Back in the day there was never any compulsion at home about praying and roza or fasting during Ramadan. Before going to bed at night Ma used to ask which one of us wanted to fast the day after. Those who wished to would tell her, as would those who did not. During the last hours of the night she used to wake up only those who had told her they would fast, for sehri, the pre-dawn meal. The rest would continue to sleep peacefully. Anyone who woke up for the pre-dawn meal had to be careful not to disturb the ones who were asleep, make sure they did not make too much noise.
It was same with namaz as well. Those who wished to pray, did, and those who did not want to did not have to. There were no recriminations regarding this either. The ones who wanted to pray did not attempt to force those to pray who did not and the latter too did not make any attempts to disturb the former during the namaz. These rules were neither written nor regularly espoused, they were sort of like natural laws. If you are hungry you will eat, if you are thirsty, you will drink, if you feel sleepy, you will sleep.
During iftar or evening meal Ma would ask everyone to gather together. We would all sit around the table and Ma would serve iftari to everyone with equal care and attention. Whether you were fasting or not, everyone got the same food. Back then I did not appreciate it but now I do – our house had been the ideal one.
Our house was not close enough to the mosque for us to be able to hear the azaan or call to prayer. In the 60-70s, even in the 80s, there were not that many mosques in the country. However, those at home who used to pray never had to face any difficulty regarding the time of prayers. There were clocks on the walls of course. Plus, Ma could tell from the sunlight on our yard if it was time for namaz yet.
It says in the Quran, ‘la ikraha fiddeen’, ‘there is no compulsion in religion’. I believe this to be the most valuable ayat or verse of the Quran and if one were to adhere to this verse with all diligence it can possibly ensure world peace. Islamic scholars usually explain this ayat thus – ‘Islam has nothing to do with coercion, force, persecution or another such destructive behaviour. All such things are against the principles of Islam. Religion is premised upon beliefs and wishes. Forcing someone into reacting or coming to an agreement is not supported by Islam. In fact, Islam prohibits strife and discord, feuds and conflicts, rioting and vandalism. Creating terror, committing the murder of an innocent, such things are unforgettable crimes in Islam.’ Now the question is how many people actually adhere to this explanation?
What I fail to understand is why do Muslims not adhere to the teachings of the Quran that they claim to be so proud of. Allah has decreed that there is no coercion in religion. It is but expected that Allah’s true believers should abide by His counsel. But is that how things happen in reality? In the UAE a new law has been instituted whereby if anyone is found having eaten or drank outside food during the month of Ramadan, they are going to be heavily fined and jailed for a month. In Bangladesh the restaurants are forcibly kept shut during the day and if anyone is found having flouted the rule the fasting mob arrives and vandalises their restaurants. Do even thirsty non-Muslims have no right to seek water somewhere during this terrible heat wave? Someone wishing to quench their thirst is met with intimidation, violence, and destructive outbursts. Those not fasting remain in constant anxiety regarding the ones who have chosen to fast. Many of the latter believe that someone eating or drinking anything in front of them is an insult to their person. I used to eat my fill sitting right in front of my fasting mother and she used to be happy seeing me content. Many a day she used to feed me as well and never did she feel I was insulting her in any way. Neither did I ever feel that she loved me any less because I had refused to fast. My mother was a very honest and pious woman, she knew how to respect one’s choice of not fasting. Today most religious people are sorely lacking in this quality; they run on the assumption that intolerance and injustice are necessary requirements for religion.
The ones who fast expect to be in Allah’s good graces at the time of Judgement. Is it not enough? Why do fasting Muslims seek to demand respect from the ones who do not fast? And why must we show the fasting Muslims any respect at the cost of our human rights by not eating food at the restaurants? Isn’t respect supposed to be mutual? Respect can be accorded only if it is reciprocated, isn’t that so? And is someone’s sense of respect so fragile that it feels slighted at the sight of another person eating in front of them? Ma used to say if we managed to stick to our resolve and control our desires even at the sight of someone else eating or drinking, it was going to make our roza even stronger and more effective. Does no one think like this anymore?
