Friday, August 31, 2012

Brief Reflections On Independence Day, Open House and a Six-Day Fasting

Today, Malaysians celebrate Malaysia’s 55 years of Independence.

Actually, the above is not quite accurate. 

Malaysia was not formed until 1963.  In 1957, the country that gained independence from British was not Malaysia, but Malaya.

Malaysia was a federation of Malaya, Singapore, North Borneo (Sabah) and Sarawak.  Singapore seceded from the Federation two years later, in 1965. 

The original idea is that Malaysia was to be officially formed by 31st August 1963, with Brunei included.  Brunei decided to remain under the British Colonial in the last minute, and hence the formation of Malaysia had to be postponed.  It was only sixteen days later, on 16th September 1963, that Malaysia was born.

The last minute changes, no doubt, gave some dilemma to the then Government of Malaysia, whether to celebrate the Independence on the 31st August, or on 16th September.  The former date was decided, and Malaysia celebrates her independence on that day ever since.  The 31st August was then called the Independence Day of Malaysia. 

Another dilemma surfaced.  Should it be counted from 1957, or 1963?  Conveniently, 1957 was chosen.  This year, therefore, is the 55th year of Malaysia’s Independence, although Malaysia is only 49 years old.  It is Malaya, now known as West Malaysia, which is 55 years old.

As long as I can recall, the Independence Day of Malaysia was always celebrated on 31st August, and it was only a one day celebration.  Since the last few years, however, the date of 16th September has been given its due importance.  The celebration is henceforth extended until that day. This suggests that the importance of Sabah and Sarawak (known as East Malaysia) started to be given their due consideration. Thus, instead of having only a one day celebration, Malaysia is nowadays celebrating her independence for 17 days. 

As is the habit of Malaysians, they like to engage in polemics, including the Independence Day.  Some say we are not really independent.  We merely change our masters, from the British to the Malay ruling party, which happens to be the same party since 1957.  This argument is quite odd, considering that any country, whether independent or colonized, must somehow be ruled by somebody.  Would Malaysia be independent in the truest sense of the word if their party rules it, instead of the current ruling party?  In short, we can dismiss it as a mere political talk.

Others argue it along the religious line.  Malaysia is not truly independent because we are still using the system devised and institutionalized by the Colonial Government.  What they mean is that since the majority of Malaysians are Muslims, Malaysia therefore would be truly independent if it is an Islamic State, instead of remaining a secular state with Islam as official religion.  This argument, however, is not about independence, but about aspiration.

Yet, some others argue that Malaysia is not truly independent because Malaysian minds are still influenced by the West.  We still look up to the West instead of ourselves.  But just what exactly is “The Malaysian Mind” would be anyone’s guess.

Luckily, Malaysians are sensible enough not to carry the matter too far.  I haven’t heard anyone suggests that we should not celebrate the Independence Day at all, on the ground that, being a sovereign nation, and already freed from the crutch of foreign powers for 55 years already, we should not celebrate the occasion that would remind us of being colonized at one time, and for many hundred years to boot.

Or to the idea that Malaysia was never colonized in the first place, being in existence only in 1963.  It was Malacca who fell to the Portuguese in 1511.  And that it was only a Malacca’s port, since most of Malacca Empire was still under the rule of their kings for many hundreds years thereafter.  Or that some sovereign states in Malaya fell to British only in the early 20th Century.

Or to the idea that there is no such thing as being independent, for one way of another, we are dependent upon something.  It is when are dependent only upon Allah can we be called truly independent.

Yes, we can count our blessings for not being too philosophical about everything, although in many ways, the polemics on our Independence is often senseless nevertheless.

Relatedly, it so happens that this year, the Independence Day celebration falls during the month of Eid al Fitri.

Month of Eid al Fitri?  But Eid al Fitri is only one day, you may argue. 

Well, in Malaysia, Eid al Fitri is celebrated one whole month.   Towards the end of Ramadan, people start to go back to their hometown to celebrate the Eid with their parents and loved ones.  Their houses are, therefore, left empty and hence closed.  When they come back from their hometown, they start to open their houses for others, such as friends, relatives and neighbors.  Many allocate one special day and have what they call Open House, where food and drinks will be served in abundant.

Companies and Government agencies also allocate a special day for this feasting purpose.  Since companies are not houses, they call it Open Day instead of Open House.  Since many houses and companies do that, everyday in Shawal is a feasting day.  After all, after having a fasting month, it is only appropriate that we have feasting month as well.

But this culture has made it difficult for some to have the benefit of fasting the whole year.  As we know, after a month of fasting in Ramadan, we will get the reward of fasting one whole year if we are to fast six days in Shawal, the following month of Ramadan.  This Open House or Open Day culture, good as it is, has made it difficult for those with less will power to get the benefit of fasting a mere 35 or 36 days, depending on whether Ramadan happens to be 29 or 30 days, to get the multiplied benefit of ten times.  

Of course there is no Divine proof for the above "arithmetic," other than the fact that the Prophet used to say, that those who fast the whole month of Ramadan, followed by six days of fasting in Shawal, would be like those who fast for the whole year.  In Islam, one year is 354 days.  Thus, if we fast for 35 or 36 days, but get the reward of 354 days, then the reward appears to be ten times over. 

