Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Ramadan Debate: Spirituality vs. Productivity

The Ramadan Debate: Spirituality vs. Productivity | ProductiveMuslim

There is a heated debate among Muslim professionals that take place every year regarding Ramadan. The debate is divided between the “Spiritual camp” and the “Pragmatic camp” and it goes as follows:

The spiritual camp argues that Ramadan is the month of spirituality, and we should focus our efforts on acts of worship such as fasting, prayers, charity and recitation of the Qur’an – and if possible, we should take time out from work during Ramadan and make the most of the blessed month.

The pragmatic camp argues that we should be practical about Ramadan, and balance (reduce) our spiritual commitments during Ramadan so that we can maintain productivity in the workplace and to stop giving Islam or Muslims a bad name.

How do we settle this debate? And, does being productive during Ramadan negate enjoying the spirituality of the month?

The Ramadan spirit and challenge

When we think about Ramadan, most of us – as Muslim Professionals – look forward to the spiritual and cultural elements of the month: the soul-moving prayers, the beautiful recitations of the Qur’an that move us to tears, the delicious iftar meals with our family, and the happy and hearty “Ramadan Kareem!” greetings you hear from family, friends and even strangers. This is what makes Ramadan special for us and a month that nearly 1.7 billion Muslims around the world look forward to every year.

However, we cannot deny that Ramadan comes with its own set of challenges – especially with regards to our productivity. This includes the long fasting hours, the feeling of thirst and hunger that challenges our concentration at work, sleeping late because of the late night spiritual/cultural aspects of the month, having to wake up early to eat a meal at a time you normally do not feel like having breakfast, and people who, because they cannot have their nicotine/caffeine fix during fasting hours, are not in the mood to discuss your new project.

Applying this on a macro level, and you would probably come to the same conclusion as two researchers from Harvard Kennedy School of Government did in their paper “Does Religion Affect Economic Growth and Happiness? Evidence from Ramadan” (Campante & Yanagizawa-Drott, 2013):

“Ramadan affects Muslims’ relative preferences regarding work and religiosity… and has negative implications for economic performance, but that nevertheless increases subjective well-being among followers.”

Read the NPR Interview excerpt which explains the above research in more detail.

Understanding the debate

I was not aware of the intensity of this debate until 2011 when I partnered with DinarStandard, a growth strategy research and advisory firm based in New York, to produce the first survey on productivity during Ramadan. One of the unintended consequences was that some news media picked up the research and plastered headlines on how productivity drops in Ramadan and how much it is costing Muslim majority countries billions of dollars in GDP loss. Soon after, we started receiving both criticism and applause from both debate camps: The spiritual camp was furious as it seemed that we negated the importance of spirituality of the month and that no billions of dollars of lost productivity could ever be measured to the spirituality and the blessings of the month (this is not what we meant by the study, please read the research recommendations here). And the pragmatic camp was cheering saying how much this research was needed in the Muslim world.

What surprised me in the debate is that there was an “EITHER/OR” mentality amongst the debaters: EITHER you are spiritual during Ramadan OR you are productive. Some of those in the spiritual camp, have a very strong belief that nothing “productive” gets done in Ramadan and that Ramadan is the month of fasting, prayers and recitation of the Qur’an, and people should not try to reduce the value of its spirituality by emphasizing the need to improve work performance and productivity. Those who are in the pragmatic camp simply said a no that people can be productive in Ramadan and if that means reducing the spiritual commitments so that people can work as efficiently and productively as their non-fasting peers, then that is part of the struggle.

Another nuance of this debate is that it is clearly divided between Muslims who live in majority Muslim countries where working hours are reduced and there is a cultural ‘acceptance’ of reduced productivity in the month (as well as ramp up of spiritual advice received before/during the month) versus Muslims living in non-Muslim majority countries who basically have to keep up with everybody else who are not fasting otherwise it will affect their performance at work (and perhaps do not receive as much spiritual dosage from media and the surrounding environment).

