The ecological meaning of fasting during Ramadhan

The coastal reclamation project in 37 points in Indonesia is proven to have destroyed the mangrove area, which guards against the intrusion of sea water into ground water, and have also destroyed coral reefs. (photo: IO/Yoga)

IO – In the teachings of Islam, fasting during Ramadhan is an important religious observation that is clearly mentioned in the Qur’an (Al-Baqarah [2]: 183-188). Linguistically, imsak (fasting) means time to commence to “restrict the self” from eating, drinking, and having sexual relations with one’s spouse from dawn until dusk. In the Arabic language, “fasting” is expressed with the words “shiyam”, which means “restricting oneself from anything that may destroy the meaning of fasting”, and “shaum”, which means “restricting oneself from useless chatter”.

The religious observation of fasting has deep psychological impacts to its doers. A person who fasts truly understands what it means to starve and to feel thirsty, thus generating his/her empathy towards the unfortunate people around him who do not have the luxury of daily meals or even drinks. Furthermore, fasting teaches us discipline by making us restrain ourselves even from things that are ordinarily halal (religiously allowed) for us. Through this exercise, our hearts are taught to be always aware that Allah SWT always sees and watches everything that we do. At this point, fasting teaches us to be constantly honest with our conscience, as therein we find the Lord’s Voice.

Other than having psychological, social, and spiritual meaning, fasting also has a deep ecological meaning to it. If we return to the actual meaning of fasting as above, we will find that fasting actually encourages us to have an environmentally friendly perspective and behavior.

Digging into the Ecological Meaning of Fasting
Fasting has the “basic” meaning of restricting oneself from food, drink, and for the married ones, from sex relations with one’s legally wedded spouse. The phrase “restricting oneself from food and drink” should not be understood merely to not eat and drink during the day time, and to return to eating when the time for the break arrives. The phrase has an added layer of making us aware of the ecological meaning, wherein the muslim community must be aware of four important things relating to food and drink: the nature of the food and drink themselves, the way the food and drink are obtained from nature and through human interactions, the way the food and drink are processed, and the way the food and drink are consumed.

From the phrase “restricting from food and drink”, fasting should also make us aware and care of the condition of nature as the origin of the food and drink that we consume every day. Indonesia’s nature, both land (forests) and sea, are in critical condition. If this crisis is not mitigated, it will threaten the very lives of Indonesian people in the future.

In 2016, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) estimated that entire total of forest damage of the world’s forests for the past 5,000 years is 1.8 billion hectares. By contrast, forest damage in 1990-2015 is 129 million hectares. As part of the world’s ecosystem, Indonesia contributed to more than 80% of global deforestation until 2030. The forests in Kalimantan and Sumatra are in the top 11 regions in the world with the worst deforestation rate. The other areas are, the Amazon, Atlantic Forest and Gran Chanco, Cerrado, Choco-Darien, the Congo Basin, East Africa, Eastern Australia, Greater Mekong, and Papua New Guinea. More than 170 million hectares of forest is predicted to disappear if forest damage is left to continue.

Data from 2014-2015 records that Indonesia’s deforestation is 1.09 million hectares a year. The biggest deforestation occurs in Sumatra island at 519,000 hectares or 47,5% of total deforestation, followed with Kalimantan Island at 74.333 hectares or 34.3%. One of the causes of high deforestation rate in 2015 is forest fires at 250,900 hectares. Nearly 75% of the deforested area is allowed to become open lands, of which 9.5% turns into bushland. The deforested area includes tree forests at 441.900 hectares (36.1%) and secondary marsh forests at 267,900 hectares (21.9%).

In 2015, deliberate burning by large-scale plantations to clear land has turned into an uncontrollable forest fire. The biggest damage due to forest fire occurred in Central Kalimantan at 122,883 hectares, followed by South Sumatra at 30,985 hectares. Jambi, East Kalimantan, Lampung, and North Sulawesi all suffered large forest fires at more than 18,000 hectares each.

One of the major impact of forest damage as a source of food and drink is the loss of water resources. Bank Dunia estimates that in 2025, a full two-thirds of the world’s population will have trouble to get clean water to drink, cook, and bathe. The loss of water resources is mostly due to deforestation and karst mining exploitation for the needs of cement industry, and other extractive industries. The water resource crisis is predicted to be a major source of human social and political conflicts in the future. The conflict will not just between community groups, but also between countries, as a water source crisis will naturally cause food crisis as many farming areas will not have sufficient water supply.

