The 21st Century Fast: Abstaining from Electronic Media this Ramadan
To great lovers of the Internet, television and social media, allow me to apologise for my attempt at the audacious. I am using the power of electronic media to denounce electronic media. I am using it so that you don’t have to, at least until Ramadhan’s over. This is my literary kamikaze, my swan song of online contributions. After this I’m neither tweeting nor blogging. Not watching the Olympics on HDTV or refreshing my Google news browser to find out if LKY is dead or dying. No WhatsApp or Facebook. I’m leaving it all behind. Who’s coming with me?
Why all the drama? Well, to put it mildly my Ramadhan has not gone the way I hoped it would. It’s become too much of a routine, too mechanical, too many failures and “pahala” discounts. Apart from the abstention from food and drink, I haven’t really done anything to pave my way to being a more God-conscious Muslim. In fact, my iman has gone the way of my blood sugar in recent weeks. Down, down, down.
So I’m hoping to salvage something before my time in this yearly madrasah comes to an end. No, I’m not seeking perfection, but I can’t sit around and be content with all my flaws. I’ve got to do something, so this is it. I want to start being serious with my time this month and I’m starving myself of electronic media to do it. An e-media fast, until the Mufti tells me it’s Eidulfitri. Oh wait, I’ve just realised I can’t be listening to the radio either. I’ll probably have to do some old-fashioned moon-sighting.
In his treatise Kitab Asrar Al-Sawm Imam Al-Ghazzali mentions that there are three grades of fasting: that of the general public, of the select few and of the elite. The fast of the general public, the lowest grade, involves abstaining from acts which nullify the fast, such as eating, drinking and sexual activity. The next grade of fasting – that of the select few – involves abstaining from sins associated with the physical senses: feet, hands, tongue, eyes, ears, etc.
The fasting of the elite (sawm khusus Al-Khusus) is no mean feat. To qualify one does not think of anything other than Allah and the last day. No deciding what to eat for iftar. No visiting the Geylang bazaar to decide what to wear for Raya. No keeping tabs on the latest happenings the world over. “In this rank stand the prophets, the saints and the favourites of God the most high,” writes Imam Al-Ghazzali.
Of course, it could be argued that one can be plugged into the vast world of electronic media while still maintaining a Grade A fast. Today you can easily Islamise your news feed on your Twitter and Facebook accounts, choose a Muslim-friendly website as your homepage or spend an entire day watching Mufti Menk on YouTube. But I’m tempted to think that the use of electronic media, no matter how pure and well-intentioned, has a tendency to subtly change its user as well as the environment in which it operates in.
To illustrate I wish to quote academic Neil Postman who said, “What we needed to know about cars — as we need to know about computers, television, and other technology — is not how to use them, but how they use us. In the case of cars, what we needed to think about in the early twentieth century was not how to drive them but what they would do to our air, our landscape, our social relations, our family life, and our cities.”
If fasting is to be an effective vehicle (pun unintended) for us to improve our spiritual selves, then I think we need to reflect how the act of fasting has become affected by the Internet, television and social media. Have we become easily distracted, losing the focus and insight needed to rectify our flaws? Have we been lulled by the easy, amusing nature of electronic media, that always provides us what we want, never asking for anything in return? Have our brains been rewired to capture information through imagery, and if so what does that hold for the written word, i.e. the Quran? Have we numbed our minds from the onslaught of the hilarious and the superficial: empty slogans, meaningless information, a random person’s brain fart, yet another thoughtless meme?
I hope nobody thinks of me as luddite. I am not completely against electronic media (if I was I wouldn’t be writing this here, neither would I have a blog of my own). I don’t think the way to utopia is to shut down the Internet or ban the latest gadgetry. I understand the efficiency and benefits such technology brings to businesses, schools and organisations.
But I fear that we have become too distracted by it, immersed to the point of neglecting our responsibilities and obligations. We become cocooned into our soft, little worlds, ignoring the needs of those around us. Get off my seat for the old auntie on the train? Sorry, too busy killing green pigs with my flock of feathered friends.
I fear we have been fooled into thinking that we can depend on the internet for our dose of religious knowledge, instead of seeking a teacher who can truly guide us. That we think watching a syarahan online has the same effect as being fully present in a majlis ilm, humbled by our own ineptitude and ignorance.
If Ramadhan is to be the annual spiritual reset button, that period of the year where we try our level best to return to a state of fitrah, then I think it’s agreeable that part of fitrah is to restore some balance to our daily lives. Sure, we don’t have to swear ourselves off electronic media entirely, but I think some rules are in order.
Shahnawaz Abdul Hamid
The writer blogs about being a Muslim in Singapore at www.hayatshah.com.
Note: This article first appeared at Ramadan.sg