In Bangladesh, people start shouting or making a commotion and in the neighbourhood to get up for sehri at the end of every night. The chaos usually wakes everyone up, even the ones who are not interested in sehri. Do they have no right to sleep if they wish to? The same can be said about the azaan as well. Back in the day when there were no alarm clocks or mobile phones perhaps the shouts and cries of the local boys used to be pretty useful for the ones who needed to wake up for sehri. In this age of technological advancements, such excesses are completely unnecessary. I’m sure everyone knows how to set an alarm in their mobile phones; even if they don’t it hardly takes a couple of minutes to learn!
The ones who wish to fast have the right to do so; the ones who don’t wish to should have a right to choose too. Every human being has the right to be a believer or a non-believer. Across the world, people have a right to practice their own religion. Not just that, the religious also have the right to be critical of those who do not believe in religion. But non-believers don’t have the right to say anything critical of the former – if they do so it results in harassment, legal trouble, jail time, exile or even murder. Religion is a personal matter. Anyone who wishes to practice a particular religion should be allowed to do so just as anyone who does not wish to should be allowed to do as they please. How can the nation, the state or society force someone to practice a religion? Does that mean religion will never show us a possible path to liberation, it will always end up putting people in shackles? The nation is for everyone, not just the majority but the minority as well. It is the duty of the government to treat everyone as equal.
The government of China has forbidden the observance of roza in the Muslim neighborhoods of the country. This prohibition, however, applies only to government officers and workers, leaders and workers of the Communist Party and students. I understand that students should not be made to fast to protect their health. Leaders and workers of the Party, being communists and atheists, perhaps are expected to not observe the roza. But not all government officers and workers are atheists. If they wish to fast, why should they not be allowed to do so? Perhaps the government wishes to convey that since fasting results in fatigue it can disrupt work at the office during the day. But what about those who can tirelessly work even while they are fasting, why should they not be allowed to fast during Ramadan? Not all who fast sit and doze off at work! I strongly condemn this embargo placed by the Chinese government.
China is criticised the world over for it’s an anti-democratic and anti-human rights stance. This move to ban Muslims from fasting too has been criticised. But the Chinese government has stated that it keeps strict surveillance on it’s Muslim dominated provinces during Ramadan to suppress terrorists and separatists. Accordingly, the government has decreed that no cafes and restaurants must remain closed during Ramadan. That at least is the right decision I believe. On the other hand, the Muslim nations have gone the opposite route of China when it comes to Ramadan and fasting and banned the consumption of food or drink even if someone is not fasting.
If Islam does not become more liberal then it’s Muslims who stand to lose the most. Numerous people around the world today are against Muslims. Muslims are not anymore trusted, most fear them or recoil at their name. Because of a handful of terrorist organisations Muslims, in general, are coming to be identified as intolerant, murderous barbarians. It’s Muslims themselves who must take up the onus of ensuring Islam becomes more liberal. They must prove to the world that they are not merely intolerant terrorists, that they do not condone the actions of Muslims radicals, that they believe in forgiveness, kindness, human rights, women’s freedom and in the freedom of expression. Unless human rights and democracy are respected there is no way Muslims can hope to earn the respect of the conscientious people of the world.
The Chief Minister of West Bengal, despite not being a Muslim herself, pray namaz and observes roza. As much as any of us can claim that she does not do any of this sincerely, that she does everything for Muslim votes, but even then I don’t believe anyone should attempt to make her stop doing these things. She has the right to practice any religion she wants. Who says someone does not possess the right to observe more than one faith at a time? Just like we have the right to forsake religion if we wish to, we also have the right to practice more than one if we wish to. But we must be careful to remember one thing – in the eyes of the state a person who believes in a particular religion and a person who does not believe in any are both equally important, they are entitled to the same rights.