Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Ramadan: a reminder of our frailty

TODAY over a billion Muslims around the globe, having sighted the first crescent of the moon, will begin to fast in the Holy Month of Ramadan.

From just before the first thread of dawn to just after sunset, they will be compelled to abstain from food, drink, sex, vainglorious talk and gossip. At the same time, they will be obliged to remember those less fortunate than themselves.

The Ramadan charity – or fitrah – is an essential component of the lunar month, and those who’ve fasted will have to ensure that a poor person will be given enough alms to eat for a day.

Those unable to fast – such as diabetics, heart patients, the elderly and the ill – will have to pay a fidya, or compensation.

For those who cannot pay fitrah or fidya, a payment of what they can afford suffices. This is based on an Islamic maxim says that faith is judged according to intention, and also that believers should not be taxed beyond their endurance.

Apart from the known physical benefits of fasting, Ramadan is regarded as the most spiritual month of the Muslim calendar. Fasting was practised by all the Biblical prophets, and it was institutionalised as a pillar of Islamic belief by Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century.

Ramadan is derived from the ancient Arabic word “Ramada”, which refers to the scorching heat of the Arabian Desert. According to classical scholars, the hunger and the thirst of Ramadan burns away ego, pride and arrogance.

But what Ramadan commemorates more than anything else is the arrival of the Qur’an, the divine constitution of Islam. This was when a young Muhammad, enjoying a solitary retreat in a mountain cave above the city of Mecca, was visited by the Archangel Gabriel in the form of a man.

It was the 27th night of the month of Ramadan, and already spooked by mysterious voices addressing him in the name of peace, Muhammad was embraced by Gabriel. The Prophet was to later relate that he felt as if the air was being crushed out of his body.

“Read! Read in the name of Your Lord,” said Gabriel to an astounded Muhammad, an unlettered man. This would be Islam’s first Revelation. Later on, as the Qur’an’s 114 chapters began to flow from his tongue, it would become his unique prophetic miracle.

But for the Prophet Muhammad, an already overpowering moment would become even more emotionally overwhelming when Gabriel would transform into his heavenly shape after the Revelation.

Traditions relate that Gabriel’s luminescent, jewel-studded wings covered the skies, stretching from one horizon to the other. Terrified out of his wits, a quaking Muhammad ran down the mountain into the arms of his wife, Khadijah, and asked her to cover him with a blanket.

Khadijah – who was Muhammad’s single partner for over 20 years – was destined to become not only his first convert, but the Prophet’s greatest comforter and Islam’s most celebrated matriarch.

Further significance is added to Ramadan because in its last ten nights, on odd dates, there is the hidden secret of the “Night of Power”, a night that promises spiritual insight and munificence for those who can discover it.

“The Night of Power is better than a thousand months,” says the Qur’an.

As Ramadan is the month of the Qur’an, mosques from east to west, and from north to south, will be reciting it during special evening – or tarawih – prayers.

The recital of the Qur’an from cover to cover in Ramadan, its text unchanged since its words fell on the Prophet’s tongue, is probably one of the greatest acts of collective remembrance on the face of the earth.

The Holy Month, as we’ve already said, imposes social responsibility upon the Muslim. During Ramadan a Muslim’s conduct towards others has to be beyond reproach; fasting is regarded as an act of devotion for which the Creator has reserved his own special rewards.

It is said that one of the Creator’s greatest joys is watching his subjects break their daily fast; and it is also said that those will gain spiritual benefit who offer food to guests, travellers, orphans and the underprivileged.

Imam Ghazali, a great 12th century scholar, once proclaimed that if a fasting man did not modify his behaviour, his soul would be as good as unconscious. His abstention from food and drink would be mere hunger – in other words, his fasting would be worthless.

Fasting in Ramadan, which is ordained to move a Muslim towards compassion, is a collective activity based on family, community and an optimism that one’s fast will be accepted by the Creator.

It is precisely this communal activity, this mass introspection as it were, that gives Ramadan its devotional impetus. And in Africa, a continent which is over 60% Muslim, there are many things for South African Muslims to consider.

In sub-Saharan Africa we are undeniably the basement people of the world; poverty, exploitation, famine, climate change and conflict are our daily realities. And very frequently – not even a stone’s throw from our groaning tables – there are hungry, cold people shivering in unheated shacks.

And as the first pangs of hunger and thirst gnaw at our stomachs this month, it will be the moral duty of us all to empathise – even if for 12 hours – the lot of those millions in Africa who have to survive on less than a dollar a day.

Ramadan is indeed a fleeting, but frightening, reminder of our human frailty on the face of this earth.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Reaching Discontent

Reaching Discontent: Author Hagler. Publisher Mirador Publishing, London, 2010.
REACHING Discontent is a rip-roaring, blood-soaked adventure story featuring Iron, a Cape Flats English teacher and former professional boxer, who is forced to use his skills to defend his honour, and to face some apartheid government ghosts.

One is called the Minister, an unpleasant piece of work from his past, and chillingly reminiscent of real-life South African security police torturers. The Minister has survived the struggle politically, and is now a player in the drug trade.

Iron falls foul of a dissembling principal and a corrupt school committee member when they try to exonerate a bully called Chohan, who has been selling drugs. Iron sticks to his guns, but when Chohan is killed in the streets of Athlone, Iron’s life changes.

