Friday, August 3, 2012

Finding the Beauty of Atheism During Ramadan

By Jalees Rehman, M.D.
Originally posted 8/3/12 at the Huffington Post

During the month of Ramadan, Muslims all around the world fast by abstaining from food and drink during daytime hours. In addition to participating in these physical aspects of fasting, Muslims also see the month of Ramadan as an opportunity for spiritual growth. How this spiritual growth is achieved varies widely between cultures and individuals. Many Muslims devote an extraordinary amount of time to performing prayers, set aside time and money for charitable activities or study the Quran. My own approach to spiritual growth during Ramadan is to study the Scriptures and writings of other faiths and belief systems. I also like to engage in such interfaith readings outside of the month of Ramadan, but during Ramadan, my desire to learn about other faiths and beliefs intensifies.

The most plausible explanation for this is that my glucose-starved brain and dehydrated body are impatiently nudging me toward other belief systems as a reaction to depriving my body of food and drink for 17 hours. However, a plausibility does not make an explanation appealing. I have developed a personal, idiosyncratic explanation, which is (partly) grounded in the Muslim tradition. According to the Muslim narratives, God places the devils in chains during the month of Ramadan as a mercy to humans so that they can grow spiritually and are less likely to be lead astray by devils. 

The image that always comes to my mind is that of Mephistopheles from Goethe's Faust, in the classic performance by Gustaf Gründgens. I imagine Mephistopheles in an orange jump-suit, all chained up in a prison cell, cracking witty jokes and making snide comments, but unable to reach his target audience. I envision the devil leading humans astray by dampening our curiosity and our willingness to engage in dialogue; by preventing us from learning about what lies beyond our intellectual, spiritual and creative horizon and by creating a false sense of comfort. I believe that once the devil is placed in shackles during Ramadan, he is forced to release us from our cozy narrow-mindedness. I realize that my personal mythical narrative that I have developed around how the imprisoned devil fosters my interest in other faiths will not hold up to rigorous psychological testing or to traditional Muslim theology, but I still stick with it. 

In the course of studying non-Muslim writings and Scriptures during this Ramadan, I came across the excellent essay "What I Believe" by the great atheist philosopher and Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell. This essay can be found in a collection of essays, including the famous or perhaps infamous "Why I Am Not a Christian." I remember reading this essay collection a number of years ago, but as with many of Bertrand Russell's writings, it does not hurt to continuously re-read them since one is bound to find new facets of wisdom each time. In "What I Believe," Russell formulates some of the key principles of his humanist and atheist philosophy.

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