OVER A COFFEE : Rationalising the rituals of Ramzan — II — Dr Haider Shah
Why is it that we think certain verses of the Quran are more or less important than others?
Our students are never exposed to Sir Syed’s views on various socio-religious issues. The great Muslim rationalist is merely presented as the architect of the two nation theory and founder of Aligarh University. The following verses that form the basis of the fasting ritual have been analysed by Sir Syed in his tafseer (commentary) after referring to various viewpoints:
“Believers! Fasting is enjoined upon you, as it was enjoined upon those before you, that you become God-fearing” (2:183).
“Fasting is for a fixed number of days, and if one of you be sick, or if one of you be on a journey, you will fast the same number of other days later on. For those who are capable of fasting (but still do not fast) there is a redemption: feeding a needy man for each day missed. Whoever voluntarily does more good than is required, will find it better for him; and that you should fast is better for you, if you only know” (2:184).
“During the month of Ramadan the Qur’an was sent down as a guidance to the people with Clear Signs of the true guidance and as the Criterion (between right and wrong). So those of you who live to see that month should fast it, and whoever is sick or on a journey should fast the same number of other days instead. Allah wants ease and not hardship for you so that you may complete the number of days required; magnify Allah for what He has guided you to, and give thanks to Him” (2:185).
The viewpoints analysed range from claiming that 2:183 referred to non-Ramzan fasting to claiming that 2:185 repeals 2:183. After a logical discussion it is concluded by Sir Syed that God proposed fasting and feeding as two choices. If someone is keen on fasting but is prevented from doing so in Ramzan on account of travel or illness, he can fast in later months for the days missed in Ramzan. But if someone is not keen on fasting he can instead feed at least one destitute as compensation. In the carefully shaped popular discourse promoted by the religious establishment, this option of feeding the hungry instead of fasting is never disclosed. Some translators go to the extent of making insertions of their own to hide the availability of this option.
As the Quran is the primary source of law, if some choice has been explicitly given, no opinion of any jurist can take that right away. The last verse also states that God does not want to make our lives difficult. In wars the Holy Prophet (PBUH) would often advise against fasting so that the competitiveness of Muslim warriors was not compromised. What we need to ponder is that if the Quranic verses provide a choice of feeding instead of fasting, how come we deny this choice in our society? At a rational level let us suppose if half of the population, instead of fasting, exercises the feeding choice, wouldn’t we see the eradication of hunger at least during the month of Ramzan? The rationale of fasting given in verse 2:183 is to make a person righteous. Imagine we see a 10-year-old orphan in the street who looks hungry and thirsty. Would it be more righteous for us to remain hungry like him the whole day or instead feed him properly after earning through some economic activity?
A few days ago the news of Pakistan getting a $ 5.3 billion IMF loan was splashed by the media. Apart from a few murmurs from professional critics, we hardly noticed any nationwide protest. Now let us revisit the Quranic verses on the issue of interest-based loans.
“O ye who believe! Fear Allah and give up what remains of interest, if you are truly believers. But if you do it not, then beware of war from Allah and His Messenger; and if you repent, then you shall have your principal; thus you shall not wrong nor shall you be wronged” (2:278-9).
Quranic verses contain very clear admonitions against those who indulge in interest-based trade, and in one verse such transgressors are termed as smitten with insanity by the devil. But from government to the ordinary faithful, some kind of pragmatic silence has been developed over the years on interest-based transactions. Even the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) government, which recently issued an ordinance prescribing three-month imprisonment or a fine of Rs 50,000 as a punishment for anyone seen eating or drinking in public during the day, has given no indication of scrapping the Bank of Khyber that institutionalises ‘the war for Allah and His Messenger’ by promoting interest-based trading in the province.
Why is it that we think certain verses of the Quran are more or less important than others? In case of fasting we not only don’t see admonitions in the scripture as we see in the case of interest-based trade, we also find mention of a choice between feeding and fasting. Still culturally we feel obsessed with treating fasting as more important than other directives found in the Holy Book. These culturally defined attitudes not only stifle economic activity for one month every year but have also promoted a popular culture of institutionalised hypocrisy and lying as many are forced to resort to ‘pretend fasting’ during the month.
Perhaps the educated sections of society can use their own thinking to rationalise their choices. It’s a challenging task but not an impossible one.
The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of the Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org