Suspended from his job, under threat from psychotic forces in the drug trade, gang leaders and corrupt politicians, he calls on his best friend Heed, a martial-arts expert, to help him.

The narrative doesn’t let up for a second, and we face a series of well-choreographed fights, rollicking adventure and gripping suspense set in the heart of Cape Town’s Muslim community.

However, if you’re squeamish, some of the fight scenes might make you recoil – it’s not Jackie Chan with a giggle, and if you read Reaching Discontent, you will feel fists and feet thudding into flesh.

But that is to be unfair to the book, for Reaching Discontent is a much more than its street fighting. It’s a well-crafted, lavishly descriptive novel. The author’s depictions of working-class Cape Town from the Bo-Kaap to Belhar provide an evocative backdrop.

Reaching Discontent is unapologetically reflective of its Muslim ethos. For behind all the intrigue, Iron is a believing Muslim. But there’s no ingratiating self-justification. For like Rayda Jacob’s characters in Confessions of a Gambler, Iron is a believable person who has to face his faults and foibles.

His love-interest, Mazida, is a true love-interest, and is not just a one-dimensional bimbo with a doekie. Iron remains celibate in the narrative, and Mazida’s self-assured femininity is a foil to his troubled soul.

If I were to criticise Reaching Discontent, it would be on a technical level. I feel, for example, that the typesetting of the chapter intros is too bland. I was initially confused by some of the transliteration of our Cape Town vernacular, but soon realised that a New Zealand audience (the author now lives there) had to be catered for.

Reaching Discontent is a significant contribution to a growing genre of community based South African literature. It’s a riveting fireside read and young and old should enjoy this promising local work.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Muslim community media: my final crossroads?

AS you read your copy of Muslim Views during Ramadan, and as you listen to your favourite Muslim radio station, I want you to sit back and reflect as to how the newspaper arrived in your hands, and as to how the radio got to your ears.

If you weren’t an advertiser or sponsor, you probably paid for nothing. SABC licence fees are for the SABC only, and Muslim Views is distributed free of charge.

In other words, you are the recipient of a freebie. Without contributing one cent, you have a dedicated community monthly newspaper and a radio station at your beck-and-call 24-7.

Admittedly, our media outlets have been social institutions more than corporations with corporate interests. But – and this is the question right now – can they run on fresh air forever?

With shrinking ad-spend and steeply rising running costs, the hard truth is that Muslim community media in South Africa – the most vibrant in the sub-continent – is under huge threat.

Given burgeoning price rises for things such as transport, electricity and food – it’s my harsh prediction that Muslim Views, Voice of the Cape (and Radio 786) will struggle to survive the next five years, let alone the next decade, without serious losses in revenue.

Recent political trends have not been kind either: this is because our community media will be the most vulnerable to the sinister Protection of Information Bill.

Then there is the issue that community media is also forced to pay commercial rates for broadcast signals and other basic services – in fact, everything that it does.

The market-place makes no distinctions, and our media opposition are the mainstream outlets. Our radio stations and newspapers are fruits of democracy, yes, but its bosses have to fight to water the orchard.

Proudly independent, but solely reliant on the open-handedness of generous advertisers, Islamic media survival is testimony to behind-the-scenes tenacity, gritty management and the dedication of its workers.

It’s been a service that has energised, informed and educated the community. It has exposed injustice, reported on history and been part of history – and in the case of Muslim Views, is one of the longest surviving “alternative” media outlets in the country.

Our radio stations – their shared frequencies a broadcasting anomaly – have made massive strides, but without the tools – human resources, technical and training – it will be difficult to progress further.

The biggest problem, by far, is seeing to human resources, the most costly part of any enterprise.

And therein lies the rub: if one can’t afford competitive salaries, or at least – decent wages – it’s difficult to maintain a core of professionals to keep the wheels turning. Staff turnover rockets and productivity suffers, as each time people have to be trained.

These are the stark realities that a community media manager has to face.

And in the post 9/11 era I’m sure nobody needs a reminder of what a critical role dedicated Muslim media has to play. We’re in a position to report on a world view that doesn’t always get good press.

But the situation becomes a lot more serious when one begins to realise that, as budgets shrink, our community media will not be able to offer people the prospect of careers any more. Unable to support themselves, or their families, the professionals will be forced to move on.

This means that standards will drop, and with no experienced people to deal with sensitive issues – potential PR disasters loom for the local Muslim ummah.

I’ve been a “professional” in this milieu for more than 20 years (40 years experience in media and education) and have, unfortunately, reached a dead-end. And when I say this, I say it with all respect: I’m not pointing at anybody’s manager or trustee, but a situation.

Working proudly as a Muslim journalist I’ve won national and international awards, most of them in the name of Muslim Views, or Voice of the Cape. But today, it deeply distresses me that I have to admit defeat.

I’ve enjoyed it, loved every minute of the job, and given it my all – but the thought of the very real burdens that my family has had to carry with me, haunts my conscience. For how much longer can I subject them to it?

I know that I’m not alone in my sentiments, and I hope that as you listen to the radio, or page through Muslim Views, that you appreciate all those who’ve made the sacrifices.