exactly jive well with the spiritual endeavour to be closer to God. If fasting is supposed to remind Muslims, even remotely, of what it is like for the poor to have to fast by force and be hungry most of their lives, I dare say that working during the day is but a small start.