These days it is difficult not to feel angry at the way the spirit of Ramzan is crucified every day at the altar of our consumerist society. But then, one of the things this holy month is meant to teach us is to control our anger. So God, please help me!

I remember a time when the benevolence of the month was tangible all around us. Instead of the loud fanfare that now explodes with the sighting of the moon, peace seemed to literally descend from the skies to envelop all in a quiet sense of well-being. How did we come to this?

To be fair, some people still try to do the right thing at the individual level. In quiet rooms, they turn to Quran to seek guidance, reflect upon its message in an attempt to purify their souls. They strive with sincerity to discover the essence of compassion and abstinence, sacrificing their desire with a view to help the poor and the needy. But they are swimming against a strong social tide that threatens to drown all in the dark sea of consumerism.

It is not just the motorbikes, mobile phones and other commodities being dished out in flashy Ramzan shows on television or the endless commercials of things to eat and drink that entice the imagination of fasting souls, the iftar parties hosted by the privileged for the privileged or the sehri deals offered by restaurants to feast satiated over-fed stomachs on discount. The malaise of a consumerist mindset goes much deeper. These days the ritual of fasting, like other religious practices, has been reduced to its form alone and it is, at the end of the day, entirely self-serving. It has also been made very convenient, especially for the well-to-do.

The personal effort, deliberation and soul-searching needed for spiritual renewal and awakening has been outsourced to ignorant clerics and glamorous hosts, decked up in designer wear and make-up while posing as religious guides, selling enlightenment and salvation through cheap emotionalism and clichés. Even educated people don’t turn to the word of God to understand the message and be guided by it but think it is sufficient to just hear it being recited in the mosque or discussed on television. This mindless consumption of sponsored piety and readymade religious knowledge is insidious and perhaps the most dangerous aspect of this consumerist trend.

During Ramzan, a glaring contradiction that we somehow manage to gloss over is this: Food and drink become an obsession when these things should be far from our mind. Instead of adopting a simple diet, people eat more lavishly-- except those who live from hand to mouth and could do with a few more morsels. The streets and television screens give the impression as if we are celebrating a month-long food fest; special food stalls, endless commercials with elaborate tables laid out selling us non-essential foods to titillate our palettes, cooking shows teaching us how to prepare special mouth-watering dishes. Is fasting about celebrating food or does it teach us to put it in its place?

Compassion is reduced to tokens of charity that affluent people could part with easily without disturbing their proclivity to consume more than they need. We do not feel the hardship of so many around us pushed against the wall due to the spiral of inflation that refuses to wind down. We do not sacrifice our lavish iftars and pricey Eid shopping to help the needy in any meaningful way. We do not revisit our fat-laden lifestyles to share God’s bounty with those less fortunate. We distribute more Eidi among our already privileged family members, children who already have more than most, rather than giving that money to people who really need it. We add new clothes to our overflowing wardrobes. And still we think we have done our duty to God.

The basic problem is not that the professional cheerleaders of religion in our society have transformed our religion so. The basic problem is that we let them. We find it convenient not to make the effort to understand God’s message but to buy our notions about what God wants from one of their counters. What they have to sell suits us because it does not require us to change anything about how we live our lives on a daily basis. It does not require a re-evaluation of our priorities and our general behaviour. All we have to do is to earn brownie points by following their easy-to-follow recipes, collecting sacks of sawabs that we imagine to be currency notes with which we will buy our tickets to heaven.

This disconnect between rituals and the virtues they are meant to teach us makes the observation of rituals a hollow self-serving exercise. We do it all for ourselves, imagining that we are buying our salvation. We forget that rituals are meant to teach us to be good human beings, to transform our behavior, to helps us understand the importance of doing good to others, especially to the weak among us, members of our community who could use our help; the poor and the needy, the orphans and the widows, the handicapped and the old.  

I’m sure peace still descends from the skies in this blessed month and God makes it easier for us to see the light, turn a new leaf and rise above ourselves to feel the need of others and their travails. I’m sure, Ramzan still offers the opportunity for a spiritual renewal and awakening, to snap out of our materialistic consumerist existence and experience the joy of being connected to God’s creation in a positive way. But somehow, we seem determined not to be blessed and go on with our lives without any meaningful change, focused on that next sack of sawabs that we think our hollow fasts will earn us.

When I talk about these concerns to my friends, young and old, all of them agree. Yet they go on with the flow. Such is the power of our consumerist social tide. God, help us all!

The writer is a freelance columnist.