By Fatima Najm
As the lunar calendar followed by about a billion Muslims worldwide makes its way around the seasons, it brings the Islamic holy month of Ramadan at a time when restraint in reaction to violence, slander and separatist violence, is needed most. And restraint is thee essence of the holy season of sawm (fasting).
I am no Islamic scholar, but I know one thing: Ramadan and fasting are not the same thing. Ramadan is a month where piety can bring you particularly closer to God and fasting is one of the forms of worship performed during those 30 days. The difference is that while some of the additional prayers and suggested ways of conducting oneself through the month of Ramadan are optional, fasting is not.
To fast is to abstain from the consumption of food, and from the enjoyment of worldly pleasure. To fast is to connect more closely with Allah because the soul is deprieved of the things the material self thrives on. One is meant to aspire to a better level of understanding his or her purpose. The point is to attain some semblance of ‘Taqwa,’ a word that translates as piety.
It never occurred to me that Ramadan was about depriving yourself of food. I always thought of it as a welcome opportunity to redeem myself in the eyes of God. Of course, that would be right either, because our behaviour during this month should be followed by a year of good deeds.
It isn’t always like that. People turn to prayer during the blessed month and then allow the wholesome feelings to fade. Even during these 30 designated days it is difficult for some to come to terms with setting aside the mundane luxuries that modernity has made a non-issue for us. Why is that? Is our faith eroded by the need to blend in with the society we are surrounded by? Did we not understand the significance of this month that it was so easy to shed our duties once it was no longer a cultural occurrence, unaccompanied by glittering, aromatic Iftar (the meal at sunset) parties? Or do we continue to explore the avenues that will lead us to the transcendence of this material life, to a higher plane of understanding?
There appears to be a longing for the ambience of Ramadan amongst immigrants in the Western world, who miss the smell of deep frying dough, the sound of the call to prayer, and the rush to the tailors for a whole new wardrobe to welcome the new season.
It is not unnatural to be homesick, but one is left wondering whether the ritual of fasting has been disguised by all the social engagements and paraphernalia back home, and that here, in Canada and the United States, where Muslims must strive to reconcile their beliefs with their lifestyle, lies the true essence of Islam. The system here is unsupported by cultural standards. Your neighbour will not look askance at you if you walk out of your home chewing on a sandwich.
In the Arab world, most countries have outlawed eating in public places during daylight hours for even the non-Muslims. Here, no such rules protect us from temptation. Our faith must shield us and we must want to abstain from indulgence. There are no postings for prayer times in the daily paper. Nothing to announce the advent of Ramadan. An effort must be made to follow timings for Sehri (the breakfast that must end before the first light of day) and Iftar.
But people flock to community centres during Ramadan. Suddenly Indians and Pakistanis need not worry about the conflict over their joint border. Citizens from warring factions of Arab countries greet each other amicably. Everyone is concerned with being who they are here —immigrant Muslims, struggling to define themselves in a land where a secular system of government means that faith is no longer enforced. It must be found. A collective identify must be forged.
It is a long way from the magnificent minarets of Middle Eastern mosques, the sublime serenity in places of worship, or the vast rations of food and cloth being bought in the streets of Karachi in preparation for the month of fasting. But the stark Isamic community centres I have visited here represent a solidarity amongst Muslims that is absent elsewhere.
I remember feeling an imperceptible shiver of the awe inspiring realization of being at complete harmony with humanity at Umrah (a religious pilgrimage performed at Mecca, Saudi Arabia) two years ago. And I feel it again here, at the simple square-walled mosques — really just prayer spaces — that house hordes of Muslims at any given time. There is no intricate woodwork, nor tiling, nor marble, to add to the magnificence of the moment.
The smiles, however, are sincere, and so are the efforts the centres are making to consolidate enough information to help Muslims understand why it is that they are required to perform the duties that they do. It would be wonderful to hear the azaan (the call to prayer) echo from mosque to mosque as dawn breaks over a new day. I do not know what I would give to hear everyone I meet congratulate me on the arrival of the month of Ramadan, to hear them say ramzaan mubarak, a Ramadan greeting, to me. Having said that, would I give up the opportunity to acquire a Canadian passport?
No. I think of it this way. Adopting this country as my own and performing my religious duties is not inherently a mutually exclusive exercise; why should I make it so?
However, sawm, one of the five pillars of the Islamic faith, is viewed with a scepticism born of popular misconceptions in the Western Hemisphere. I remember writing my first article on Ramadan while I was in the U.S. I needed to get a cross section of opinions from different members of the student population, so I hung out at the student union and stopped nine people a day for one week. A non-Muslim student told me that fasting seemed more like starving oneself to him. I wondered about his ignorance. A non-practicing Muslim student wondered if it was relevant ‘here in Western society’ to bother about Ramadan. I marvelled at his arrogance. A recent convert to Islam said it was the most wonderful of months and though her family objected to fasting, she was convinced it was the way to cleanse one’s soul. I admired her faith, and wondered about my own.
Living here means sorting out a new equation that provides the same answer I have been used to all of my life. It just means shifting a few variable from left to right, or adjusting the order of priorities. Inshallah, it will come with time.
The Five Pillars of Islam
- Shahada (affirmation)
The duty to recite: “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God”
- Salat (prayer)
The duty to worship the Allah in prayer five times each day.
- Zakat (almsgiving)
The duty to distribute alms and to help the needy
- Sawm (fasting)
The duty to keep the Fast of Ramadan
- Hajj (pilgrimage)
The duty to make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime, if one can afford it.