By Sudheendra Kulkarni
Sun Sep 05 2010
These days I am usually up by four in the morning. No other time of day or night is more blessed for meditation and work, and also for watching the magical transition from darkness to light, especially in Mumbai’s monsoon season. And this being the holy month of Ramzaan, I am also well in time to be a distant witness to the unbelievable way the Muslim community in the neighbourhood prepares for roza, the daylong fasting ritual. As loudspeakers fitted on mosques keep reminding the faithful about sehri ka waqt (the precise time to start fasting), I can visualise how Muslim families hurriedly conclude their pre-sehri eating to start yet another new day of self-denial in a month that epitomises Islamic piety at its best. Indeed, nothing else broadcasts the philosophy and practice of spiritual Islam better than Ramzaan, about which Rumi writes:
The month of fasting has come,The emperor’s banner has arrived, Withhold your hand from food,The spirit’s table has arrived.
The sound of azaan (call to prayer) from the mosques makes me reflect on the message of Ramzaan not only for Muslims but also for non-Muslims. Fasting and prayer, as methods of inculcating values of self-control and self-purification, surrender and sacrifice, are common to all faiths. Besides detoxifying the body, they temper the baser instincts of man. Mahatma Gandhi, who fasted regularly, believed that “a genuine fast crucifies the flesh and to that extent sets the soul free”. He also used penance as a way of satyagraha, saying, “My religion teaches me that whenever there is distress which one cannot remove, one must fast and pray.” (He fasted 17 times for India’s freedom, for 21 days on two occasions, once even in his seventies.) However, in no other faith do fasting and prayer act as an organising principle of life for the entire community so effectively, and that too on a global scale, as they do so in Islam. Clearly, non-Muslims have a lot to learn from Muslims on how to preserve the best of their own traditions.
If we forget feasting that follows fasting at politically inspired iftaar parties, it is possible to see that the quintessential call of Ramzaan is to adapt to a life of simplicity, frugality, fortitude and attention towards needs of the soul rather than towards those of the body. “Let us sacrifice all our body, since the soul has arrived as guest,” sings Rumi. “There is an unseen sweetness in the stomach’s emptiness. When the brain and the belly burn from fasting, every moment a new song rises out of the fire.”
In many ways, the message of Ramzaan is a manifesto against western materialism, which has spread to many parts of the world, including Muslim countries. This is a system that thrives on excess for some and deprivation for many. It survives by encouraging people, through the seductive art of advertising, to consume more than they need. It ensures that the greed of a minority prevails over the needs of the majority. This does not mean that inequality, exploitation, hedonism, hypocrisy and moral decay are the monopoly of the non-Muslim world. The true spirit of Ramzaan is also conspicuous by its absence among the ruling elites of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Gulf sheikhdoms and other Muslim countries.
Two more reflections—one happy and the other not so!
Four years ago, celestial movements conspired to bring Eid-ul-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramzaan, and Diwali almost on the same day. Pakistaniat.com, my favourite website on Pakistan founded by Adil Najam, carried a rare photograph of a Diwali lamp being lit in Krishna Mandir in Rawalpindi and Juma-tul-Vida (the last Friday in Ramzaan) prayers at the historic Wazir Khan mosque in Lahore. The website also carried this couplet, which has since become a popular communal harmony greeting in the SMS circuit in India: Agar Diwali mein hai Ali/ Aur Ramzaan mein Ram ka naam/ To Hindu aur Musalman ke beech/ Nafrat ka kya hai kaam? (If Diwali contains Ali, and Ramzaan the name of Ram, then what place has hatred between Hindus and Muslims?) How true! Our festivals are bearers of the message of universal love and brotherhood. In multi-religious India (sadly, Pakistan has long ceased to be multi-religious, Hindus there having been reduced to a microscopic minority, Najam’s Rawalpindi picture notwithstanding), we must rejoice in all our festivals and build strong bonds of goodwill and mutual understanding.
Two days ago, Adil Najam’s website carried a photographic report of a different kind—of religious extremists attacking Shia processions in Lahore and Karachi, and killing dozens of people. “Pakistan is at war,” Najam wrote in anguish and despair. In recent years, Pakistan has witnessed a series of terrorist strikes targeting Shias, Ahmediyas and Sufis. This made me ponder over a troubling paradox. Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance. Islam’s insistence on righteousness and God-consciousness is loud and clear, more emphatically so in the practice of fasting and prayers during Ramzaan. Why, then, do a minority of Muslims exhibit that streak of extreme intolerance which rejects other faiths as false or aberrant, seeks to violently suppress diversity within Islam, and never hides its ultimate goal of establishing a uniform and dogmatic interpretation of Islam as the reigning faith all over the world?
Source: Indian Express