By Atle Hetland
July 19, 2012
Today is the eve of the holy month of Ramazan. Muslims in Pakistan and all over the world are ready for daily fasting and prayer, seeking to come closer to God and fellow human beings. It is a serious and joyful time. It is a time for reflection and also for good deeds. It is a time for sacrifice and for feast. And above all, it is a time to feel compassion with people who suffer, and perhaps make their burden a bit lighter by trying to understand their difficulties.
As in other fields of Islam, the Holy Book gives advice and recommendations, but rarely absolute commandments for how the faithful should live and what they should do. To fast during Ramazan is recommended, if we can do it! But then, there are also many reasons for not doing it, such as when a woman is pregnant; when a person has ill health or is travelling. If fasting cannot be observed everyday and the whole day, which may be difficult in a modern, working society, it can be compensated at another time. Besides, fasting is between each individual and God. It is not something that other human beings should control and judge.
Fasting can be seen as a way of worship and gratitude, showing religious strength and discipline, and feel compassion with the less fortunate. Well, the poorest of the poor, the victims of natural disasters such as floods and earthquake, which we have had in Pakistan in recent years, sometime show more determination and will in their religious actions. They might need to rest and eat well, rather than fast. But they do fast, and they become an example to all other people around them.
And then, every evening at sunset, there is a feast when the fast is broken. Family and friends gather in prayer and in sharing meals together. As the month passes, preparations for Ramazan’s conclusion, Eid-ul-Fitr, takes more and more time. Gifts have to be bought and food prepared; arrangements must be made for travelling home, or receiving relatives where one lives in city, town or village. The same way as Christians must be home for Christmas, Muslims must be home for Eid, and everything must be as perfect as possible and nobody forgotten - with a gift or an invitation, a kind thought or a prayer - so that we all can gain strength and grow in religious and secular life from the Ramazan experience.
For more than half of my life, I have lived in countries where Islam is a large religion or, as in Pakistan, the dominant religion. But I grew up in a predominantly Christian country, notably Norway, where, at that time, there were very few Muslim communities. Today, mainly through immigration, there are over 120 mosques and about 150,000 Muslims in a country of about five million people. In the capital city Oslo, 15 to 20 percent are Muslims, with Pakistani-Norwegians constituting the largest community. Many observe fasting during Ramazan. But in a secular country like Norway, well, a country where religion is more subtle than visible in daily life, also Muslims begin to pay less attention to some traditions, such as fasting. Yet, that does not mean that people are less religious; it means that the forms of religious expressions change and are influenced by the traditions of the land. No wonder, too, when Ramazan falls in mid-summer when sunset in Norway is after 10:00 at night and sunrise about 04:00 in the morning! Better then in 15 years from now, when it will be in mid-winter when the sun is out only for six or seven hours. Well, there must be special rules for countries near the poles; they can follow the Saudi Arabian time, or perhaps Pakistan’s, the immigrants’ country of origin.
Ramazan is universal, including the Muslim Ummah in all countries of the globe. But does it also include other believers and, perhaps, even non-believers? On the latter note, we should acknowledge that in any society, there would always be some people who do not believe, either because they have always questioned their religion, or because they have lost their faith, perhaps for some time. Others may be searching and eventually finding faith. Nobody has the right to judge; only God is judge!
Earlier this week, I attended a seminar in Islamabad where we discussed religion in today’s Norway and the rest of Scandinavia. Many foreigners, who visit those countries, conclude that religion is not very important to the Scandinavians, or so it seems. I have made some studies of religion in Scandinavia and I believe that religion is, indeed, present in people’s lives, not only judged by the fact that over three-quarters are members of the people’s state churches, but also based on surveys and interviews with people. But religion is seen as a deeply private matter, and in our modern time, people want to consider the dogma and doctrines themselves, and draw their own conclusions. People may accept some teachings, but not all, and they may also not think that the miracles should be understood literally. For example, when both the Bible and the Quran say that Jesus (Issa) was physically taken up to heaven on Ascension Day, many laymen, even modern theologians, will say that we should understand that as a way of saying that ‘Jesus’ teachings will live forever’. It should be understood symbolically. In addition, we could argue that if we only believe the miracles as they are told in the scriptures but do not consider their lessons and wider meaning, we also fail to understand the real message.
At our seminar, we also learnt that many of the debates in the several renewal and revival groups that saw the day of the light in Scandinavia, and elsewhere in Europe, from the end of the 1700s, have played important roles in those countries’ religious life until this day. They were movements where the leaders went back to the core teachings of the scriptures, often claiming simplicity and sincerity in faith and daily life. Those were times when the Scandinavian countries were very poor and many immigrated to America due to financial difficulties, and some were also seeking greater religious freedom and human rights. The religious movements demanded religious freedom in the Scandinavian countries, such as the right to hold religious meetings without a government priest present (in Norway only allowed after 1842). The religious movements also emphasised better living and working conditions for the poor people. Thus, these activities were essential for the development of the labour movement and political parties in Europe in the 1800s. After the revolution in Russia in 1917 and the creation of USSR, the Scandinavian labour parties were established. Unlike in USSR, they adopted democratic principles and the Scandinavian welfare states came into being, mostly from the 1950s, emphasising fairness in industry and trade, high taxation and redistribution of wealth to those who need support, notably children and youth (education), the elderly (homes and medical services), benefits to the unemployed, and many other services provided by the government. “Nobody should have to beg for help with cap in hand”, the legendary Norwegian post-WWII Prime Minister Einar Gerhardsen said.
The principles of equality, which the Scandinavians are so obsessed with, and the way the welfare state works, are in many ways simply based on the Bible, which can be summarised in the golden rule: “Do unto others what you want others to do unto you.” I have above drawn a direct line in recent history from the laymen’s movement 150-200 years ago till the current time. These principles are not only Christian; they are as much Islamic.
I wish that we during this year’s Ramazan, considering the increased difficulties many people have due to the world economic recessions, could talk more about equality, fairness and care for each other - and indeed, pray for ways of improving the worldly lives for the needy.
I believe that although Ramazan is a Muslim tradition, we should all, irrespective of faith, take part in the spirit of the holy month, especially of feeling compassion for others - in Pakistan and all over the world. Ramazan gives a unique opportunity to dialogue.
I wish all my readers, the Muslims in particular, a Happy Ramazan!
Atle Hetland is a senior Norwegian social scientist based in Islamabad. He has served as United Nations specialist in the United States, as well as various countries in Africa and Asia. He has also spent a decade dealing with the Afghan refugee crisis and university education in Pakistan.