“Some people get nothing out of fasting except hunger and thirst.”
Ali ibn Abu Talib, father of Hussain.
The month of Ramadhan has arrived and for Muslims this is a time of generosity and giving back. Although many associate this period with fasting (in its most basic form, not eating and drinking from sunrise until sunset), at a deeper level Ramadhan symbolises the time for sharing and selflessness. Though the minimum expectation of fasting is to refrain from food and drink, the true goal is to take the human being beyond that: the service of fellow humans and becoming a more well-rounded individual.
In short, this month trains a person on how to live their lives for the next eleven months until Ramadhan approaches again; a spiritual and ethical injection of adrenaline that lasts a year. To reach and maintain this level, where else can you look for inspiration other than Hussain ibn Ali?
A famous instance where we see the link between fasting and generosity is when Hussain and his brother Hasan were once suffering from an ailment. When their illness was cured they decided, along with their parents, Ali and Fatima, to fast for three days to thank God for curing them. Enduring hunger and thirst throughout their first day of fasting, sunset arrived and it was time to break their fast. A knock on their door interrupted this. Hussain’s family opened the door to a starving beggar. Without hesitation, they all gave almost all their food to the beggar and slept having just eating a little bread and water – but most importantly with the satisfaction of helping another person. The next day, another knock on the door sounded at the time of fast-breaking – the moment every fasting person looks forward to – this time to a starving orphan waiting outside with his hands open. Hussain’s family once again gave all of their food and decided to sleep hungry for a second night. Lo and behold, on the third day of fasting, at sunset, another bang was heard on the door and a wayfarer looked in hope as to what this noble family might offer. The family, for a third day running, gave all their food in the hope of satisfying a needy traveller. Those who have experienced the pang of fasting know the feeling of preparing food and drink during the day and waiting for the moment to open the fast after a difficult day. It is scarcely imaginable how one could demonstrate such boundless compassion in such a way.
What kind of person can be so generous to give their source of nourishment away when they need it most to another person? Human beings can be selfish and stingy: “Why should I give my food to a stranger when I worked for it? If I do give my food, why should I give it all?” It is hard to believe such people existed since we find it rare to come across people who give to their fellow humans like Hussain’s family did. It is the stuff of mythology, but they show us the level a human being can reach if they try. Hussain and his family show us that fasting is beyond physical and it should be about the ethical. This is the spirit of giving back. This is the spirit of selflessness. This is the spirit of the month of Ramadhan.
Fast-forward decades later to the desert of Karbala where Hussain showed humanity the epitome of giving back – he gave the most precious thing, his life, for the sake of others. We should not be surprised at his act of giving since the house he was raised in cultivated this in his heart. Hussain’s consideration for others is echoed in just about every worldview – whether it is Agape in Christianity; Tzedakah in Judaism; Sewa in Sikhism; Dana in Hinduism and Buddhism; altruism in the Humanist traditions – which shows this is not about religion alone. It is in the month of Ramadhan where we all have the perfect opportunity to emulate him and embrace the human spirit of giving that he showed until the moment he died.
Whether one is fasting or not, Muslim or not, we can all look towards Hussain on how to act this month. This month demands individuals to raise their standards and be the best person they can be. No-one personifies moral perfection like Hussain does, so it is the duty of all humans to try and replicate his ethos during this month, and then implement his attributes in our daily lives after Ramadhan.