One thing I’ve learned about Ramadan is that it’s not just about abstaining from food and drink. That is only the tip of the iceberg.
When I sat down with Yaseen before Ramadan started, he explained to me that it is also a fast of the eyes, mouth, and ears.
What does this mean?
It means that one takes special care not to see, say, or hear things that are not pleasing to God.
I am reminded of the Sunday School song that I learned as a child: “Be careful little eyes what you see, be careful little eyes what you see, for the Lord above is looking down in love, be careful little eyes what you see.” Subsequent verses include “Be careful little ears what you hear,” “Be careful little hands what you do,” and “Be careful little feet where you go.” I never cared for the song much as I grew up, mostly because I didn’t want to be restricted in my freedom and liberty. The idea of God watching from above like a security camera also gave me the creeps.
But Ramadan has forced me to take a new look at the wisdom found in this simple song, and to see it from a different angle.
The point is not that we should be careful what we do lest God strike us down, but that we should take care to act in such a way that is consistent with God’s intentions for us. In other words, we must live up to God’s hopes and dreams for us!
And too often, it is the things we do with our eyes, mouth, and ears that pull us away from God’s will.
For example, Yaseen told me that if I am walking through Wal-Mart and see a woman with too little clothing or provocatively dressed, I am to avert my eyes. He said that this is the thing I should do on a normal basis, but that, especially during Ramadan, I must be aware of such temptation.
So I have tried to be conscious of what my eyes are doing, and was surprised to learn that my eyes do indeed wander. Not only that, but our culture is saturated with media images of scantily-dressed, airbrushed and burnished bodies. They’re on television, on billboards, in magazines at the grocery counter – everywhere!
We are fed a diet of unrealistic body images which have the dual consequence of making us feel less-than-acceptable because we don’t look like “that” and causing us to entertain lustful, objectifying thoughts in our heads.
Islam does not ask us to ignore natural attractions or the pleasure of beauty, but implores us to keep our attractions in their rightful place, and to show respect to both men and women.
I heard a Muslim woman speak on this topic once. She challenged men who were quick to look at pornography or lustfully gaze on women: “Would you want someone to look like that at your mother, your wife, your daughter, your sister? Don’t you know that every woman is someone’s daughter, or wife, or mother? Don’t you know that every woman is truly your own sister in God’s eyes?”
But it’s not only about sex. This admonition to watch one’s eyes also applies to anything else that distracts us from putting our attention on God. This includes television programs, sports, movies, and long hours on the Internet.
So I have accepted the challenge to think about what I see, and to remember that I have a choice of what to look upon.
Not only that, but I am also to consider the words I say. According to Yaseen, we are to restrain ourselves from “useless talk, backbiting, slander, abusive speech, false speaking, obscenity, hypocrisy and enmity.” This might prove to be even harder than turning our eyes away from tempting images …
If we are honest, we will confess that there is an over-abundance of this kind of speech in the public square. During the election season, people say some of the worst things about fellow citizens – and it’s not just the politicians. We chime in with our opinions as well. We love to abuse our 2nd Amendment right of freedom of speech, by making all sorts of charges, accusations, and slander against others.
What if we kept ourselves from snipping at others behind their backs, and instead, complimented them? What if, instead of criticizing others, we offered words of encouragement and support? What if, instead of using language that is coarse and blue, we strove to speak in love to one another?
Perhaps it would be easier to speak this way, if we also refused to listen to such kind of talk from others. Gossip and backbiting doesn’t go very far, after all, if there are no ears to hear it, and then pass it on.
Again, this is the way we should behave all year round, not just during Ramadan, or while we are fasting. But having a specific time set apart for the explicit purpose of fasting with our eyes, mouth, and ears reminds us of what God requires of us.
This concept is certainly not foreign to my tradition as a United Methodist Christian. For one, the Bible contains clear practical guidelines for living lives of purity and holiness. In I John 2:15-17, for example, we read, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world — the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life — is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.”
The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, was concerned with helping Christians live more holy lives, and he encouraged regular fasting. But for him, as well, the fasting was not merely about food and drink, but about putting aside sinful distractions: “We abstain from food with this view, that, by the grace of God conveyed into our souls through this outward means of fasting, in conjunction with all the other channels of his grace which he has appointed, we may be enabled to abstain from every passion and attitude which is not pleasing in his sight. We refrain from the one, that, being enabled with power from on high, we may be able to refrain from the other.”
And so the fast continues, not just from food and drink, but from all those things which keep us from God.