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Ramadan and its hijackers

Khalid Baig
RAMADAN is a month of tremendous blessings. Today it is also a time of great challenges. The challenges come from a head-on collision between Ramadan and the materialism, consumerism and hedonism that have unfortunately engulfed Muslim societies. Approached correctly and observed diligently, the former could help us overcome the latter. In our present state of decay, the opposite seems to be happening in many cases. Ramadan’s month long intensive training program begins to teach self-discipline by rearranging our daily life. It changes the time we go to bed, the time we get up, the time we eat. We learn to do without the permissible joys of this life for the long prescribed hours of the day. After a day of fasting, we break the fast only to rush to the maghrib salat, which cannot be delayed beyond a few minutes. An hour or two later we are ready for the special nightly prayer, a unique prayer which can only be performed during Ramadan and which both highlights and cements our special relationship with the Qur’an. We stand and listen to the entire Qur’an being recited from heart in the taraweeh prayer.
This is in addition to our own reading of the Qur’an that aims at finishing at least one cycle of the complete reading during the month on our own. With all the extra acts of worship, there is hardly any time left for anything beyond the essential during the day and night. This is special time, when the rewards for voluntary acts of worship equal the rewards of mandatory acts and the rewards for the latter are multiplied up to 700 times. With the scales of rewards so extraordinarily high during this month, it would be folly to waste our time on things that can be done during ordinary time — throughout the rest of the year. The opportunity cost is just unbelievably high to do otherwise. Yet that is precisely what we manage to do in so many cases. Consider Iftar, the breaking of the fast at the end of the day. A Jewish acquaintance once told me about his fast of Yum Kippur. Unlike the Islamic fasts, all Jewish fasts are a one-day affair but the day is longer. It starts twenty minutes before sundown on the previous night. At the end of the fast, he said, “I went to a restaurant and ate like a pig.” With the maghrib salat and the taraweeh, the Ramadan fast does not permit that. Neither does the spirit of Ramadan permit indulgence. Yet today one can see fancy restaurants in the Muslim world offering high priced iftar dinner specials that invite you to do just that. An ad from a five star hotel in Karachi sums up the spirit of this venture:
“This exquisite setting at our extravagant Marquee is the perfect venue for a genuinely fascinating and lavish buffet iftar dinner, featuring restaurant specialties and culinary delights created especially for the holy month.” One could substitute Dubai or Jeddah or Kuala Lumpur or any other Muslim city for Karachi; the message will remain the same. Instead of turning your attention to Allah, turn it to the exquisite setting and culinary delights. Indulge. Turn the breaking of the fast into a status symbol. Exquisite (i.e. esoteric), extravagant, lavish. This is how the agents of rampant consumerism counter Ramadan’s message of simplicity, sacrifice and self discipline. All while advertising their special regard for the holy month. To be sure, the fraction of Muslims going to these fancy restaurants is small, although it is increasing. But their influence on the society goes beyond these numbers. For they set the norms and expectations for the larger society. Lavish Iftar parties for which people drive long distances and miss their prayers are an indication of these influences. In the US, the Muslim population has not reached the levels where such Iftar extravaganza would be offered by the Hiltons and Marriotts here. But the underlying malaise is there, although it has different manifestations. Here, of necessity, mosques and Islamic centres also work as community centres so the problems that one sees in the bazaars and other institutions outside the mosque in Muslim countries are witnessed in the mosque here. At the larger Islamic centres, bazaars, games and gossip sessions go on during Ramadan nights — festive social gatherings and other activities that work not to reinforce but counter the purpose and spirit of Ramadan.
This, along with the pressures of the pop culture, is posing unprecedented dangers to the very nature of the forms of worship. Consider taraweeh, the special long nightly prayer that is a hallmark of Ramadan. Throughout the Muslim world Muslims stand up in these prayers to listen to the recitation of the Qur’an, leading to khatam or completion of a complete cycle of reading during the month. Everyone, young and old alike, cherishes the opportunity to take part in this very special act of worship. There is a small difference between juristic schools regarding the details of taraweeh. A majority offers twenty rakats to finish the day’s portion of Qur’anic reading. A smaller group finishes the task in eight rakats. But both groups perform the khatam. But not in the US. To be sure, here most mosques still perform the twenty rakats and perform the khatam. But there is a big difference. Here one can see the congregation shrinking considerably after the eight rakats. That is when a large number, including most of the youth, leave. As a result, for all practical purposes we can discern an emerging generational gap in the forms of taraweeh. The twenty rakats with the complete khatam are for the ‘uncles’. For the youth, regardless of the fiqhi school they belong to, it is just eight rakats. We can discern an emerging generational gap in the form of taraweeh. The twenty rakats with the complete khatam are for the ‘uncles’. For the youth, regardless of the fiqhi school they belong to, it is just eight rakats.—Courtesy: Albalagh.net