Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Ramadan's challenge for all Australians


Muslim men prayMuslims in Australia will begin the Ramadan fast on this coming Sunday. Most Australians will categorise it as a private religious practice. But it is significant precisely because it raises questions for all Australians about the place of religion in public life.

For Muslims, the observance of Ramadan touches the whole of life. It commemorates the month in which Mohammad began to receive revelations. They were gathered in the Quran, the definitive charter for the personal and public life of Muslims.

The practices associated with Ramadan do not simply touch the mind but also the body, committing people to fast from sunrise to sunset. Nor does it have implications simply for personal life. To adjust to fasting and giving time to prayer and reading the Quran throughout the working day has consequences for one's work, as many footballers at the World Cup can testify.

Nor is Ramadan simply about individual practice. It is highly social. Preparations for eating before and after sunset becomes a family industry. And the commitment to give alms is political in the broad sense — it invites people to look at the world around them, to notice people who need aid, and to ask why they are suffering.

So at Ramadan fasting is the symbol of a deeper commitment to focus on what matters and to ask what God wants. For Muslims it is a time for correcting bad habits, mending relationships, reading the Quran and praying, giving alms to the poor, and meeting people. It is about serious business, but it is not a private business.

The seriousness of this quest to recognise what matters and to live by it is a gift and a challenge to all Australians because it invites us to ask how we deal with these questions ourselves. It challenges Christians in particular because they share with Muslims a tradition of symbolising the search for God's will in public ways.

In earlier Catholic societies and some Eastern churches today Lent had the same public character as Ramadan, involving serious fasting, communal prayer and spiritual reflection. It was a time for conversion that also made a statement of public identity. Many Catholics went to the early morning Mass on Ash Wednesday and wore the ash mark on their foreheads for the rest of the day. Now it makes less demands, hardly drawing public notice.

The change in Lenten practice in the West reflects a recurrent tidal change in religious practice. The practices of both Lent and Ramadan reflect and nurture the desire to live with great integrity in personal and public life. But the risk inherent in public devotional practices is that the practices can be seen as a goal in themselves rather than as a symbol of deep personal commitment. This leads to a discrepancy between religious practice and life, and invites a charge of hypocrisy.

The discrepancy leads reformers to criticise the narrow focus on external things and to call for a return to the large things that matter. In the Christian Gospels, for example, Jesus criticised the emphasis placed on dietary laws because it stifled the life it was meant to nurture. Later movements of reform have taken up the same charge and emphasised inner devotion over outward observance.

The risk inherent in focusing on purity of heart, of course, is that faith can become privatised, with the result that the quest to find and live by what matters is seen as purely internal and so a matter for private choice. In reaction, new symbols of commitment and adherence are found. There is a periodic alternation between symbol-making and symbol-breaking.

The challenge that Ramadan makes to a secular society lies precisely in its bodily, public and communal symbols of the importance of commitment to what matters in personal and public life. Our society has over a long period been engaged in symbol-breaking. Long established rituals and practices are deconstructed and statements of universal values are routinely criticised for their pretensions. Religion and its symbols are understood to belong in the private sphere.

This process might lead us to ask whether it will be possible in the public sphere to ask seriously what matters to human beings and to society, or whether these large questions will be regarded as a matter for private conversations and irrelevant to public policy.

If the latter is the case, the symbols of public life will embody power without respect for universal values like truth or justice. Parliament will be represented not by the prayer that initiates it but by the verbal abuse that follows; counsel will be represented by the appointment not of wise people, but of loyal creatures; opportunity will be represented by wealth, not by reason.

Ramadan offers a different view; it might give all Australians pause.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Ramadan image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Ramadan



submit a comment

Existing comments

"This leads to a discrepancy between religious practice and life" the problem with many observant Christians and (from observation) Muslims is they are too busy being "human-DOINGS rather than human-BEINGS. Being pious during Lent or Ramadan isn't really following your faith. Muslims (to me) appear to be busy doing everything their faith requires. Western Christians just appear to be busy doing but whether faith is involved is very hard to know.

Jonathan Holgate | 26 June 2014  

Thanks, Andrew, timely words. Always cogent, insightful and challenging!

Patrick Jurd | 26 June 2014  

To me mind you are one of the few Australian clerics of any ecclesiastical colour who could say what you just did in this article in the gentle, wise and tolerant way you did, Andy. That says a lot for where conventional Christianity is at today in Australia: the normal preachers/teachers are a pretty mediocre and uninspiring lot. Lent; fasting; the Eucharist ("the medicine of immortality" as the Orthodox deem it) and genuine (as against rote) prayer are things we seem to have forgotten the real significance of. The genuine religious revival in this country will come, not as a Billy Graham style "crusade", but through a return to the interior life. I think the Quakers (in the Western tradition) show us how to do that and also be involved in the real world. There are, of course, many others. We need to get back to our roots.

