This week in scorching summer heat of May, Muslims of India began fasting to mark the start of the holy month of Ramadan. This is the most important month in the Islamic calendar where practicing Muslims will wake up before dawn to eat and pray, and will abstain from food and water till sunset. They will repeat this difficult mission for almost thirty days.
Fasting is a means to bring believers close to God through zikr or remembrance, self-reflection and surrender. Fasting for a month combined with five daily prayers and taraweeh or the long evening prayers, tests worshippers to focus on their behaviour, activities and beliefs, rather than material desires and instantaneous pleasures.
Ramazan is not just about self-control and prayers; it is also about remembering the poor and the ignored. When a person goes without food and water, they are reminded of those who are less privileged. This brings a sense of closeness and at night Muslims are encouraged to serve food to the poor and the needy. Mosques spread long dastarkhans, charities provide food packets and individuals serve food to the less fortunate. The shared iftar is nothing short of a gastronomic adventure that varies across countries, cities, and cultures. The favourite drink could be the laban for Turks, qamar al-din for the Arabs or the Rooh Afza for the Indians and Pakistanis and yet the staple remains water and dates.
Like most religious customs and festivals, Ramazan has also come under the social media and public ire. Ameena, a college student from Lucknow says, “Every Ramazan I am told that fasting for such long hours is bad for a woman’s health because during periods you need nutrition” and she is not alone, Abrar, who works as a teacher says that he received a whatsapp from his colleague asking whether he will be asking his seven year old son to fast and will he be allowed to attend school during Ramadan.
Religious texts and scholars agree that children, the elderly and those who are unwell are excused from fasting. Women, who are menstruating, pregnant or nursing, are free from fasting. People on long journeys, sportspersons who are away from home and taking part in highly strenuous activities are excused from fasting. Muslims living in countries like Iceland where there the sun shines only for two hours are advised to follow the fasting times of the nearest Muslim majority country or that of Mecca.
We began fasting a day ago, and already the social media is divided over some of the Ramazan traditions. To those who are spending their energy in debating whether it is Ramadan Kareem or Ramazan Mubarak or Happy Ramadhan, it would be much more appropriate if they diverted their energies in helping in the preparation and distribution of food and relief. Islam was carried under the banner of protecting the poor, the destitute, the orphans, and the wayfarers, has significantly asked for the believers to share and distribute iftar with one another, to visit each other, and to invite others to break their fasts with them.
“Guard yourself from the Hellfire, even with half of a date in charity. If he cannot find it, then with a kind word.”
The holy month also brings in challenges for the refugees including the Rohingyas who are fleeing persecution, and those Ugyhurs who are living under China’s draconian laws and have been asked not to pray or fast. The international community and the OIC needs to step in to save them. Palestinians in Gaza and West Strip will be without electricity and safe drinking water. The United Nations is highlighting their plight but it is also our duty to help them in any way we can.
In the recent years there has been a criticism over the commercialization of the holy month. There is an increasing amount of money being spent on month long evening shows and celebrity iftars being held in five star hotels. It is a sacred time to celebrate, but with simplicity and humility.
Towards the end of this holy month is Laylatal Qadr or the Night of Destiny where Muslims raise their hands to god to ask for their prayers to be answered. It is a special coincidence that it was on the 27th of Ramadan when God sent the Angel Gabriel to Prophet Muhammad and revealed the first verses of the Quran.
For Indian Muslim the day assumes increased significance because it was on 27th Ramadan in 1366 of the Hijri calendar when freedom came to India. For us, the citizens of India, the day marks the dawn of freedom from the shackles of colonialism. This was indeed, a night of power. Jawaharlal Nehru’s “tryst of destiny” speech is a reminder against narrow communal divides and of upholding of justice, truth and above all human value.
“We are citizens of a great country, on the verge of bold advance, and we have to live up to that high standard. All of us, to whatever religion we may belong, are equally the children of India with equal rights, privileges and obligations. We cannot encourage communalism or narrow-mindedness, for no nation can be great whose people are narrow in thought or in action.”
In the Quran, it is said, “You are the best people raised to guide mankind towards the promotion of the Right and eradication of the Evil.” The verse is a reminder that we are one humankind, we are a family, and it is therefore our responsibility to stand together against hate and those who try to divide us. For us, the Muslims of India, it is obligatory to both follow the principles set down by the Quran and endorse the spirit of the Constitution of India.
Within days of layatul qadr the month of passionate faith and spirituality comes to an end. It is marked by Eid al-Fitr where children and the old alike say special prayers and dress up in new clothes and receive gifts. It is a day of spreading joy, of sharing, of smiles and happiness that fills the heart.
Here’s wishing a beautiful month ahead that lights up our hearts and souls with faithfulness, peace, and cheerfulness.
“Remember that the happiest people are not those getting more, but those giving more
H. Jackson Brown, Jr.