June issue 2018

By | The Big Question: | Published 6 years ago


Riffat Hassan is an internationally acclaimed Islamic scholar and activist.

One of the primary purposes of Ramazan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, is to commemorate the beginning of the Qur’anic revelation, which took place during this month in 622 ( C.E.), about 13 years prior to the hijrah of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) from Mecca to Yathrib (Medina).  Muslims generally associate Ramazan, first and foremost, with the institution of Siyam (fasting) which is regarded as one of the Five Pillars of Islam. 

The most detailed Qur’anic text on Siyam in Surah 2: Al-Baqarah: 182-188, is addressed to those “who have attained to faith,” telling them that the purpose of fasting is “that you might remain conscious of Allah.”  It points out that “it was in the month of Ramazan when the Qur’an was (first) sent down, to be a guidance to the people, and well-spelt out indications of that guidance, and (to be) the standard by which to discern the right from the wrong.” (Translation by Muhammad Asad). 

The fundamental reason for the religious importance of Ramazan is that it focuses attention on God, the Creator and Sustainer, who provides guidance to believers regarding what is right and wrong. This guidance pertains to all aspects of life, both here-and-now and in the hereafter. The physical discipline of fasting aims at inculcating self-control and self-restraint, and brings about a sense of empathy for those lives that are mired in poverty and need. It facilitates a shift from fulfilment of our individual material needs and desires to moral awareness, especially of social inequity and injustice around us, and — ultimately — to our own deepest spiritual core. 

Here, it is important to note that in the midst of the narrative about rules of fasting, we find this amazing verse: “And if My servants ask thee about Me — behold, I am near: I respond to the call of him who calls , whenever he calls unto Me: let them, then respond unto Me, and believe in Me, so that they might follow the right way.” Commenting on this verse, eminent Islamic scholar Dr. Fathi Osman says, “God is telling the worshipper that God is close to him/her and responds to whoever calls unto Him. It is logical that a human being who wants God to respond to his/her prayers should himself/herself respond to God’s message and guidance, which ensures sensibility, foresightedness and insight.”

There are many sayings of our Beloved Prophet (peace be upon him) which point out that during Ramazan the gates of heaven are open. This means that during this sacred time we have a unique opportunity to attain the transformation of our inner and outer lives and become instruments of what Allah desires from us. The question that needs to be asked today is: are we responding to the call of Allah and striving to live in accordance with divine guidance which is a special gift of Ramazan or has Ramazan been reduced to a mere ritual?

Pervez Hoodbhoy is a nuclear physicist and intellectual.

Fasting during Ramazan is a ritual mandated by Islam and to call it a “mere” ritual is unfair because rituals are very important. In fact they are essential for the continued survival and propagation of any faith. There are two reasons for this. 

First, fulfilling this holy duty is needed for a comfortable post-life eternity. Else, no one would forgo food and drink for extended periods. Second, at a sociological level, rituals reinforce group solidarity and create bonding among participants. Sehri and Iftar, and the long gap between them, helps cement the feeling that one is part of a wider community. Deviants from the group consensus are generally easily identified and are subjected to social opprobrium. It is not uncommon to punish them physically as well.  

Of course, everything good — whether here or in the hereafter — comes with a price tag. Fasting can bring extreme discomfort to those lacking air-conditioning options. Only exceptional people can continue to function normally; work efficiency plummets for most. This amounts to personal sacrifice in terms of income lost, goals not achieved, and so on. But a bigger sacrifice is made at the national level. 

In Pakistan, the Ramazan work day is shortened by two hours in government offices. However, the amount of work lost is still greater because of general slowness, short tempers, and an earlier-than-announced day end. Everyone wants to beat the mad rush home before maniacal drivers push others off the road, the so-called Ramazan Road Rage. Productivity declines by an estimated 35 per cent to 50 per cent as a result of shorter working hours — decisions and vital meetings are postponed until it is over.

Knowing the importance of fasting during Ramazan helps me cope better with the situation in my university classroom. Averaged over the month, approximately half my students are absent because, I am told, they have to come from far away and it is just too tiring. Knowing that they wake up at 3:30 am, I can understand that they have already had a tough day by 9:00am. Ramazan fasting involves additional sacrifice on the part of a teacher as well; to have students sleeping in your class is not a pleasant feeling. 

While the payoff will surely come in the next world, success in this world — whether in academics, business, or industry — is likely to prove elusive. Muslims have made a conscious choice and should be prepared to accept this outcome without resentment.

Nilofar Ahmed is a scholar of the Quran and a writer.

A ‘ritual’ is a religious ceremony involving a series of acts, performed in a certain order. If the real purpose or intention behind it is forgotten, with time, it can become reduced to a mere formality with no inner meaning or soul. We have to see if the month of  fasting has also been reduced to a ritual.

There are those who have moved away from the pure values of their faith and treat everything as a mere ritual, at times to cover up all the underhand, dishonest dealings they indulge in, in their daily lives. They are thinking merely in material terms, as they always do, and not of becoming aligned with the purpose and values behind an injunction.

But the honest believer abstains from heeding to the most immediate needs of the body, thus detaching temporarily from the physical and material world, striving against the nafs or the ego, experiencing a little of the taste of physical death and moving closer to God. The rigours of this abstention, plus the zikr, taraweeh, and shabeena prayers, help to discipline and control the bodily appetites, get rid of the obstinate addictions and detoxify the body. Since the soul is trapped in the body, this purification of the body helps to purify and elevate the soul to a higher station. 