Settling the debate: Understanding taqwa

What I realized from this debate is that it is a debate about the purpose of Ramadan. Specifically, how we understand the concept of taqwa (God-consciousness or righteousness) during Ramadan, which is what the Qur’an emphasizes as the purpose of Ramadan. Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) says in the Qur’an:

“O you who have believed, decreed upon you is fasting as it was decreed upon those before you that you may become righteous.” [Qur’an: Chapter 2, Verse 183]

For those in the spiritual camp, taqwa is about performing acts of worship and hence during Ramadan, they only want to increase their acts of worship. For those in the pragmatic camp, taqwa is not clearly defined.

Taqwa comes from the root Arabic word “to protect” or “be protected” and the idea is for one to be protected from the hell-fire and make choices in their life that lead them to the Paradise.

If we think about it, taqwa is essentially about being disciplined. Being disciplined with not only our spirituality (by doing acts of worship and avoiding sin) but also with our soul, body and mind. Put in other words, having taqwa is about being conscious of making ‘righteous’ choices in the full meaning of the word – not just for our spirituality but everything that makes us human.

My contention in this debate is that we narrowed down the purpose of Ramadan to a specific understanding of taqwa that we only fulfill the purpose of Ramadan by performing acts of worship and nothing more, and being productive in our workplaces is not part of taqwa. This, to me, is a very limited understanding of the purpose of Ramadan and of taqwa in general.

What if we expanded the meaning of taqwa and made it about making those disciplined choices – not only for our spiritual well-being but for our physical and social well-being also? What if taqwa is not only about avoiding sin or performing the acts of worship, but also in applying the same consciousness to what we eat, how we sleep, what to focus on, and how to manage our time optimally – with the intention of achieving success in this life and the next?

What if God-consciousness (taqwa) becomes a driver for your productivity and not a deterrent to being productive? What if the purpose of Ramadan is to explore your full human capacity and not just your spiritual capacity?

How to expand your human capacity during Ramadan?

Throughout my years of productivity training – working with thousands of Muslim professionals, students, and working mothers, I found that Ramadan is the best time to test our true capacity as a productive human being. Let me put this in context: outside of Ramadan, it is easy for you if you had a bad night’s sleep, to get a quick coffee fix in the morning and you will be relatively functioning throughout the day. But during Ramadan, if you do not sleep properly, and you do not wake up to have your predawn breakfast, it is going to be tough and you will struggle to stay productive during the day (or be spiritual at night). So these smart choices do not become optional during Ramadan, rather, they become essential! And not just essential to performing well as an employee or family member, but essential for your spirituality.

If we start seeing Ramadan as a challenge – a challenge that asks those who are in the spiritual camp to be productive and serve others to the best of their ability and asks those who are in the pragmatic camp to increase and improve their spirituality in the month, then we will understand that Ramadan is truly about boosting our human capacity – spiritually, physically, and socially.

The above requires a lot of hard work and making tough choices about how we spend our energy, our focus, and our time to optimize and improve our human capacity. This is the work that we have been doing at over the past 5 years and through our ProductiveRamadan Online Course to help individuals understand what those choices are and stick to them before, during, and after Ramadan.

If you are more serious about making this Ramadan more productive (and spiritual), then I highly recommend that you consider joining the ProductiveRamadan Online Course where a team of instructors will walk you through all the practical lessons you need to make you more productive and prepared for Ramadan.


I started this article by mentioning the two sides of the debate. What I hope you would appreciate by now is that having a productive Ramadan is neither about focusing on the spiritual side of Ramadan only and neglecting (or even ignoring) our productivity and work performance, nor the opposite. A productive Ramadan is about asking oneself the critical question: How can I be the best version of myself – spiritually, physically, and socially during this blessed month? If enough Muslims ask themselves this question and follow through with practical implementation of the latest productivity science that helps them be productive, healthy and balanced human beings, then perhaps in a few years we might get a different result from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government research I referred to above, one that will say Ramadan not only improves subjective well-being among followers, but also improves economic performance and productivity.



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