If there is a will, however, there will always be a way.  Feasting is good, especially on other’s expenses, but completing the six days fasting is better, if we are to get the real reward from the Real Rewarder.

Let’s get the best of both worlds, as we always recite in our dua (supplication).

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Takbir of Eid: Between Cultural Norm, Bida’ah and Lesson Lost

One of the MUST DO for the Muslims during the Eid  (Festival) is to pronounce Takbir loudly. 

Takbir is the glorification of God, reciting the words “Allahu Akbar,” meaning “Allah is Greatest,” loudly.  During the Eid, either al Fitri (after fasting month) or al Adha (during Pilgrimage), the Takbir takes the longer version, with many verses added to this basic Allahu Akbar.

When the Prophet and his companions went to war, they shouted the basic Takbir before the battle started.  The way they shouted it was sanguine, drowning the battlefield with energy and force.

The way the elongated Takbir is recited in Malaysia and the rest of the world during the Eid, however, has a melancholic effect. It can shed tears especially to those who do not, or cannot, celebrate the Eid with their loved ones. 

I find this particularly curious and fascinating.  What makes it fascinating is that some of the wordings of the Takbir are supposed to be choleric or at least sanguine. 

For instance, some of the verses recited are:
There is no deity other than Allah, who has fulfilled His promise, given victory to His servant, and dignity to His soldiers, and Who has defeated the confederates single handed.

This particular Takbir was proclaimed loudly for the first time after the Battle of Ahzab (Battle of Confederates), which took place in 5 AH.   It was also recited loudly by the Prophet and his companions when they entered Makkah for their first Umrah (Little Pilgrimage) in 7 AH, and during the conquest of Makkah in 8 AH.

In the above three occasions, this Takbir was to glorify Allah who had made good of His promise to help the Muslims in their struggle against the disbelievers.  Since it signifies victory and therefore “good times,” these verses are also recited when the Muslims are celebrating joyous moments, such as the Eid al Fitri and Eid al Adha.

But why it has changed from a sanguine to a melancholic mood is probably due to the differences in the occasions.  The first is to celebrate victory at the brink of annihilation, and the second is to celebrate the reunion as well as saying good bye to the Ramadan.

In the first occasion, it was the cry of joy after the whole Islamic community were saved from the brink of annihilation.   This was the aftermath of the Battle of Ahzab.

The Battle of Ahzab was the third major war engaged by the Muslims with their archenemies, the Quraysh.  The first was the Battle of Badr, of which the Muslims were victorious.  The second was the Battle of Uhud, where the Quraysh took revenge for their loss in Badr.

The Battle of Ahzab (or Battle of Confederacy) was so called because the Quraysh had formed an alliance with the Arab and Jewish tribes for the sole purpose of annihilating the Muslims, once and for all.  This took place in 5 AH.  By then, the Muslims were already too powerful for the Quraysh to eliminate them, all by themselves.  The Quraysh therefore needed the support from their allies who were also the enemies of Islam.  Forming the alliance among the Arabs and the Jews, the Quraysh had raised 10,000 strong armies to crush the Islamic community in Madinah.

Knowing the intent of the enemies, and their sheer size which had not been seen in Arabia, the Prophet and his companions quickly formed a defensive strategy which had not been heard of by the Arabs.  They dug a ditch as a defence.  Thus the war is also known as the Battle of the Ditch (Khandaq).  The suggestion, of course, was not made by the Arabs, because this strategy was unfamiliar to them.  It was made by Salman the Persian, one of the companions.

The ditch can protect the Muslims in Madinah from the enemies on the outside, but their situation was not safe.  They had enemies from within, the Jewish tribe of Quraithah.  The Muslims and this Jewish tribe had a peace agreement between them, but soon the Quraithah were persuaded by their Jewish allies residing in Khaybar to betray the agreement. 

The plan was for the Quraithah to attack from within the city of Madinah.  The Muslims, thus busy with the enemies from within, would not be able to defend their ditch and the enemies from the outside would cross over to finish them off.  To top it all, there were hypocrites among the Muslims, who were interested to see the Muslims perished.  The situation was life threatening, to put it mildly. 

The Prophet was confident that his companions would be able to stave off the alliance forces outside of Madinah, because the ditch was too deep and too wide for them to cross safely.  Whenever the alliance forces tried to cross it, they would be showered with arrows, which forced them to retreat.  But if the Jews of Quraithah were to attack them from behind, their defence would be split, and the alliance forces would be able to take this advantage by crossing the ditch in large numbers. 

Knowing that they could not afford the betrayal from the Quraithah tribe, the Prophet sent four of his companions led by Sa’ad bin Mu’ath, calling on them to maintain their peaceful relations and to confirm their alliance with the Prophet.  The Quraithah abused them instead. 

The situation was deeply distressing.  The Muslims were in dire straits.  Food was beginning to run out.  They were approaching starvation.  There were large forces beyond the ditch, always trying to cross over.   Within the city, the Jews were getting ready for the imminent attack.  The Muslims were running back and forth, trying to protect themselves.  When they stationed themselves at the ditch, they feared the Jews would attack from behind.  Thus they went to the Jewish fortress for the rear defence.  Over there, their minds were not at peace either, fearing that the defence at the ditch was too thin to counter the alliance forces, forever trying to cross over.

