A large photograph of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Da’esh leader, appeared in The Times on 30 April. He looked distinctly alive and well fed, compared to his murderous followers, and was starring in a video designed to reinforce his leadership of Da’esh and to celebrate its atrocities. Then we have news of Asia Bibi’s release at last and escape to Canada reminding us of the innocent Christians suffering under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
So this may not be the best time to declare my admiration for Muslims in their practice of Ramadan. No matter. The Islamic annual fast began on Sunday night, 5 May and will last till 4 June. It is a strenuous expression of Muslims’ aim to lead a life of self-discipline, prayer and charity completely at odds with the orgy of cruelty and hatred which is Da’esh.
Britain is far from free of prejudice against Muslims. It extends far further than the defunct UKIP, the Brexit Party and Farage, and, if Baroness Warsi is to be believed, has seeped into parts of the Conservative Party. The Mayor of London needs police protection because he is Muslim. Steve Bannon is now promoting Islamophobia in Europe. The positive aspects of Muslim faith are simply ignored. We have to fear the direction in which our society is going.
During Ramadan observant Muslims neither eat nor drink between dawn and sunset. Sunnis time sunset to be when the sun disappears over the horizon, like a coin in a slot; Shi’a when the red glow has left the sky. The fast lasts four weeks from the beginning of the ninth lunar month of the Muslim calendar until the end. It is tough going in the Nordic countries when it can last over 15 hours. In the intense heat of the Middle East fasting is shorter but punishing. Young children, the elderly, nursing, pregnant or menstruating women and travelers are traditionally dispensed.
I was in the Yemen in 1989 watching families gathered around plates of food waiting for sunset; the firing of a cannon signaled that the fast was over. In Nigeria expatriate advice was not to have your car repaired during Ramadan as mechanics were not on top form. When I broke my leg in Connemara during Ramadan, most of the surgical team in Galway Hospital came from the Middle East. With the inheritance of my expatriate prejudices, I was hoping that the consultant orthopedic surgeon in charge of repairing my multiple fractured limb, whom I learnt was Jordanian, would not be practicing even if Muslim. He appeared at my bedside in a bomber jacket and I guessed he would be the least pious of the team. If there were going to be prayers of supplication, dua, said that evening, it seemed more likely that they were going to be mine than his.
The last ten days of Ramadan recall and celebrate the foundation of Islam, the anniversary of the Prophet Muhammad receiving the verses of the Qu’ran. The spiritual purpose of this abstinence, and the recommended religious practices associated with it, such as special prayers and alms-giving, is taqwa, to gain in piety, strengthening that part of human nature that seeks the good and weakens the propensity for evil, nafs (Qu’ran 2:183-185). Fasting is one of the five ‘pillars’ of Islam, some would say the strongest.
The Muslim daily fast ends with a communal meal. The fasting month ends with a big family get together like Easter or Christmas. Ramadan shares its basic rhythms and purpose with the other two monotheistic religions, though today Christian and Jewish fasting occurs in a far less robust and demanding form. Lent in the Churches of the Syriac tradition gets closest to the rigour of Ramadan. But does the Islamic fast have any significance for a secular Britain? Well, it is as counter-cultural as you can get to both individualism and hedonism, and brings concern for self-discipline and self-control into sharp focus.
Apart from a willingness to experience hunger, Muslims have also built into their religious practice a normative attempt to reduce poverty by the requirement to give an annual tithe, zakat, and practice sadaqa, charitable giving. Ramadan is a time to do both.
Thirst is a different matter. I have an African memory of coming back from the Chad border, being rescued hitch-hiking in a temperature of over 110 degrees Fahrenheit outside Maroua in northern Cameroons by a pick-up with Muslim workers in the back. It was so hot out of the shadow of buildings or trees, it hurt. The driver offered me some murky water in a dirty plastic container. I declined. It required little imagination to see the consequences of accepting. We stopped, mats out, for the sunset, maghrib, prayer. We were skirting the border with Nigeria now frequented by Boko Haram. I could feel my tongue swelling up in my mouth. I don’t recommend experiencing real thirst.
I am looking forward to going for iftar, the meal breaking the fast after sunset, with Turkish friends, several of them refugees from Erdogan’s police state. They are from the modernizing and progressive Muslim Gulen movement persecuted by the Turkish government. Some of the Gulen movement participated in the failed military coup against Erdogan who promptly designated and banned the movement as terrorists. Turkish asylum seekers, many Gulen followers, are now being sent back by Greece from the Turkish-Greek border. So this will be for several around the table an iftar and Ramadan separated from their relatives, a worrying time. And I won’t be taking up Turkish Airlines advertised invitation to visit the historic and scenic beauties of Turkey in the near future.
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