Cleansing the body and spirit

TRADITIONS OF restraint in the country are many, and Gandhiji's fast is perceived to be the classic: self-control and discipline were thought to make a good human being not only out of oneself, but out of another too. Fasting, as restraint, was a principle of persuasion for Gandhiji, which was to achieve nationhood in the immediate context, and certain communitarian humanism in the larger context. That great Muslim tradition, Ramadan, may not have anything to do with nationhood, but certainly with the larger goal: it seeks, through the fast, to institutionalise the notion of empathy, and all that goes with it — restraint, moderation, and tolerance.

Conventional understanding of Ramadan, "as a period of fasting", does not explore the philosophical purpose behind fasting. It associates the fast largely around "eating". Of course, no one eats or drinks during the fast, which begins with dawn. The thought about food is only after the sun has set. Shafeeq Abdulkhader, a lawyer at the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT), introduces a corrective here. "We don't eat or drink anything during the fast. The idea, though, is not just about eating. It is about understanding hunger. Many people go hungry everyday. One can experience hunger only by some renunciation. Ramadan makes the effort to understand a disciplined and compulsory one." Shafeeq believes fasting is a way of addressing deprivation and poverty. The effort does not end only with an understanding of the condition. Material gestures have to be made, and Ramadan makes that compulsory. This is the zakat. "The rich have a duty to make a donation to the poor. It could be money, property, clothing, gold, silver, or an animal. It is said that one has to give 2.5 per cent of one's property. The poor themselves cannot make donations. Fasting then is accompanied by a social responsibility. Here, the donation is largely from the propertied."

Ordinary folk too have a responsibility. This is the Fitr-Zakat. "Donation does not depend on property. One has to part with what little one has. This does not mean that the poorest of the poor are expected to contribute," says Shafeeq.

There is an interesting difference in the two traditions. In Zakat, the donation is made to a person or family to enable them to make a donation the next time, to make them better off. In Fitr-Zakat, the donation is made to the poor to enable them to celebrate the Id-ul-Fitr. The gesture is intended to erase any social/class distinction in the celebration of Id, a gesture of equalisation.

Mohammed Haneefa, an employee at a restaurant on the M.G. Road, points to another interesting aspect. "Fasting is not only about the stomach. It is about the senses really. One exercises control over all emotions.

One should not, for instance, hurt anyone or feel jealous. Even otherwise, we have to live by these values. During Ramadan, there is an emphasis on this. It is a reminder about how we should live life like the way we do during Ramadan."

Cleansing the body and spirit

The special prayers every night during the month of Ramadan, in addition to the namaz offered five times a day, are also geared towards this view of life, asking of God to make one kinder, and to make one less indulgent in life. The Quran is read every night for about an hour and the entire text is read by the time Ramadan ends.

"The scholars suggest ways of fighting sins and redeeming oneself in daily life through prayer," says Haneefa.

As the month approaches its end, people get ready for the "day of the reward", the Id. The Id is celebrated depending on the sighting of the moon, usually the 29th or the 30th day of the Ramadan month or the day after. People gather at mosques or Id-Gahs for celebration. "Id is a day of happiness and reward for having followed all the regulations. The scholars appeal to us to follow these principles at all times," explains Haneefa.

The donations acquire significance precisely at the time of Id. The poor are made to feel they too can celebrate Id with good food and clothes. The better off may, of course, go in for things they alone can afford. The effort is to get the poor to enjoy some part of the celebration. The idea is that there should be no difference while identifying with Ramadan or Id."

Ramadan is one of the five cardinal principles that constitute Islam: the oneness of Allah, offering prayers, paying Zakat (charity), fasting during Ramadan, and pilgrimage to Mecca.

Observes a writer: "Ramadan is a self-purification exercise. It is the month where we spread the message of universal brotherhood and peace. It is a holy month for us because that is the month of revelation — the Quran tells us that Jibreel, the archangel, brought messages of goodwill to the Prophet. Ramadan is really a message of harmony."

And fasting is a crucial principle in this exercise, because, when it is done in faith, sins of the past are forgiven. Between sunrise and sunset then, a whole worldview is lived. That worldview is sought to be replicated in life after Ramadan.

Ramadan is really a moral renewal that compels goodness every now and then in the midst of a crowded life.

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