I do not know if this is a common occurrence, but I see amiable people become combustible during Ramadan. Ramadan, fasting and anger for some, go together. The Imam of
Masjid Jamek, in Kuala Lumpur, told me once that during Ramadan a poor man started throwing stones at him. The man, accidentally, was not given a plate of rice to break his fast. Since everyone was sitting down except the Imam, the Imam became the man’s dummy for target practice. Another time a British revert made roast turkey with gravy for the people at Masjid Jamek. The revert left the kitchen and returned an hour later, thirty minutes before Iftar. The four turkeys he roasted where pilfered. People had come into the kitchen and helped themselves to generous portions of the turkeys, taking these portions home to their families. The Britisher went ballistic.
Sometimes, fasting leads to frustration, especially after the first week of Ramadan is over. The enthusiasm of beginning the month wears off. Our basest instincts start to rise up. Controlling anger is a part of the ethical education that we rarely learn, because we are rarely taught. A man came to the Prophet and asked him, “Advise me”. The Prophet replied, “Do not be angry.” The man, thirsty for wisdom, asked again, “Advise me”. The Prophet replied, “Do not be angry”. The man asked again. The Prophet repeated the same answer. Later the man said, “I thought about what the Prophet said and I realised that anger combines all kinds of evil” (Musnad Ahmad).
Anger is involuntary, but acting on it is voluntary. To be more precise, anger starts as sparks on the tinder of our disappointments. Once the tinder catches fire, we have a choice. Either we let the fire grow, or we blow it out. When we leave the fire to grow we become angry. When we become angry, the anger either has an effect, or doesn’t. For instance, your boss has been bullying you yet again. You get angry. Imagine two sign posts pointing in opposite directions. One sign post says “Shout at boss”. The other sign post says “Shout at spouse”. Any ordinary person would not take the “shout at boss” approach. Many people would take the “Shout at spouse” approach, especially if alcohol vaporised their moral restraint. So, in this scenario, you come back home and shout at your spouse. Did your anger have any effect in reprimanding your boss? Not in the least. Your outburst was useless, with the added vice of hurting someone close to you. If, however, you have no fear of hierarchies then you might take the “Shout at boss” approach. Doing so will be effective in reprimanding your boss, but it will hurt you more; you will be out of a job.
Anger is either utterly useless, or useful at harming yourself. To get angry is to lose sight of the solution to your problems. The Britisher’s anger was useless. His bellowing did not restore the Turkeys. The poor man’s anger was self-harming. He was seen as a madman and a threat to people’s safety. Both the Britisher and the poor man had good reasons to be angry. But they did not have good reasons to be controlled by anger.
We usually associate extreme anger with brute strength. The stronger a person is, the angrier he can become. That’s why a convict in Belmarsh Prison can get more furious than a secretary in a call-centre. But this association is false. The more angry a person is, the less well he can fight. This is seen clearly in martial arts where the ideal of having a calm mind is aimed for rather than blind rage. This is what the Prophet was referring to when he said, “The strong man is not the one who wrestles others; rather, the strong man is the one who controls himself at times of anger” (Muslim). Many times fights are won due to mental clarity. With that clarity, the martial artist can adjust his position and shift his weight to optimum effect and devastating results. It is no mystery that the Prophet knew of this; since, he was one of the best wrestlers in Arabia at his time.
But what about anger that is both effective and has no self-harm? What happens if by following anger you can achieve revenge and have no negative consequences in doing so? Someone can give the following example: after getting bullied by your boss, you work hard to arrange for your boss to get severely beaten up in a back alley at night. Let us suppose that you’re boss accidentally dies from his injuries; so, you won’t have to face his bad talk again. Let us also suppose that you find no moral turmoil over your role in his death. Your boss is gone and your heart is calm. Doesn’t this scenario show anger being beneficial?
I beg to differ. The above scenario shows anger being effective, but it does not take into consideration the psychological harm the anger caused. By getting your boss killed, your outlook on life will become bleak and bloody. Whenever you face another person bullying you, your mind will jump suddenly to plotting for his murder. Imagine what it would be like to have a relationship with such a mindset? Suppose you cheat on your spouse, and fall under the spell of another. Suppose that person, for a brief moment, ranted at you sarcastically. Your anger will reignite the psychology of murder. Anger always harms the one in anger. This is with us assuming that after you killed your boss you are able to live guilt free, which for most people is more than Utopia.
No doubt we come across many people who stoke our furnace of anger. The question we should ask ourselves is this: is it worth it for me to harm myself for the sake of odious people? Anger is a sort of fixation. You become fixated on another person and the entire cosmos revolves around him. Some people will be so impelled by anger that their very identities merge into their anger. They are anger. As soon as their object of anger leaves the city or country, they find they are empty inside themselves. Instead of “overpowering” your enemies by your anger, you have submitted yourself to these enemies by making them the very definition of your character.
Many times, our anger only leads to verbal outburst. This can be traced back to the abolition of dueling with pistols. In our times, to be snubbed in front of colleagues is as painful as Galois’s wounds. Such an anger, though civilised, is still harmful. It is a toxic tonic that pollutes our psychologies. That’s why you will find many people who spend their time talking, talking about others. A half-wit would wonder, “By God! Do these people have lives? Do they even care about themselves? Or do they care more about those they are against?” I remember once spending five boring hours with a group of people listening to their spiteful gossip. Someone had angered them, because he got a promotion and they did not. Those five hours of my life felt like a dozen decades. After leaving the group at the end of the discussion, I realised that I could have done so much in those five hours.
Have I ever got angry in Ramadan? Many times. The time I remember most was when I spent the weekend at my friend’s house in Fulham. I was a child at the time (i.e. a teenager) and me and my friend ganged up on his brother after he chose the green pillow to sleep on. I still remember the rancour of that weekend. If I had taken the Prophet’s advice, I would have let my friend’s brother take the green pillow, instead of using a potted cactus to prick his buttocks. The month of fasting coming to an end, be calm, relax, and keep smiling!