Monday, June 6, 2016

Ramadan, a time of contemplation and giving

Ramadan should be the time when every South African Muslim thinks not only about his fellow Muslim, but his less fortunate fellow compatriot as well.
Ramadan is heralded by the sighting of the crescent.
Photo Shafiq Morton
RAMADAN, as most of us know, is the holiest month on the Muslim calendar. Heralded by the sighting of the crescent – and concluded by the sighting of a crescent – Ramadan (the ninth month of the lunar year) is meant to be a month of fasting and contemplation.
Ramadan is derived from the Arabic word “ramada” which means to “scorch” or to “burn away”. It commemorates the first revelation of the Qur’an on a Meccan mountaintop to a 40-year old Muhammad by the Angel Gabriel.
The idea of the month-long fast is that the undesirable elements of the human character are burnt away by the act of fasting. The fast occurs daily from just before dawn to just after sunset. In this time, the person fasting may not eat, drink or indulge in sex.
The fast in Ramadan, called “siyam” or “saum” in Arabic, is one of the five pillars of Islam and an obligatory act for adults, but not for children – or those suffering from diabetes or chronic health complaints. In this case, where a person’s health may be compromised in any way, the scholars deem fasting is forbidden.
On the spiritual level, the person is encouraged to fast with the senses as well – reading Qur’an, refraining from backbiting, avoiding bad things and withdrawing from unnecessary conflict. Indeed, it is a time of purification and personal rejuvenation.
On the physical level, doctors have discovered that fasting is beneficial for the body; it increases insulin sensitivity, rests the kidneys, cleanses the digestive system and even boosts brain function.
Fasting requires considerable self-discipline. Islamic scholars, such as the 11th century intellectual Imam al-Ghazali, say there are three types of people fasting. The first is angry at being hungry. He is on an involuntary hunger strike. And as Ghazali says: these people should rather eat as they are wasting their time.
The second person may fall prey to weaknesses (like all of us) from time to time, but because of sincerity and good intention will reap the rewards of the fast, which are known only to God. The third person, totally focused in every sense, enjoys the status of being a true believer and secures infinite heavenly recompense.
Ramadan is surrounded by rich metaphor. The Prophet Muhammad once said that in the first part of the month God bestowed mercy; that in the second part God descended with forgiveness and that in the third part, the person fasting was emancipated from the fire.
Another prophetic tradition says that the devils are chained up and the doors of Paradise opened, and that on each night people are released from hell – with the amount of those released throughout Ramadan being emancipated on its last night.
But primarily, Ramadan is seen and experienced as the month of the Qur’an, a book revealed over a twenty-three year period to the Prophet Muhammad. Unchanged in content since its original revelation, it is interesting to note that the first verse revealed to the Prophet doesn’t exhort prayer or ritual, but rather that the human being should “read” in the name of his Lord.
In other words, the first message of the Qur’an is a far, far cry from the insane stridency of Al-Qaeda, ISIS – or other such craven jihadists – who so incorrectly understand rule by the sword and reductionist drivel as a divine injunction.
In fact, the primary communication from Gabriel to Muhammad – remembering that the first Qur’anic word “iqra” has an embracing meaning – was that people should be literate by their senses. It meant that they should be able to read, and that they should use their intellects in understanding the world around them.
An analysis of the language of the Qur’an is fascinating in this aspect, as it shows that one of the three most mentioned words in the Holy Book is “knowledge”, knowledge related to the intellectual process, and knowledge related to the two other most mentioned Qur’anic words, social justice and God.
These are also the values of Ramadan, a time during which the person fasting can briefly feel the hunger pangs of the poor. The compulsory charity that seals the fast, the “fitrah”, embodies this. According to the Cape-based Muslim Judicial Council, every fasting person will have to pay R36, or give another underprivileged person the equivalent of two kilos of rice.
Those unable to fast due to health reasons, pay a “fidya”, a compensation of R 9 a day – or if one is a pensioner or not by the means, one will pay what one can reasonably afford, even if it is a few rand for the whole month.
The idea of the Ramadan charity is a symbolic reminder of our own vulnerability – at the time of breaking the fast, we cannot deny any traveller, visitor or passer by the benefits of our table. In Muslim capitals, great blessing is seen in feeding others. In places such as Cairo there will be pavement feasts spread with dates, rice and water.
Fitrah is only regarded as a bare minimum. Prophetic traditions report that Muhammad was at his most generous during Ramadan, and many Muslims around the world will follow his noble example.
In South Africa, where we face overwhelming poverty – in most instances less than a few blocks from our own homes – an extra responsibility rests on our shoulders. How can we sleep at night when 12 million South Africans, many of them children, go to bed on empty stomachs?
Hidden hunger, which knaws insidiously at the fabric of society, is one of our biggest socio-economic challenges. For that reason Ramadan should be the time when every South African Muslim, thinks not only about his fellow Muslim, but also his less fortunate fellow compatriot.
For if we have read the Holy Book we would see that it declares Muhammad was sent to mankind, not just as mercy to one particular group, but as a mercy to all of creation. This premise is profoundly reflected in the Chapter of the Prophets. Therefore, a Muslim is enjoined to treat every single human being with non-judgemental compassion. There can never be apartheid in giving charity.