What exactly is Ramzan?   

The holy month of Ramzan does not involve just fasting from dawn to dusk but also enjoins restraint and a code of behavior that rules out even sexual relations

Photo courtesy: PTI
Photo courtesy: PTI

Jawhar Sircar

In India, we are passing through a traumatic period when the very ‘idea of India’ is being challenged by forces that are ignorant of the contribution of different communities to the architecture of Indian existence.

One of the reasons for this crisis could be that we were complacent or had taken for granted that the essential faith in multi-culturality must have sunk in after 65 years of existence as an independent nation. We had basically not taken pains to understand each other’s beliefs, religious practices and life-sustaining values — in short, each other’s essentially different ways of thinking.

As a result, determined mischief-makers could play upon these ‘differences’ and deliberately spread misunderstanding and poison among the masses. To give an example, let us see how much non-Muslims know about major Islamic observances and festivals — except that secular India gave us ‘holidays’ on these days and those who had friends among them could wish them.

How many realise why Muslims go through a long month of fasting from before dawn to after sunset ? We do appreciate that is really creditable — the ignorant call this devotion to be an evidence of their fanaticism — but few take the extra effort to learn why they do it.

As this month of Ramzan or Ramadan can fall in almost any season, the period of fast without touching water often becomes rather long. We all know that Muslims end this month of fasting when the first slice of the Eid moon is sighted as our holiday depends on it, but beyond this, most of us know little else about the major festival of India's largest 'minority'.

So, let us try to understand more about this practice of fast that Prophet Muhammad instituted in the ninth month of the lunar calendar: to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran to him. The forty days of fasting before Easter that the Christians call the 'Lent' may have inspired it though this mandate is nowhere as obligatory.

How many realise why Muslims go through a long month of fasting from before dawn to after sunset ? We do appreciate that is really creditable — the ignorant call this devotion to be an evidence of their fanaticism — but few take the extra effort to learn why they do it

Jews observe fast on Yom Kippur and other religions like Hinduism also enjoin certain days for religious fasts. Hinduism prescribes a period of restricted diet like Navaratri, but most leave it to the individual to decide. The binding observance on such a large scale as Muslims do all over the world is really beyond comparison.

The Arabs call it Ramadan which is from their root word for scorching heat or dryness. In other words, it was meant to take physical suffering head on and deliberately in order to strengthen one's resolve and inner conviction.

This month most of the world's 160 crore Muslims practise strict Sawm (fast) and after a pre-dawn meal called Suhoor and their first prayer Fajr (dawn), they do not touch even a drop of water or any food until the sun sets. It is one of the five pillars of Islam and the real test is to keep working through the day at the same pace as the well fed do and not to permit any slow-down despite hours of dehydration.

Islam exempts only the sick or those who are really old or travelling, as well as women who are pregnant from this rigorous fasting but it also counsels them to make up for their omission at the first available opportunity.

How long is the fast? India like Arab countries could have it for 15 to 16 hours, while in New Zealand it could be for less that 10. But as we go up to Europe or North America, daylight hours extend to 20 hours, while the sun never sets near the North Pole.

To obviate extreme rigour, Muslims may simply stick to the sunset hours of Mecca. Several mosques all over the world arrange for the entire Quran to be recited over thirty nights in prayers called Tarawih.

What is less known to outsiders is that Muslims are also expected to exercise utmost restraint in every form of behaviour and abstain from sexual relations during their fast. All forms of good conduct are amply rewarded by the Almighty during this holy period and this injunction against aggression or spite is as important as fasting. In this context, it is tragic to see some fanatics waging a relentless and inhumanly destructive war on their co-religionists in the Middle East during this holy month.

Just as Yoga is not just contorting the body, Roza is not only a test of physical endurance: it is meant to infuse moral and religious virtues and bind the community more strongly. Everyone knows that many find the fast too rigorous but the spirit of the family and community sustain them — even as many look constantly at their watches for the end of the day’s fast. But it gives them strength of will-power and discipline and proudly distinguishes Muslims from others.

Among its many virtues the most remarkable is that of compulsory charity, Zakaat, which is another pillar of Islam that mandates that the poor must be given a portion of one's earning as Sadaqah. During Ramzan, this is increased as religious merit also becomes more.

(The author, a retired IAS officer, is former CEO of Prasar Bharti and a former Secretary to the Government of India’s Department of Culture)

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