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Sunday, July 29, 2012

Ramadhan in the British summer

Many years ago I had the opportunity to observe the lifestyles of a group of friends when Ramadhan fell mostly in June and the beginning of July, the height of the British summer when the days are long and the nights are short. The group comprised middle aged post-graduate university students from Pakistan and a couple of self-employed British market traders of Pakistani origin. The visiting Pakistanis were well informed on what passes for the “religion” of Islam and they managed to convince the British Pakistanis that they needed to deny their bodies food and drink from shortly after 2 am to well after 9.30 pm. There was an awkward question: if fathers were going without food and drink for well nigh 20 hours, would they be able to discharge their duties to their children? Apparently, the fathers didn’t need to worry about their children because they were the mothers’ responsibility! In that group, the mothers were full time housewives and didn’t go out to work so they had a neat solution:

In the evening the men gathered in the house of one of the Pakistani traders and ended their fast upon sunset, past 9.30 pm, with some light refreshments; next they performed their Maghrib prayers behind the Pakistani doing his PhD in some Islamic topic – I never understood the point of coming all the way from Muslim Pakistan to complete one’s Islamic studies in a "kafir" university! – and they then turned their attention to the elaborate food dishes prepared by the wife of  the host. Having gorged on the sumptuous food, they got up for Isha prayers behind the same bloke, who was generally accepted as the imam of that group. Then they would stay up chatting and laughing and eating until it was time to begin their saum shortly after 2 am. Then the guests would depart and the host would get ready to sleep, presumably after the Fajr prayers on his own. The wife of the host was free to go to bed at any time she wished once she had served the Iftar food and eaten herself. She had to because she had the responsibility of looking after the children when they got up early in the morning. The men were able to have uninterrupted sleep for some 7 hours and they opened their shops later than the usual times.

That arrangement worked well for that particular group. On one occasion I joined their Iftar party although it was well known that the length of my saum lasted between 13 and 14 hours (usually ending by 6.30 pm). I marvelled at their ingenuity to arrange their lifestyles around the mullah’s interpretation of Islam.

I have fond memories of that group though I was never able to make them see that they were  following the sunnah of the mullah, not the Sunnah of Muhammad Rasul-Allah, Rehmatul-lil-aalameen, the length of whose saum did not extend to such long periods. One needed to discharge one’s responsibilities on earth, which included earning a living in diverse circumstances and extending love and care towards the family. We should be careful not to turn Ramadhan into an instrument of self-torture, which may give us an illusion of “performing religious duties” but at the cost of neglecting the rights of our family and other people around us (in Islam those rights, haqooq-ul-ibad حقوق العباد , take precedence over religious rituals). I tried to make them see that my own circumstances were very different from theirs and it was simply not possible for me to follow their particular lifestyle. It was to no avail. They all stared at me with an air of incomprehension, probably inwardly declaring me to be a dead loss, one who had left the fold of Islam!

This year – as in recent years and during the next few years – we find ourselves observing Ramadhan during the British summer months. I know quite a few Muslims who have turned their backs on Ramadhan because “they cannot do it”. This blog may help them see that they can, only they don’t have to accept the mullah’s interpretation of how it should be done.

Lastly, the obverse of Ramdhan in the British summer is Ramadhan occurring in the British winter, when the denial of food and drink to the physical body will last, perhaps, 8 hours! Again, I find it difficult to accept that. Saum is supposed to train our Self, and help us become better human beings, with greater control over our physical and emotional urges. An 8-hour fast in the winter tends to greatly reduce the hardship element in the saum and seems to go against the spirit of Ramadhan.

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