In this distressing state, many of them had already entertained the thought that the end of Islam is near.  Some began to wonder whether Allah’s support is for real.  A few started to doubt Allah’s promise that He would make them victorious.  They feared worse than the fear of death itself.  It was at this moment that the help of Allah came.

The first help came in the form of a man.  A certain man, whose name is Nu’aim bin Massoud, hailed from the tribe of Ghatafan, the main ally of the Quraysh.  Nu’aim had secretly become Muslim, but neither his tribe, nor his Jewish allies among the Quraithah, knew it.  He quietly came to the Prophet and offered his help. 

Receiving him as God’s send, the Prophet praised Allah and asked Nu’aim to devise some kind of trick, for war is a deception.   Nu’aim knew both the leaders of Quraithah and the leaders of the Alliance well.  Together, they plotted the strategy to break the trust between the Jews and the Alliance (the seerah seems to suggest that Nu’aim’s rue was entirely his own, but it is possible that the Prophet was also involved in the planning).

Having formulated the strategy,   Nu’aim first went to the chiefs of Quraithah.  They received him well, for he was their good friend.  Nu’aim said that they are in a worse state.  The allied forces are in a better situation.  They come to annihilate the Muslims, no doubt, but if they fail in their mission, they can always go back to their lands.  But the Quraithah could not afford such an eventuality, because if the allied forces go back, the Muslims would surely slaughter them en masse.  Hence, if they were to help the allied forces, the latter must show their commitment.

“What would you suggest?” They asked.

“Take some of their leaders as hostages.  That way you would be absolutely certain that they will fight with you until Muhammad is defeated."

The Quraithah took the bait, for they saw the logic behind Nu’aim’s argument.  Having succeeded in putting some doubt in the minds of the Jews, Nu’aim went to the allied forces.

He told them that he has some information which might be useful, but asked them to sworn to secrecy if he were to deliver that information.  They agreed.  He told the leaders of the Alliance that the Jews had regretted their decision to betray Muhammad and the Muslims.  The Jews, Nu’aim said, had sent their delegates to Muhammad, and asked whether Muhammad would be satisfied if the Jews were to deliver a few of the nobility among the Alliance, so that Muhammad can have them killed.   Muhammad agreed that such a gesture would be sufficient for the Jews to atone their betrayal.

“If the Jews ask you to send them some of your people to stay with them as a guarantee that you will not abandon them, do not send them a single person.”  Nu’aim said.

There was no way to ascertain the truth of what Nu’aim said, except to put it to test.  So, the leaders of the Alliance sent a few delegates to the Jewish tribe of Quraithah, asking them to initiate the attack on the Muslims, so that the Alliance could cross over and finish the Muslims off.

This request happened to be made on Saturday, the Sabbath day for the Jews.  The tribe of Quraithah was not about to break their Sabbath, so they told the Alliance’s delegates that the request could not have come at the worst time.

“That aside,” said the leader of the Jews, “we want you to leave some of your leaders as our hostages to signify that you are serious about eliminating the Muslims.”

Remembering what Nu’aim had told them, the delegates of the allied forces refused.  The Quraithah’s mere request suggested that Nu’aim had been telling the truth.  The Alliance’s refusal to fulfil the request, in turn, made the Jews believed that Nu’aim likewise had been right all along.  To the Jews, the allied forces were not all that determined to annihilate Muhammad and his companions.

With a deft of trickery through the work of Nu’aim, who had come out of nowhere, other than being sent by Allah, the impending disaster was averted.  The Jews were reluctant to make the move, and the allied forces could not penetrate the defence put by the Muslims.  Their mutual trust had been broken. 

As for Nu’aim, throughout this process, he did not go to the Muslims camp again, for that would arouse suspicion.  He joined the Prophet only after the war was over.

With no impending threat from the Jews, the Muslims were safe.  There were only skirmishes here and there.  No all out battle could be fought because the Alliance could not breach the defence put by the Muslims.

Soon after came the second help.  This time, it was the desert storm, which wrecked havoc the enemies’ tents.  Cold and running short of food supply, for the allied forces thought that the war would be a brief one, they abandoned the mission and went home.  Had they stayed a while longer, however, the Muslims would have met a different kind of disaster, for they too had run out of food supply and could die of starvation.

It was to celebrate this victory that they shouted these verses: “There is no deity other than Allah, who has fulfilled His promise, given victory to His servant, and dignity to His soldiers, and Who has defeated the confederates single handed.  No one was before Him, and no one remains after Him.”

These verses have become part of the standard text in the Takbir recited loudly and in unison during the Eid celebration.

We can imagine, however, that when the Prophet and his companions recited these verses for the first time, the mood was choleric or at least sanguine, not melancholic as it is recited nowadays.

That it is being recited in a melancholic tone is probably due to the different setting.  The Eid celebration is a joyous occasion, but it is not exactly a choleric or sanguine moment.  Ramadan is leaving.  There is a tinge of sadness in that, for the Muslims have to wait for another eleven months before Ramadan is to come again.  Or perhaps it is recited that way because it is more melodious. 

