An Olympic Ramadan

As the eyes of the world turn to London, the last few days (after years) of preparations come to fruition as London proudly hosts the 2012 Olympics. I remember vividly the jubilation when the decision for London to host the 2012 event was announced back in July 2005. The bid for the Olympics focused on the diversity of London and its unique place in the world as a result of that. It really seemed to galvanise people together. Then the day after, the 7th day of that July was, sadly, an entirely different experience for London.

In a way that tension between euphoria and fear, between celebration and terror, marks the preparations of this Olympics, as security is planned to be tighter than ever for the safety of an astounding 11 million ticket holders (including the Paralympics) is at stake.

My focus for this piece, and the interesting dimension of this Olympics, is that it overlaps the month of Ramadan. Now for some, Ramadan and something as sporty and energetic as the Olympics, don’t match. We need to think again.

If we go back to the ancient Greek origins of the Olympic games, it was a time when people would suspend war and conflict in order to participate in the games. The games also had religious connotations and were intertwined with beliefs of the ancient Greeks. When they were revived in the late 19th Century they inspired the Olympic creed; “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”

Along with the Olympic motto of Citius, Altius, Fortius (Faster, Higher, Stronger) this represents the spirit of the Olympic games, and actually it chimes more than we may think with the spirit of Ramadan.

The idea behind Ramadan is that we better ourselves, we try to be the best we can be. We exert effort and sacrifice in order to improve ourselves, focus our minds, become more disciplined and become stronger. While realising that real strength lies in self-control and not in simply beating someone. This is why the Prophet once said that, “The strong man is not the one who can wrestle another to the ground, rather the strong man is the one who can control himself at times of anger.” The Qur’an describes fasting in the month, “…as it was prescribed to those before you, that you attain taqwa…” (2:183). The word taqwa, often translated as ‘piety’, here implies a combination of piety, discipline, diligence, and self-control.

For some people today, Ramadan is becoming a time for taking time off work, missing school or college days and generally ‘taking it easy’, while often over-indulging in food at night. (While in some locations the days can be quite long, that is a separate discussion for another article perhaps). This is not how things began. Fasting in Ramadan was supposed to be an intense period of ‘training’ so that we come out at the other end spiritually charged, more disciplined, and more conscious of God and His daily gifts to us. The inference here is also that we remember those who are less fortunate and remind ourselves to be more generous in giving to people around us. This is why many Muslims increase their charitable giving during this blessed month.

It is a time for reflection, meditation and also reforming our character and conduct. The Prophet said, “Whoever does not give up false speech and false actions and ignorance, God has no need of his giving up his food and drink.”

So, perhaps rather counter-intuitively, the spirit of Ramadan and the spirit of the Olympics actually have much in common. It is for these reasons that the Islamic Society of Britain, along with other partners, is involved in the Ramadan Festival 2012, part of ‘2012 Hours Against Hate for Unity’ (www.ramadanfestival.org). It’s an opportunity for people to come together and share in the common spirit of Ramadan and the Olympics and to learn more about each other.

After all, Ramadan and the Olympics are both really designed to bring people together—yes, to make sacrifices, exert effort, become stronger and more disciplined, even compete—but with a higher purpose and vision in mind, that we are all part of one human family under God.

(This blog appeared in emel magazine, issue 94, July 2012)

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