Other than the inland forests, the forests in Indonesia’s small islands are also in a real threat. With a total area size of 4.2 million ha, these small island forests are targets of major extractive and exploitative industry projects. Currently, the small island forests are divided into mining concessions (55%), palm coconut plantations (16%), forest enterprise rights (hak pengusahaan hutan – “HPH”) (17%), and industrial planting forest (hutan tanam industri – “HTI”) (10%). This is despite that these small island forests have the essential functions as water reserves, guardians against the intrusion of sea water, and the guardian of ecological balance among the islands. However, nearly 100% of it is damaged. The future of the coastal and small island ecology, and that of the residents, are in a huge threat.

The distribution of mangrove forests in Indonesian coasts is also seriously threatened. According to data from the Ministry of Maritime and Fishery, mangrove forest area in Indonesia in 2014 was 4.4 million hectares, reduced to 3.9 million hectares in 2016. The coral reefs in the Indonesian water suffer from a similar fate.  According to data from the Ministry of Maritime and Fishery, coral reefs area in 2014 was 3.2 million hectares, reduced to 2.3 million hectares in 2015, and increased slightly to 2.5 million hectares in 2016.

The coastal reclamation project in 37 points in Indonesia is proven to have destroyed the mangrove area, which guards against the intrusion of sea water into ground water, and have also destroyed coral reefs. This is seen in the case of the reclamation of the Jakarta Bay, which leaves only 25 hectares of mangrove area from the original 1,145 ha. With the destruction of the mangrove area, sea water intrudes easily into the ground and mix with ground water. In consequence, water sources in the Jakarta Bay area are damaged and unfit for use for daily needs, especially for drinking water. A similar condition is found in other reclaimed coastal areas in Indonesia.

Further, the phrase “restricting from food and drink” in fasting should make us aware and care about the processing of the food we have before us. It is very difficult for us to wean ourselves off the many dangerous processed food on offer. Jalaluddin Rakhmat, currently a Member of Committee VIII DPR- RI, discussed this issue in the book titled Jalan Rahmat (“The Blessed Path”) published in 2011, in the chapter on “Breaking Fast with Toxins”. He noted that in order to generate savor in processed food, the producers put in monosodium glutamate (“MSG”). MSG is an amino acid that is useful for the brain in small doses, but extremely dangerous in large quantities. There was a test that involves the impact of MSG on mouse brain cells. After constant administration of MSG, the mice’s nerve cells, especially in the hypothalamus, swelled dramatically, and died within hours.

Jalaluddin Rakhmat further adds that meat and vegetables are frequently preserved using sodium nitrate. This substance causes sausage to become red and preserves it. Without it, the meat will rot and look ugly. In our stomachs, sodium nitrate is transformed into nitric acid, which is strongly suspected of being the cause of stomach cancer.

Ayam sayur” or commercially bred chickens are given arsenic in their feed to make them grow fat and golden-skinned. The arsenic enters our food and drink through cooking utensils, beverage cans, and aluminum foil. Recent studies have shown that the brain of Alzheimer sufferers have a high amount of arsenic accumulation.

Producers put in brominate oils into your bottles of fruit juice to make it taste fresher. The oil preserves the drink for up to 6 months. Researches show that this oil changes the liver tissue and reduces its metabolism abilities, swells the thyroid gland, damages the kidneys, and damages the testicles.

The final layer in the meaning of “restricting from food and drink” is that we should behave well when we consume food and drink, or in other words, do responsible consumption. This is important, because urban residents tend to hang out and fast together in restaurants or cafés, and they waste a lot of their food in the trash. This lifestyle generates a new problem, i.e. massive garbage disposal. We should all realize that our lifestyle contributes to garbage disposal that is unfriendly to the environment. Indonesia is the biggest generator of waste after China. In 2016, Indonesia generated 3.2 million tons of waste (while China generated 203.6 million tons in the same year), of which 1.29 million tons washed into the sea. This pollution will only endanger our own lives in the future.

More than just a ritual
The fact that fasting does not have good impact to the environment is due to our failure to delve deeper and renew the meaning of fasting. Fasting has always been understood as a mere religious routine that is discussed exhaustively only from its ritual aspect every year. Fasting is merely a means to get over religious annual obligation, and ends with massive and wasteful shopping in various trade centers. At this point, fasting loses its transformative meaning.

We must continuously sharpen our understanding of fasting during Ramadhan, in order to maintain its value in transforming us for the better. Otherwise, we would not be able to resolve the social and ecological issues that affect our community in the end. The various existing issues need new approaches. This is the reason why we should sharpen our reason and our faith through fasting. (Parid Ridwanuddin)