The Eid celebration is also an occasion for family reunion, where the family members all over the place will come back to their parents to celebrate together.  While the Takbir itself is not overly melancholic, the sound of it can shed tears to those who cannot make the journey back home, due to duty or other reasons.   Or to those who have recently lost the loved ones.  Or to those who have to go back to their in-laws, instead of their own parents (in Malaysia at least, this is often a thorny issue).

Since those lines were first recited after the Battle of Ahzab, which took place in 5 AH, while the first Eid al Fitri was celebrated in 2 AH, I suspected that the Prophet and his companions did not recite those lines during the Eid celebration of their times.  Out of curiosity, I browsed in the net, searching for the origin of the insertion of those lines in the Takbir recitation.

I couldn’t find what I was looking for.  But what I found was somewhat surprising.  It seems that Takbir in unison, as is the practice all over the world, has been banned in Saudi Arabia by their previous Grand Mufti, Ibn Baz.  The ground for the ban, as expected, is because it is a bida’ah (innovation).  The Takbir itself is not an innovation, but to recite it in unison, following an imam or someone leading the Takbir, is.

Quoting what they said authentic hadith, the Sunnah is to recite Takbir individually, while going to the mosque or place for prayer.  Once reaching the mosque, there appears to be a dispute whether Takbir should be continued or stopped, although the ruling is that it may be continued, but not in unison.  Given that the Prophet’s apartment is just a few steps away from the mosque, it is safe to assume that the Takbir is continued.

Furthermore, the Takbir as done during the Prophet and his companions appears to be quite short.  The lengthy part, recited only by the imam or the one leading the Takbir, appears to be a later insertion. 

I am amused by the fact that the cultural norm of reciting Takbir in unison should be an issue at all.  I would have thought that it might be a good idea to explain the origin, meaning and significance of the wordings of the Takbir. 

Perhaps, when we are drowned in the melancholic rhythm of the Takbir, the lesson is lost, and the bida’ah surfaces.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Fasting: An Exercise In Restraint

It would take the mind of Al Ghazali and people of his caliber to uncover the secrets of fasting.  But to know the purpose of fasting, all one needs to do is to go to the Quran.  More specifically, Chapter 2, Verse 183.

In this verse, Allah says: “O you who believe, decreed upon you is fasting as it was decreed upon those before you, that you may become righteous.”

The purpose of fasting is therefore to make us become righteous.   Other purposes such as to be mindful of the plight of the poor, health benefits, etc., are secondary.

The word “righteous” here is a translation of Arabic “taqwa.”  English language does not have its equivalent.  Since there is no English equivalent to Arabic “taqwa,” the phrase لَعَلَّكُمْ تَتَّقُونَ (that you may become righteous), has been rendered differently by different translators.

For instance, Yusuf Ali renders it “that ye may (learn) self-restraint”; Zohurul Hoque renders it “that you may practice reverence”; T.J. Irving renders it “so that you may do your duty”;  M. Khan renders it “that you may become the pious”; M. Pickthall renders it “that you may ward off (evil)”; and M.H. Shakir renders it “so that you may guard (against evil).”  In the Tafsir of Ibn Kathir, it is simply translated so “that you may acquire taqwa.”

Sometimes the word taqwa is rendered as “God fearing” or “God consciousness”   It is also translated as “piety,”  “forbearance,” and even “salvation.”  All meanings given are correct but none is accurate.

Taqwa comes from the root word “waqiya,” meaning to protect.  It is to protect from God’s anger, punishment or displeasure.  It is so important in Islam that, according to one Internet link,  taqwa and its derivatives are mentioned 293 times in the Quran, and countless times by the Prophet. 

Whatever its meanings, all agreed that “taqwa” is attained through obedience, that is, to do what is obligatory, and to abstain from prohibition.

To my knowledge, of the five Islamic Pillars, only fasting is singled out in unequivocal term, whereby its performance is to attain taqwa.  Without reducing the importance of other Pillars, this unequivocal expression makes fasting somewhat unique and its role in attaining taqwa is quite special.

The reason for this is not difficult to fathom. 

Most Islamic rituals or obligations have “social elements” in them, except for fasting.  The five daily prayers, for instance, are recommended to be performed in congregation, with the presence of others.  If we perform the Sunnah or recommended prayers, others may also observe this performance although we do it all by ourselves.  Alms giving cannot be done without the presence of the receivers, either those who are tasked to receive it (Amil), or given directly to the intended recipients.

But fasting is done solely for Allah.  If we take a sip, or a bite, no one would know, except Allah.  Prayers and zakat (alms giving) are actions, fasting is non action.  For that reason, it is “hidden,” and we can “hide” our fasting from other people, if we so choose, for it is very easy to take a sip or a bite and pretend that we are fasting.  The other action that would nullify fasting which would involve other people is sexual intercourse, but even this action is hidden from others, because it would be performed privately between the husband and wife.

Yet we don’t do all these simply because we want to obey Allah’s commandment.  We abstain from eating, drinking and sexual intercourse simply because Allah asks us to abstain from these during the day in the month of Ramadan.

One may say that this may not sound much, because performing the obligations and abstaining from the prohibitions are what Islamic Sharia is all about.  If, however, we consider the fact that we are asked to abstain from what are originally lawful and natural, then the significance of fasting would come to the fore.