Edward Fido | 26 June 2014  

As usual Fr Hamilton a timely and perspicacious look at the world around us. I note that you recently mentioned in one of your articles the loss of identity in the modern Catholic world. This contrasts greatly with other religions such as the Eastern Rite Churches and Islam. In the Vatican II document, Nostra Aetate, our Church expressed esteem for Islam in its adherence to one God and its valuing of the moral life and worship of God through daily prayer, almsgiving and fasting. In the wake of Vatican II, in what must be one of the great paradoxes ever embraced by Catholicism, the Catholic Church has virtually eliminated similar Lenten practices and abolished the call to daily prayer, identified in the ringing of its Church bells, unlike the Muslim call to daily prayer which rings out a number of times every day from the mosques. In the part of the world where I live the Church bells are deemed to breach noise pollution laws (or that is the excuse given) but the same doesn't apply to Islam's daily call to prayer. The Catholic Church has destroyed its own identity, one of the great tragedies of Vatican II which seems sometimes to have produced more harm than good for the Church, not in its aims and proclamations but through the misinterpretations of these by the clever reformists and renewalists who seem to drive the protestantisation of post- Vatican II Catholicism.

john frawley | 26 June 2014  

The statement on symbol breaking is significant as it may not be the experience of many Australians given the "Public Religious Experience" of ANZAC Day as a guide. Perhaps the real issue is that the symbols of trust and compliance to "old" organisations and professions such as the Church, Legal and Medical Groups as well as Government, show evidence of being misplaced and abused. Leaders of these Organisations have shown contempt for fellow adherents and citizems by their actions of deceit, corrupt behaviour, and belief in their unfettered power as shown by the "legal" defences to the challenges of citizens to them. ANZAC Day is rooted in the past in a public religious way that is accessible to Australians no matter what their cultural heritage. The public connection is obvious and yet there is the very real fear of crass commercialisation as the 100 years approaches. It will be interesting to see if this event survives the competing interests. For the development of religious public symbols the future is unclear but the young people of Australia are not alone in deciding them and if sporting symbols are an example the future looks extremely positive but very different to the past.

Laurie | 26 June 2014  

Where are the women in these bodily, public and communal symbols? The photograph says it all. While ever women are treated the way they are, it's a little hard to take all the praying seriously.

Jane | 26 June 2014  

Excellent piece. Laurie makes good points. I don't see Vatican 11 as having much to do with it - what propelled me out of the Church was hypocrisy. Nothing to do with bell ringing. But in the West we've had enlightenment ideas and a huge increase in wealth ... we've yet to see what effect these will have on Islamic traditional cultures. The Indonesian village/culture I lived in 30 years ago (I went through a couple of Ramadans, but secretly ate - the spirit was willing but the flesh was weak) has changed hugely and will keep changing. I have to say I did like to wake up to the call to prayer, and the whole Ramadan spirit was fantastic to see. Much nicer than the years I lived in China and was woken up by music for exercising and exhortations to build up the country!

Name | 26 June 2014  

Dear Andrew, another insightful and thought provoking article! The symbol breaking and making aspect of the article is very relevant to today's Muslims living in the west as they themselves become influenced by the secular culture and question their own rituals and their relevance to public life. God bless you.

S.H. | 27 June 2014  

Andrew’s article did much to illustrate how Ramadan gives Muslims an opportunity to practice some of Islam’s finer qualities. Expressions of such a gracious homage to Islam can do much to foster a more tolerant attitude towards the Muslim community in Australia by non-Muslims. Making Muslims feel accepted is central to fostering multi-cultural tolerance. But religious, like cultural respect, is a two-way street. Do we ever have any Muslim clerics pay a similar tribute to Christianity’s finer qualities? And do any of them display the humility of Andrew in admitting that perhaps they could learn from Christianity as he contends Christians can learn from Muslims’ practice of Ramadan? Christianity’s treatment of women is a case in point. Do any Muslim clerics/thinkers concede that perhaps Islam’s treatment of women leaves much to be desired compared to how the Christian church treats them? And what of Islam’s attitude to apostates? Those who want to leave the church are merely given a sorrowful farewell, and perhaps a plea to rethink. With Islam though vicious retribution can often await the apostate, especially in traditional Islamic societies. And then there is the Islamic obsession with revenge. Is not Christ’s “turning the other cheek” worth considering?

dennis | 27 June 2014