Spiritually, fasting helps develop, as well as provides a proof of, taqwa, or consciousness of God. No one eats or drinks on the sly, being well aware that all the actions are in the knowledge of God. More charity is given out in this month than in the whole year in the form of food, clothes and cash: the habit of giving takes precedence over taking. 

Even modern technology is playing a positive role in spreading a lot of genuine love and happiness in this blessed month. Beautiful prayers, which we had never thought of articulating, are suddenly placed in our hands and, with a mere click, reach all those whom we care about. 

The one thing gone awry, from what was originally intended, is that many people, instead of moving away from food, focus more on food than on austerity and all the other beautiful values that develop out of fasting. If the love of food, bordering on gluttony, could be reduced, the month of Ramazan would become manifest in all its glory.

Shagufta Alizai is a development professional with over two decades of experience in the Ministry of Women Development.

What is a ritual? Who is responsible for turning Ramazan into a “mere ritual”? 

The dictionary definition of a ritual is, “A religious ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order.” The problem of ritualistic practices comes when these are performed without an understanding of the meaning behind them.   

How many of us can knowledgeably state that this Third Pillar of Islam, the obligatory tenet of fasting during Ramazan, is about reconnecting with the Creator? It is a month that has been earmarked for focusing on spiritual, mental and physical purification, on sharing and on giving, on purity and on peace. This is the month to be on one’s best behaviour and to seek nearness to the Almighty.

Ramazan is not about road rage, price hikes, anger, or pretensions of piety, but this is exactly what it has been reduced to. Any and all excuses for unacceptable behaviour are attributed to the “I am fasting” chant. A general lack of religious knowledge, among the educated as well as the illiterate, has turned a blessed month into what it is not supposed to be — a mere ritual.     

Bringing out the essence of Ramazan is a collective responsibility — be it the government, scholars, imams, maulvis, traders, Ramazan show hosts, or the rest of society. 

It all begins with the sighting of the moon, when scholars decide when fasting will commence. Some start early and others, a day later. 

Ritualistically, each year, from the sighting of the moon for the start and end of Ramazan, this heralds an outbreak of turf wars. Food companies compete with each other for space in the electronic and print media, to promote their Sehri and Iftar products, while traders make food and fruit appear and disappear from many a Ramazan table, and prices of food  items rise with every passing day.

It has become a ritual for the electronic media channels, which air Sehri and Iftar programmes, to cash in on the holy month and promote consumerism in the most blatant manner. This year, however, their enthusiasm may have been dented by a recent remark of an Honourable Judge of the Islamabad High Court, who declared that “No one would be allowed to telecast circus and Neelam Ghar during Ramzan.” 

As for the rest of us, we need reminding that fasting is for the self and not for releasing our frustrations on others, be it in the form of honking and mad driving, or fighting and abusing. It is about the person petitioning the Court of Law to stop the export of fruit and vegetables, so that these are available to the local population. It is about taking the right stand.

Let us educate ourselves on “putting meaning to ritual” (The Koran for Dummies, page 169) and remind ourselves that a great deal of good is apparent around us, such as people sharing their Iftar with strangers, on the roadside, in mosques, outside homes and in war zones. There is much blessing to be had following the Ramazan ritual as ordained in the Quran and in the Sunnah of the Prophet (peace be upon him). 

Talat Rahim has authored four books.

It’s that time of the year again. Ramazan. And all roads lead to Karachi, the city of milk and honey. Beggars from every part of the country descend on Karachi in droves.

They plant themselves in every nook and corner of the main boulevards, roads and streets. They begin by knocking at your vehicle’s windowpane and woe betide you, if you ignore them — be prepared for an angry smack on your window. The eunuchs, not to be left behind, are out in full force as well. You have to humour them, or they clap and they curse.

And then there are the vendors selling knick-knacks, who sound more like beggars than vendors. If you are not interested in buying their wares, they will request you for — wait for this — Ration! They use the guilt card: they inform you that they are fasting and that they have 10 more mouths to feed.

But beggars and eunuchs and vendors are not the only ones who look forward to the advent of Ramazan. Shopkeepers, big and small, do too.

Just a few days before the first of the Holy Month, prices begin to register a rise. And as the month progresses, the prices of essential commodities skyrocket. Stop to buy fruits and you will be amazed as to just how much one kilo of mango or one watermelon now costs. It’s Ramazan, so it’s futile to argue about the price. This too has become a ritual in Pakistan — perhaps the most pernicious of all. The ‘guaranteed’ price rise of groceries and all food items in Ramazan. Why? Are we preparing to fast — or to feast?

Suddenly, outside all shopping areas, tables laid out neatly with sumptuous Iftar fare for sale — mouth-watering samosas, pakoras, dahi phulkis et al — appear out of nowhere. This, too, has become a ritual all over the country. Fasters and feasters line up to get their stock every evening.  Even better for the seller – no one questions the price of these edibles, since everyone is in a rush.

And, wow, is there a rush! 60, 70, 80 miles an hour — the scooters, motorists, rickshaw wallahs, and truck drivers have their foot on the accelerator — as if they are running a marathon. And never mind, if a few people are crushed to death along the way. After all, they are fasting. Their stomachs are growling, their blood pressure is rising, their tempers are flaring and their mind has stopped functioning. What’s more, they need to get home in time for the sumptuous Iftar feast laid out by mother, wife, bhabhi.

Diabetes, heart problems, blood pressure — all are put on hold while the fasters gorge on grease and spice and sugar.

And so the cycle is repeated every year. This is how we observe Ramazan – the month of prayer and meditation and compassion for fellow humans. Somehow, all that gets submerged in the consumerism on rank display, year after year. Yes, we observe the ritual of Ramazan, but forget the spirit behind it.