Consider this scenario.  We are very hungry and thirsty.  We open our refrigerator.  There are our foods that we acquire and prepare lawfully.  There are assortments of drinks that we purchase with our own money, which is also acquired lawfully.  No one is around.  If we are to satiate our hunger, or to quench our thirst, no one would know.  All these are lawful to us, and it is natural that we should eat when hungry, or drink when thirsty.  But we abstain from all that because we are fasting. 

That in itself is a training in self restraint.  We restraint ourselves from what is lawful and natural simply because we are asked to do it.   This is the act of obedience at its highest degree: to avoid the lawful and natural simply because Allah asks us to avoid it, given the fact that if we choose to cheat, only Allah would know.

With this kind of training for the whole month every year, it is hopeful that we may achieve taqwa, because taqwa lies in obedience, especially obedience in doing or not doing what is natural and lawful.  It is for this reason that, when Allah commands us to fast, it is commanded with the sole purpose of attaining taqwa

The “hidden” or private nature of this worshipping ritual, in the sense that we can hide our fasting without others knowing it, except Allah, is the reason for the Prophet’s saying: “Abu Hurayra reported from the Messenger of Allah that Allah said, "Every action of the son of Adam belongs to him except the fast. It is Mine, and I repay him for it.””

It is also for that reason that when we break our fast, it is called iftarIftar means the breaking of fast, but it also means “back to nature” (back to fitrah).  It is our fitrah (nature) to eat when hungry, to drink when thirsty, and to be with our lawful wives when we feel the urge.  But Allah commands us to do the “unnatural” for a specified time, solely for His sake, so that we may train ourselves to be obedience, and in so doing, we may hopefully attain taqwa.  When the sunset comes, we are allowed to go back to nature.  And when the fasting month is over, we are encouraged to celebrate by feasting in moderation and be merry during the Festival of Fast Breaking (Eid al Fitri).  We are even prohibited to fast in that day.

Fasting is not only a training in self restraint in conquering hunger, thirst and sexual urge for the sake of obedience to Allah.  It is a training in self restraint in general, for we are also commanded to restrain our tongues, our tempers, our eyes, and even our hearts for the sole purpose of attaining taqwa, forever conscious of what Allah wants us to be. 

It is for this reason that after the Prophet says Allah alone will repay the believer who is fasting, he continues: “Fasting is a protection. When one of you has a day of fasting, he should then speak neither obscenely nor too loudly; and if someone seeks to curse him or fight with him, let him say, 'I am fasting.'”

When this is understood, then we can appreciate why on some occasions the Prophet deliberately asked his companions to not fast in the month of Ramadan, as was the case during the expedition to conquer Makkah. 

This expedition, as we know, occurred in the month of Ramadan.  After gathering his forces, and before starting the journey, the Prophet had asked for a container of water.  Raising the container high so that everyone could see it, the Prophet drank from it, giving the example that none of his soldiers should fast during the journey.   There was a very important affair to be accomplished, and fasting would tire and slow them in the journey.   It was not the time for the training in self restraint to achieve taqwa.  Fasting can be delayed or broken because of other more pressing matter, and the sanctity of the fasting month was not sullied by not fasting.

This is what our religious teachers or radio deejays should highlight, not to repeat the stale message about sympathizing with the poor or the health benefits.  Looking from this light, perhaps feasting in moderation after fasting does not look that bad after all, provided that the food and the drink do not tire us down for the tarawih prayers that would come afterward.

After all, the Prophet does say that “the one who fasts has two joys in which to delight: when he breaks his fast, he rejoices; and when he meets his Lord, he rejoices in his fast."

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Fasting: Let There Be Hunger

Our religious teachers and preachers keep telling us that we fast so that we would be reminded of the pain of hunger experienced by the poor.  TV presenters and radio deejays also jump into the bandwagon and keep repeating the same message.

I have been hearing this since I was a kid.  And I must say that since many years back, I have grown tired of this stale message.

Like most kids in my village, I was born into a poor family.  My friends and I were not unfamiliar with hunger.  We often went without food for a lengthy period of time.  Hunger used to be part of our lives.

If fasting is to be reminded of the pain, or rather pang, of hunger, people like us need not fast.

They also extol the virtues of fasting, saying that it is good for health.  Our stomachs have been working hard for eleven months.  They need a break.  Fasting would give that much needed break.

Sound advice, it seems.  We as Muslims are lucky people.  Our religion seems to take care of everything, including the preventive maintenance of our bellies.  But I wonder how much good would fasting be, taking into account that, as soon as the sunset comes, we feast ourselves to the brim, with all sorts of foods, many of which are unhealthy.

These two cannot be the reasons as to why fasting is made an obligation to the Muslims.

For instance, how many rich people pay attention to the poor as a result of fasting?  Those who help the poor do so because of their generosity, not necessarily because of the “lesson” from fasting.  The miserly among the rich, and they appear to be in the majority, would remain as tightfisted no matter how much they fast, saying that the poor are poor because they are lazy, or are not creative enough to make a decent living.  I have never heard of rich people suddenly become generous because of the experience in hunger due to fasting.  There might be other reasons, but generally not the one caused by fasting.

Furthermore, if fasting is to remind us of the pain of hunger experienced by the poor, then Allah needs not prescribe fasting as one of the Pillars of Islam.  The generation of the Prophet and the Companions knew what hunger is all about.  Aisha, the beloved wife of the Prophet, was reportedly saying that the Prophet’s house often went without lighting fire to cook food for many months continuously.  They simply did not have meal to prepare, and survived only on water and a few dates a day.

