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Ramzan fasting pivots round the sun and moon

The Greatest Mosque in Cairo, Egypt

The Greatest Mosque in Cairo, Egypt   | Photo Credit: REUTERS/AMR ABDALLAH DALSH

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Since Ramzan follows the lunar calendar, fasting time varies across the globe

 

In an exceptionally hot year of fasting, perhaps it is most appropriate to remember that an alternative meaning of the Arabic word ‘Ramad,’ the root of ‘Ramadan,’ is ‘scorchedness of the earth due to excessive heat.’ To Muslims fasting from dawn to dusk in the ninth month of the lunar Islamic calendar, Ramzan is an opportunity not just for voluntary abstention from the appetites that drive their existence, but also a reminder of how close nature is to their life.

Ramadan, or Ramzan, as the month of fasting is more commonly known in South Asian countries, was declared in mid-May, and a little unusually, the date of commencement was uniformly observed on the same day by Muslims globally.

The full Moon rises over a minaret of the Greatest Mosque in Cairo, Egypt

The full Moon rises over a minaret of the Greatest Mosque in Cairo, Egypt   | Photo Credit: REUTERS/AMR ABDALLAH DALSH

 

To Muslims fasting from dawn to dusk in the ninth month of the lunar Islamic calendar, Ramzan is an opportunity not just for voluntary abstention from the appetites that drive their existence, but also a reminder of how close nature is to their life. The Muslim population of the world sets its dates according to the Hijri calendar. This starts in the Islamic New Year of AD 622 when the Prophet Muhammad and his followers migrated from Makkah (Mecca) to Yathrib (now known as Madina) and established the first Muslim community or Ummah. The Hijri calendar has 12 months, in a year of 354 or 355 days. With the calendar moving back by 11 days each year compared to the more universally used Gregorian (solar) calendar, the first day of Ramzan tends to change accordingly. Fasting was made compulsory in the second year after the migration. The Gregorian calendar year 2018 coincides with the Hijri year 1439.

Even though the Sun and the Moon have always been a part of what we call Day and Night, a ritual like fasting becomes almost totally focused on the movement of these celestial bodies. The new moon (Hilal in Arabic) assumes added importance during Ramzan, because it has to be sighted with the naked eye in order for the month to commence and end, roughly a period of 29 to 30 days.

Daily schedule

As soon as Ramzan is declared, Muslim households start preparing to invert their daily schedule. From the pre-dawn meal preparation to late-night prayers, and a daytime of contemplation and battling hunger pangs, time seeps into a continuum that only the Sun and the Moon can confine to any kind of order. Every fasting person knows how the clock seems to slow down just before the minute when it is permissible to eat; just as how fleeting time seems when one is getting ready to fast.

While Ramzan is timed according to the lunar calendar, Muslims are advised to follow the most prevalent almanac where it is possible to distinguish between night and day. So fasting could start at 3.30 a.m. in South India and end at 6.40 p.m., while on the same day, it could start at 2.15 a.m. in the United Kingdom and end at 10.45 p.m., purely based on the Gregorian calendar times of sunrise and sunset.

Fasting as a tool of self-discipline is present in nearly all world religions. But as noted Qurannic commentator and translator A Yusuf Ali writes, “The Muslim fast is not meant for self-torture. Although it is stricter than other fasts, it also provides alleviations for special circumstances.” He goes on to say that temporary restraint from the natural instincts for food, drink and sex enables one’s attention to be directed to higher ideals through prayer, contemplation and acts of charity that seek out those really in need.

The spiritual effect of Ramzan, however, remains an intensely personal and mystical experience that often defies articulation. Ramzan is venerated because it is believed to be the month when the Holy Quran was revealed. The stepping back from worldly activities is matched almost equally by a month of heightened piety. Most Muslims try to accomplish at least one complete recitation of the Quran by the end of the month, and mosques engage skilled ‘Qaris’ or trained reciters to conduct the late-night Taraweeh prayers that are exclusive to Ramzan. There is an increased emphasis on charity, especially on the payment of ‘zakat’, a fixed percentage of a person’s savings to be given to the needy. Mainstream media coverage of Ramzan tends to focus on the most visible aspect of the month — its supposedly vast spread of food.

Special events tagged around the breaking of the fast (iftar) and pre-dawn meal (suhour) usually showcase the culinary heritage of the Islamic community. But as anyone who fasts will vouch, the appeal of food and drink diminishes soon after iftar.

Concern over the wastage of food — either due to an over-stocking of groceries at home or actual preparation of dishes for large Ramzan gatherings that don’t get eaten — is growing across Muslim nations. For example, sustainability group EcoMENA reports that the United Arab Emirates discarded edible leftovers worth 4 billion dollars during the month of Ramzan last year.

Media fixture

While the iftar and suhour buffet culture is still in its nascent stages in the Indian hospitality sector (outside of major metro cities), the irony of throwing away surplus food in a month that promotes moderation is a cruel reality. There have been other ways in which the iftar has become culturally appropriated, of which the ‘political iftar’ is a media fixture.

In India, President Ram Nath Kovind decided to cancel the annual iftar party at the Rashtrapati Bhavan this year, stating that no religious occasions would be celebrated at taxpayer’s expense. On the other hand, the U.S. President Donald J Trump decided to host one after missing out on it last year.

Fasting today is no doubt quite different from when it was first ordained. Many customs associated with it (such as the self-appointed town criers who used various means to wake up the faithful for suhour in the early hours of the morning or even the practice of meeting one’s family and friends for the Eid festival) have either disappeared or morphed into modern, mobile-friendly communications.

The lessons of Ramzan, though, are meant to be eternal. To quote from the Holy Quran: “O, ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you, as it was prescribed to those before you, That ye may (learn) self-restraint.” [Al-Baqarah; S.II, 183]

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Printable version | Jul 19, 2018 11:40:50 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/faith/ramzan-fasting-pivots-round-the-sun-and-moon/article24161776.ece