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.

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