The Prophet and his companions often tied stones to their bellies to withstand the pang of hunger.  The Prophet used to chew grass because he was too hungry.  Not that the grass can fill his stomach, but the pang or the pain of hunger was too much to bear.

Abu Hurayrah used to say that he always followed the Prophet wherever the Prophet went, and he was most happy if there was food as well.  He was a homeless when he joined the Prophet in Madinah, and used to sleep in the corner of the mosque, and had to rely on other people in order to survive.  Hunger was his middle name when he was young.

Or we can quote the story of Sa’d Abu Waqqas, the conqueror of the Persian Empire.  Before he eventually became quite wealthy, he was very poor.  One night, he went to answer the call of nature.  He noticed a certain sound as his urine hit the ground.  He took it and realized, in the darkness of the night, that it was a dried camel’s hide.  He washed it properly, and boiled it until it became soft, and that was his food for the whole week or so, having nothing else to eat.  His mouth was blistered for a few days because a dried camel’s skin was not exactly melting in his mouth as he chewed, in spite of many hours of boiling.

In short, the Prophet and his companions were poor people whose hunger was their daily “staple,” especially in the early years of Madinah era.  If the purpose of fasting is to be reminded of the pain of hunger experienced by the poor, then fasting need not be part of religious duty.

In this connection, the Prophet used to say: “How many of those who fast get nothing from it but hunger and thirst.”

Well, we reap what we toil.  If the purpose of fasting is to be reminded of the pain of hunger experienced by the poor, then we belong to no more than the group alluded by the Prophet in the above Hadith.  And these are the losers.

Needless to say, fasting can remind us of the hunger experienced by the poor, but to highlight it nauseatingly is idiotic.  Similarly, fasting is good for health, but it is not instituted as a religious obligation for that reason. 

Nowhere in the Quran is mentioned that fasting is prescribed so that the Muslims would be mindful of the pain of hunger experienced by the poor.  Neither does the Prophet talk about fasting in this light, except to remind us that such should not be the case.  After all, it is known that some women throughout ages would go to extreme hunger just to look nice.

Nor does the Quran prescribe fasting for health reason.  For health reason, people often go for diet.  That dieting may involve fasting does not make such fasting real, religiously speaking.  While fasting for health reason is as old as human civilization, Quran does not prescribe fasting to the Muslims during the Prophet’s generation, as it was similarly made obligatory to the previous generations, for this reason.

Thus, while these preachers, religious teachers and others are not exactly wrong in highlighting these virtues, they should have toned down these aspects a bit.  Fasting is a religious obligation, prescribed for a very specific reason.  It is this specific reason which should be highlighted, not on some secondary benefits.  By repeating these secondary benefits nauseatingly long, again and again, their message is beginning to sound idiotic.

If we look at the matter slightly deeper in our society, the whole picture does look somewhat idiotic.  You see, while the preachers are busy extolling the virtue of fasting, reminding us of the hunger experienced by the poor, we are busy feasting ourselves as soon as iftar  (fast breaking) time comes, as we have mentioned in the previous entry. 

If that does not seem idiotic enough, then consider the fact that, as soon as the fasting month enters, many of us would be busy thinking about the new dress for the Eid Festival, or the new curtain for the house, or what assortments of cakes, food and drinks for the Eid.  And we haven’t talked about which house to go back for the festival, either the husband’s or the wife’s side, which, in the case of the Malays, has always been a real issue. 

None of these activities is religious.  They are cultural, like fasting itself, which appears to be more like a cultural phenomenon among the Malays, as we have mentioned before.

In short, all I am saying is that we should not cheapen the obligation that Allah has deemed to be very important.  That it is one of the Five Pillars of Islam indicates that fasting is of paramount importance in Islam.  Its importance cannot be measured by the experience of hunger or health benefit.  We should be highlighting the purpose of fasting as Allah Himself has deemed it.

Perhaps it would be a good idea to talk a bit about it in the next entry.  Stay tuned.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Fasting: A Cultural Phenomenon

I learned to fast before I learned to pray.

As my long time friend used to say, fasting is easy.  It involves not doing.  Prayer is more difficult.  It involves actions, including some recitations, which need to be learned.

Perhaps because of this nature that most kids in Malaysia complete the whole month of fasting before they perform their five daily prayers regularly. 

I started to perform my daily prayers regularly when I reached the age of maturity (baligh in Arabic, which usually comes with puberty), but I completed the whole month of fasting way before that.  I cannot now recall exactly at what age, but it must have been before I reached ten years old.

One of my nieces completed her whole month of fasting at the age of seven.  She would come to the kitchen around two or three pm and forced her mother to cook.  Her mother would tell her it is much too early to prepare food for iftar (the breaking of fast), but of course a seven year old girl would not listen. 

She learned to fast before that age, when she was about five.  One day, the strain of fasting rendered her motionless, unable to move around, and her parent forced her to break her fast, but she would not bulge.  The next day they did not bother to wake her up for sahur (meal taken before fasting is assumed).  When she wanted to continue fasting, they told her there is no fasting without sahur for kid.

