FARANGI IN TOWN: Fasts and feasts —Ella Rolfe

Would it be a good idea to devote serious enquiry to the best way of structuring working hours during Ramazan? I know many offices do close earlier in the day, but none (as far as I know) open much earlier

I almost feel afraid, given the apparent recent expansion of violence in the west of this country, to say publicly that I am not fasting. But that would be to equate militancy and opposition to ‘foreign’ invasion (whether, in the mindset of many tribesmen, it is from Washington, Kabul or Islamabad) with puritanical religious ideas of enforced conformity, a sometimes but by no means always valid connection. And in any case, to fear would be to let the mullahs or militants have some satisfaction. And so, I am not fasting.I am, however — appropriately for Ramazan but not as an intentional celebration of the holy month — delving a bit deeper into Islam and what it means. There is much that I find that is accommodated very well within my own thoughts — most particularly the personal responsibility of the individual to develop himself spiritually that is advocated by many Islamic thinkers, as opposed to the right of the state to try to enforce virtue, Inquisition-style.

But I am still struggling to understand the view cited by one western writer who made a life for himself in Morocco, that ‘man is not put here to work, we are put here to pray’. How representative of Muslims in general this view is difficult to say; I have also heard Muslim friends explain that ‘work is prayer’ because everything is prayer.

But I think it is part of the complex difficulties the ‘ordinary’ (in common perception: not very well educated) Muslim and the ‘ordinary’ (somewhat better educated) westerner have in understanding each other.

On the one hand, this attitude seems to invoke very ‘western’ words like ‘wanton’ and ‘lazy’; on the other, a great humbleness may be found in the belief that one’s purpose is not to serve one’s own means or ambitions, but to, as it were, glorify thy Maker.

I’m not sure if it translates well into practicalities, though. Governmental provisions for Ramazan are one example. Newspapers at the beginning of the month carried stories announcing the adjustment of load shedding so that during those crucial hours of 3-5 am and 6-9 pm — cooking and eating — there will be no load shedding. Indeed, ours has improved. We no longer get two hours in the evening, and the power stays on between seven and midnight where it did not before; but instead we get one hour, six until seven. Good intentions, but I sense some disconnect.

Similarly, a recent announcement that women drivers, or those with their family in the car, will be exempted from fines if they crash said vehicles during Ramazan, shows problems fully connecting how Muslims wish to live in Pakistan with how the current state views its role. The waiver is something to do with lack of concentration caused by fasting — but why only women and families? It is as if the state is seeking to apologise on behalf of Muslims for their religious practices.

These examples show that an adequate system for adapting Islamic attitudes and ways of living to modern realities has not yet been developed. Such attitudes are no less valid or conducive to a functioning society than the western obsession with personal achievement and worldly results; but there needs to be a more comprehensive attempt to develop norms that exploit the good in these ideas, rather than trying to squeeze and squash them into bad adaptations of western patterns.

For example, would it be a good idea to devote serious enquiry to the best way of structuring working hours during Ramazan? I know many offices do close earlier in the day, but none (as far as I know) open much earlier — would it be practical to take advantage of the period after Sahar when people feel more able to work? Or, should the working week be cut to allow people time to recover from the undeniable physical difficulties of fasting, thus trying to mitigate the inevitable decline towards the end of the month? Or should the pre-Ramazan period be characterised by increased effort in order to allow, sanction and indeed encourage more time for rest, prayer and contemplation during the fasting month itself?

The cycle of fasting and feasting has no inherent problems; indeed, some evolutionary anthropologists think that humans are programmed to do this anyway, eating more than our fill when food is plentiful to prepare for lean periods. Hence the tendency to overeat constantly in a situation where food is always plentiful has been blamed as one cause of obesity in rich nations.

But there has been little attempt to acknowledge and produce genuine societal structures for Ramazan and other features of Islamic life. As much as Pakistan’s governments variously claim to be running an Islamic state, they show very little sign of promoting Islam as a modern, valid way of life. No wonder ‘certain elements’ wish to rebel.

Unfortunately, the very statement that Islam today is besieged by ‘western’ or ‘modern’ ways of thinking with which it does not quite fit is fuel for all sorts of trouble. Violence is one reaction to this realisation; blind dogma another; isolationism another.

Could this perception instead be used as a jumping-off point, as an impetus to develop a new paradigm? Islam has not historically been passive, backward or opposed to innovation. It need not be now.

Ella Rolfe is a freelance writer from London



Source: Daily Times, 15/9/2008


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