Dr. Haider Shah

Opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance (Plato).

OVER A COFFEE: Deaths in Karachi and fasting, The Daily Times, 4 July, 2015

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Even if a person is completely healthy but is working in hot summer conditions, the prohibition of water is not something that any sane doctor would ever recommend

In London,as all media sources had predicted,we faced a blazing day on July 1; my car’s dashboard recorded 37 C temperature on the day. We were given many health-related warnings on the television and radio and were advised to drink fluids regularly during the day to avoid chances of dehydration.
In Pakistan, the mercury remains above 40C in these months of the year. Risks of dehydration and heatstroke are therefore acute for those who do not have the luxury of remaining indoors or travelling in air-conditioned cars. However, just take stock of the narrative in mainstream media outlets here. Clichés like “Rehmatonaurberkatonkamaheena” (month of blessings) make up the core of all sermons that are endlessly unleashed onviewers by clerics of all pedigrees in commercially produced programmes. As if the hype created by the rhetoric of piety by professional sermonisers were not enough, some doctors also try to ‘scientify’fasting by making sweeping claims of health benefits.Some even go to the extent of quoting some research articles on fasting. At times, not stating full facts amounts to a constructive lie. As a display of intellectual dishonesty, they do not make clear that medical fasting is entirely different from the fasting we see at the cultural level inMuslim societies. In medical fasting only food intake is not allowed for a few hours with no prohibition on drinking water. They also fail to disclose a big body of literature that reports increased risks due to Ramzan-style fasting for various categories of patients. Even if a person is completely healthy but is working in hot summer conditions, the prohibition of water is not something that any sane doctor would ever recommend.

More than 1,000 people have died in Karachi recently. Whether we harbour a Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Scientologist, Christian or Muslim faith in the conscious part of our brains, our nervous system and other involuntary systems work independently of our faith. After sweating in the sun, our body needs water and minerals to keep systems working. The need of drinking plenty of water on a hot summer day is so fundamental that one may consider it as a basic tenet of humanism. Our cultural attitudes reinforced by abusive pieces of legislation such as the Ahteraam-e-RamzanOrdinance are more condemnable when we discover that the Quranic verse that introduces the practice of fasting does not make it a mandatory provision. A few years back, I wrote specifically about Sir Syed’s very logical interpretation of verse 2:184:“[Fasting for] a limited number of days. So whoever among you is ill or on a journey [during them] then an equal number of days [are to be made up]. And upon those who are able [to fast, but with hardship] a ransom [as substitute] of feeding a poor person [each day]. And whoever volunteers excess, it is better for him. But to fast is best for you, if you only knew.”

Ritualised Ramzanbrings glory and social control to the clergy. Not surprisingly, the clerics twist the verse and extract meanings that do not threaten the status quo. But if the verse is read plainly one cannot help agreeing with Sir Syed that God proposed fasting and feeding as two choices. While in this verse (2:184) the two choices are mentioned, in later two verses the formalities of fasting are then detailed for those who go for the fasting choice. But if someone is not keen on fasting for any personal reasons,he can instead feed at least one needy person as compensation.If some choice has been explicitly given in Quranic verses, no opinion of any jurist can take that right away. The concluding verse on fasting states that God does not want to make our lives difficult. Working in thescorching heat to earn food for one’s children and to keep the economy moving is not a choice of luxury for the majority of Pakistanis. Denying them the right ofdrinking water amounts to increasing the risk of dehydration,which God expressly rules out as the intention of the suggestion.

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? We also need to think whether all Quranic directives are of equal importance or whether we can do our own cherry picking. For instance, Quranic verses contain very clear admonitions against those who indulge in interest-based trade; in one verse such transgressors are termed as being smitten with insanity by the devil. But from the government to the ordinary faithful, some kind of pragmatic silence has been developed over the years on interest-based transactions. If we compare fasting with interest taking, we can see that while the prohibition on interest is mandatory, God is only suggesting that fasting might be good if taken as a choice. Still, culturally we feel obsessed with treating fasting as more important than other directives found in the holy Book.

When the Pakistani media broke the news of a large number of heatwave-related deaths, people criticised the government and energy providers. We do not have the guts to name the real culprits though. Sermonisers and doctors share the responsibility for causing these deaths.They wilfully promoted water deprivation as a dictum of God and spread false information about health benefits. Or maybe we are still living in that era when humans were killed as sacrifices to please deities.

Author: Dr. Haider Shah

Academic, Researcher and Writer

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