The story is merely to illustrate how easy fasting is.  Even a kid who cannot differentiate between what is right and what is wrong can do that, if he or she has a will.  My niece was a strong willed girl.  Her parent told her she was not required to fast at her age, but since she saw the grown up fasted, she wanted to do it as well.

Others not so strong willed such as myself did not go to that extreme.  When I started fasting, I managed to do it only up to noon time.  The next day, I did it again up to about the same time.  Combining the two, my parent said that I had completed one day fasting, since half plus half is one.  Most other kids learn to fast that way. 

We wouldn’t probably learn to fast that early in our life were not for our parents’ encouragement.  In my case, which was also true to all my friends in my village, we learned to fast early because we wanted to celebrate the festival, known as Eid al Fitri, which comes as soon as the fasting month is over.  It was the most joyous festival for us as kids, partly because the grown up would give us some small change, which they do only during that festival. 

No fasting, no Eid al Fitri, they said.  No Eid, no gift.  So we made an effort to fast.  Once we get used to it, fasting was easy. 

That was how we were brought up, and we never questioned why we have to fast.  The religious teachers did tell us that if we don’t fast, we would go to Hell.  The prospect of going to Hell was not enticing, but we were also told that we can go to Hell for many reasons.  We can go to Hell for stealing, for lying, for missing our prayers, for doing bad things.  But somehow, as I observe among the Malays, and myself to some degree, it is easier to fast than to do or not do other things, in spite of the Hellfire warning.

I know of many people, already advanced in age, who still do not pray regularly, except for Friday Prayer, but would not miss fasting.  Some of them are rich but do not pay the required zakat (alm giving), but still do not miss fasting.  Many others indulge in Hell bound activities such as taking bribes and commit adultery, but would not entertain the thought of not completing their fasting.

It appears, therefore, we take our fasting seriously, while we take other things lightly.  For most Malays, fasting comes naturally.  For many of us, myself included, to not fast during Ramadan is unthinkable.

Which was why, years ago, I was taken aback when a Pakistani neighbor asked me whether I was fasting.  I was in my late teenage year, and it was the first time I fasted in the United States, having pursued my tertiary education there.

His question sounded very odd to me, because I took fasting as given.  As he struck me as a religious man, and since I was familiar with Al Ghazali’s levels of fasting, having read what he wrote in Ihya many years before, I thought that my Pakistani neighbor might have meant whether I was really fasting, not just abstaining from food and drink (of course sex was out of picture, since I was not yet married). 

“What do you mean?” I shot back at him, after a momentary pause.

“Nothing, just asking,” he replied.

“If you ask whether I don’t eat or drink, yes, I am fasting,” I said.

“Alhamdulillah,” he said, and we changed the subject.

Later, I realized that he was only asking literally.  It turned out that many Pakistanis and Arabs whom I used to know in the United States did not fast.  It appeared that fasting does not quite come naturally to many of them, as it is to Malays.  But I also observed that they tend to keep their regular prayers more religiously than the Malays.

Later on, when one of my professors, an Egyptian teaching International Finance, asked me whether I was fasting, I answered quickly without any reservation.  He of course meant it literally. 

I just saw him smoking, so I didn’t ask whether he was fasting, but perhaps because he was feeling a little embarrassed by the fact that he did not fast, he offered me an explanation: “It is not the food or the drink, it is the cigarette.  If I don’t smoke, I get headache.”

I just nodded my head.  It goes without saying that I did nothing more than nodding my head because he was my professor.  If he was my friend, I would have probably responded differently.

Since fasting comes naturally to the Malays, but other matters do not, in the sense that we might indulge in all sorts of wrong doings, but still keep our fasting intact (or not praying, but continue fasting), I wonder whether fasting is really taken as a religious obligation, or merely a cultural phenomenon.

As I wrote in my earlier entry, we fast during the day, and by sunset, we would feast like there is no tomorrow.  The whole exercise of fasting therefore appears lost to many. 

Fasting has long been a natural phenomenon to the Malays, but as far as I can ascertain, feasting is quite a new fad.  When I was a kid, we used to break our fast at home, and we ate simply.  Perhaps feasting is ushered by the prosperity that we have been experiencing. 

It turns out the feasting is not just a Malay phenomenon.  Other nations also indulge in similar activity.   Somalis in Somalia appear to be an exception.  If they are prosperous instead of poor, I suspect they would feast like us as well.

I suppose since fasting is becoming more like a social phenomenon rather than a religious obligation, feasting naturally follows suit.

Then again, since we can afford, or better yet, other people are paying, why the Heaven not.  We have been starving ourselves during the day, have we not?

Friday, August 3, 2012

Ramadan: The Month of Fasting and Feasting

It is that time of the year again.  

For one whole month, many Muslims would starve themselves during the day, and by sunset, they would feast themselves like there is no tomorrow.  Fasting by the day and feasting by the night are what many Muslims in Malaysia do during the month of Ramadan, as many Muslims elsewhere also do.

They don’t practice any strange cult.  It is just their way of celebrating the month of Ramadan.

It is a profitable month.

