Updated: April 27, 2021 10:02:05 am
I started fasting this Ramzan for the first time in my life. It was an experiment in putting mind over matter and as a mark of solidarity with fasting in Africa, Arabia and many countries of Asia. For years I had wondered: Why would a religion make its people starve and suffer? The answer was clear by the end of my day of fasting. It teaches humility and gratefulness that is at the heart of Islam. Karen Armstrong, the historian of comparative religions, offers theological and practical insights about Islamic practices. She reminds us that the word Islam in Arabic means “total surrender” — to that one God, who is creator, provider and destroyer.
When Muhammad, a merchant from Mecca, first received the call from Al Lah (The God) in 612 AD, he was meditating on the problems that plagued Arabia, where tribal warfare and bloodshed was on the rise and religiosity had deteriorated to mere ritualism. His people, the Quraish, were a proud tribe that ruled the city of Mecca. In early 7th century Mecca, the rich clans occupied the land around the Kaba and the poor lived on the outskirts of the city. The infirm, orphans and widows were exploited, the weak viewed with disdain. Ideas of honour were inflated. Any slight, real or imagined, would invite blood feuds. We use the word jahil in Hindi/ Urdu for an ignorant person. Muslims understand it as the pre-Islamic “time of ignorance” or jahiliyyah.
The new religion of Muhammad urged its followers to follow jilm, an ancient Arab virtue, which meant living life temperately, responding patiently and peacefully. The biggest struggle, jihad, is with one’s own self, as one must fight anger and arrogance lurking within oneself. The Prophet proclaimed after winning a skirmish with a Quraish caravan once, “We are returning from the lesser jihad (battle) and going to the greater jihad”, referring to the immensely difficult struggle to reform their own society and hearts. This idea of inner transformation seems to resonate with Mahatma Gandhi’s concept of satyagraha that urges individuals to win their opponents with patience, compassion and self-suffering.
Self-suffering is integral to surrender. In Ramzan, as the day passes without food and water, we enter a most vulnerable state. A glass of water becomes more valuable than piles of gold. Men and women, rich and poor, master and servant all experience hunger pangs, a parity of experience that can shatter arrogance. When we are hungry and thirsty, we tend to think of those who are poor and have no food. We feel obliged to share our good fortune and pay jakaat/zakat. What does the obligation to pay jakaat mean for current times? In Arabia, when food was scarce and survival tough, food could suffice as jakaat. But as modern Indians, we can pay for the education of children or finance projects that help intergenerational mobility of lower classes of all religions, not just Muslims.
Many may be surprised to realise that Prophet Muhammad did not use the word kaffir for non-believers or non-Muslims. He called the previous prophets, Moses, Abraham and Jesus, his brothers. He was aware that all Abrahamic religions are genealogically bound. Then who were the Kaffirs? The word kufr means defiant ingratitude. It applied to the Prophet’s own people, the Quraish, who wanted to continue the life of jahiliyyah and whose hearts were locked or sealed against the new message of humility.
Jahiliyyah and kafirun are very much present in our times. From those running the Islamic State, using violence to terrorise and torture, to those showing off their wealth by lavish iftaar parties. Several people in all religions, nations and political parties have their hearts sealed against appeals of equity and justice.
In Mecca, the new religion of Islam became popular amongst women, youth, slaves and weaker clans. Arabia had the same custom of killing infant daughters that India struggles with even today. The first pledge the new converts took was of no lying, no stealing, no infanticide. They freed their slaves. The call for prayer from the first mosque in Medina was given by a former slave. They treated the weak and infirm with respect and care.
Today when I see Hindu and Muslim mothers lighting candles to Mount Mary, and people of all faiths kneeling before Haji Ali, I remember that Karl Marx said religion is the “opium of the masses’ but also the “sigh of the oppressed”.
This column first appeared in the print edition on April 27, 2021 under the title ‘The first fast’. The writer teaches at Jindal Global Law School.
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