As things stand across the world today, religion cannot be a private experience for Muslims — even if they want it to be. Burdened, demoralised and anguished with terror attacks in the name of Islam, Muslims find themselves — and their faith — implicated in global events almost every day. More recently, the targeting of mosques in New Zealand or churches in Sri Lanka have made Muslims either helpless victims or motivated perpetrators of violent attacks. Closer home, rising Islamophobhia coupled with an almost non-existent political representation in the government, have driven India’s Muslims to the edge. It is amidst such a feeling of fear and siege among Muslims that Ramzan, Islam’s holiest month, began, and is set to draw to a close in a couple of days.
Ramzan is when the Muslims believe the Quran was revealed to Mohammad, the last prophet of Islam, in 610 CE in Mecca. People know the drill for the believer in these 30 days. Those who observe Ramzan go without food and water, and also abstain from sex between dawn and dusk. There is, however, much more to Ramzan than just hunger and thirst. The month is about self-restraint, discipline, charity and intense reflection. It is about the struggle to attain spiritual goals. Prophet Mohammad said that Allah has no need for his followers to abstain from food and water if they do not abstain from falsehood and other sinful practices.
In fact, Islam has a powerful Arabic word for a larger struggle to resist temptations and fight anger, malice, jealousy, vengeance and similar negative traits. That word is jihad. Unfortunately, the most spiritual concept of Islam has become its most sullied at the hands of extremists who kill innocent people in the name of jihad. It wasn’t jihad that happened on 26/11 in Mumbai or during the attacks on the churches in Sri Lanka. The Quran does not endorse such mindless acts of violence. It is also not jihad when Muslims kill other Muslims, as they are doing in Syria, Somalia and Afghanistan. The Prophet did engage in military expeditions, but those battles were more to survive than conquer. In fact, upon returning from one such expedition, the Prophet is said to have described war as “a lesser jihad” in comparison to “the greater jihad” that calls on one to look inwards for spiritual purification. Ramzan epitomises this idea.
In India, Ramzan started in the middle of the country’s general elections, whose verdict left Muslims feeling further alienated. The election campaign was communal and vitriolic. However, did Muslims abstain from posting or responding to messages of hate on social media? Did they quarrel with their colleagues or neighbours because of their contrarian political stands? Did they share their iftar with them? It is not easy for many Muslims to live up to the behavioural expectations that fasting demands when anti-Muslim hatred is on the rise. But this is what Ramzan is all about: To train the self to rise above base instincts. The Prophet said: “The believer does not insult, he does not curse, he is not profane, and he is not crude.”
Significantly, the Quran is replete with messages that obligate Muslims to remain committed to social justice. Zakat (charity) is one of the five pillars of Islam and it assumes greater significance during Ramzan. Zakat is mandatory on all Muslims who have a certain amount of wealth. The idea is to bridge the gap between rich and poor, and restore the dignity of the socially ignored people. In his famous last sermon, the Prophet had declared: “A white has no superiority over black, nor does a black over a white, except by piety and good action.” The Prophet’s closest aides were two former slaves who went on to command much respect in the first Muslim society.
The Quran puts it beautifully: “We created you from a male and a female, and we made you into nations and tribes for you to get to know each other.” This verse, and Quran has many such, is central to Islam’s message of peace, friendship and love among people who are different. These 1,400-year-old wise insights can help us overcome fear, hatred and discord, which have become the hallmark of modern societies. Ramzan is the perfect time to renew such pledges and build those bridges.
This article first appeared in the print under the heading ” A month to reflect” on June 3, 2019