Ramadan is a profitable month in Malaysia, as I am sure it is also a profitable month elsewhere.  It is the month where hotels and restaurants will be filled to the brim during dinner time.  It is the period where there will be a month long food fair, offering all sorts of foods and drinks often not found in other months.  It is a period where tailors will be busy 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and still cannot cope with their work of making new clothes for the upcoming festival.  It is a month where monies are made by some, and spent by others.

It is a month of generosity.  

More monies would be spent on food, clothes, and other amenities during Ramadan.  At the same time, some monies would be spent for orphans, the poor and the mosques. But most monies would be spent for five star hotels and posh restaurants.  Although these service providers would charge them as many as ten times or more for decent dinner, many would still throng to these joints, because these joints do not simply offer decent dinner to break their fast, but would spread lavish banquet for the starving worshippers to feast.  More importantly, it is generally other people who are paying, which make the feast more delicious.

The fasting Muslims would also spend more on food and drinks than usual at the month long food fair, known in Malaysia as Bazaar Ramadan. Practically starving by the time they go to the bazaar, these worshippers would want all the offerings. Everything looks nice and appetizing.   Thus, they would buy two or three times more than they need, but consume only one third of them, and often throw away the other two third.

The mosques would also find people suddenly become generous.  More donations would be forthcoming, and these mosques would cook the favorite porridge and distribute it free for worshippers to break their fast.  Most mosques would also hold free iftar, the breaking of fast to the hungry worshippers.  And most orphanages would suddenly find sympathetic people or institutions who would lavish on them with something they never have in other months.

It is a blessed month with some controversy.

It is also a month where mosques would suddenly be filled to the brim, especially during the first few days of the Ramadan.  They would pray and recite Quran until close to midnight or so, and some of them would come back for Qiyam al-Layl (literally means “standing at night,” but in practice it means prayers or act of worships performed after one wakes up from sleep in the late hours of the night). 

The prayer they perform after night prayer (isya’) is called salat taraweehTaraweeh is the plural of tarweeha, meaning “to rest.”  Of course it does not mean to rest, but the prayer is to be offered leisurely, not to be rushed.  After four cycles, the worshippers are to take a short break, before resuming another four cycles.  But since it is often offered in 20 cycles, they often rush it up so that it won’t take too much time to complete.  “To rest” then becomes “to rush.”

There has been great debate in Malaysia, and elsewhere, about the number of cycles (rakaah) required to complete the taraweeh prayer.  Some people say that it is only eight cycles, arguing that the normal twenty cycles is an innovation (bidaah), saying that it was not done by the Prophet himself, but instituted during the time of Umar al Khattab, the second caliph. 

Some people seem to think that they know more than Umar and all the Companions who used to live with the Prophet.  If we have any respect to Umar and the leading companions, we would know that they would be the first to object to whatever practice they deemed innovative.  Accusing Umar of instituting bad innovation not only reflects conceited behavior, but utter ignorant of the Sunnah of the Prophet.  We should be mindful that Umar and the leading companions know better about the Sunnah of the Prophet, because they used to live with him, and because the Prophet has said that his companions are the guiding stars.

During the time of Imam Malik, people in Madinah used to perform 36 cycles of taraweeh prayer.  The reason is because people in Makkah performed 20 cycles.  They took a break after 10 cycles to perform tawaf (circumambulation of Kaabah).  Since there is no Kaabah in Madinah, the people of Madinah added 16 cycles more to compensate for what was missing.

The debate about the number of cycles for taraweeh prayer seems to die down nowadays.  A few days ago, however, a friend of mine asked me what is the difference between eight and twenty cycles.  I have followed this debate and studied the arguments of both sides, but not wanting to comment on it, I simply said: “Twenty is more than eight.”  He laughed and said: “As to that, I cannot disagree.”

In this connection, I am reminded of the attitude taken by Hassan Al Banna, the founder of Muslims Brotherhood.  One night in the month of Ramadan, he was sitting at one corner while people were arguing whether taraweeh prayer is eight or twenty cycles.  They were already on each others’ throat when suddenly some of them got back their senses.

“We are arguing among ourselves when our Shaykh is here with us.  Let’s ask him.”

They went to Al Banna and put the question to him, hoping the Shaykh would take side, namely theirs.

“Is taraweeh prayer obligatory or recommended?”  The Shaykh asked.

“Recommended,” they answered quickly.

“Is unity among Muslims obligatory or recommended?”  The Shaykh asked again.

“Obligatory,” they answered, only that this time not so quickly.

“Then, those who want to pray eight rakaah may do so, and those who want to pray twenty may also do so, but do not fight against each other.”  The Shaykh Al Banna concluded.

And Ramadan is a month of feasting.

It should be a month of fasting, but after not taking any food or drink during the day, it is certainly nice to feast our hunger and thirst.   And some people really do.  I cannot absolve myself from this occasional excess either, especially when other people are paying for the banquet, although generally I would go for simple meal.

Most people would quote Al Ghazali when talking about the spirit of fasting.  Al Ghazali outlines three types of fasting: (1) the fasting of general people, who abstain from food, drink and sexual relation, (2) the fasting of elite group, who not only do the first three, but also keep their eyes, ears, tongue, hands, feet and all organs from sin, and (3) the fasting of the elite of the elite, who also keep their hearts and minds from unworthy concerns and worldly thoughts.

Al Ghazali should have made four types, adding the fasting of the feasters as well, who would fast in the day and feast in the night.