Published on: 2019-05-03
Written By: RIHAN NAJIB
The essentials of iftar: The Ramzan fast is broken at sundown with a glass of water and a few dates
Go ahead and ask. You know you want to.
“Not EVEN water?”
Not even water.
Every year, colleagues who are non-Muslims look alarmed on my behalf. Invariably, it’s because I have told them that I’ll be leaving from office early for a month on account of Ramzan. They pointedly remind me of my many unsuccessful but earnestly attempted fasts over the previous years. Of course, there’s no reason to think that’s going to change.
But for the last time — no, I can’t have anything during the fast, not even water. Even in Delhi.
Especially in places like Delhi — where the heat is a heavy, unrelenting beast.
Ramzan — the ninth month in the Islamic calendar — begins tomorrow, culminating in the holy festival of Eid ul-Fitr in the first week of June. Acknowledging its position in the calendar, the Arabic root of Ramzan means ‘scorching heat’, and evokes the unforgiving West Asian summers. In Islamic history, this month is particularly venerated since the first verses of the Quran were revealed to Prophet Muhammad during Ramzan in 610 AD. Muslims like myself commemorate this landmark event with a month of fasting, prayer, charity and introspection.
Think of it as a spiritual detox. A time to renounce excess and negativity, and a time to embrace the kinder and more disciplined versions of yourself and each other.
Except you’re thinking — detox and dehydration are not the same thing. So how does it add up?
Well, if you were a desert culture looking for an application-oriented metaphor that unites the entire clan irrespective of income, inheritance, age and gender, as well as teaches a valuable lesson about the extreme fragility of our lives on Earth — what would it be?
What could be more precious, restoring and sustaining than a glass of water? And what worse purgatory could there be than to be without it? And yet, aren’t there scores of people across the world denied accessible drinking water? What gives us the certainty that their fates and ours will run forever parallel?
The lesson here is not that the early Muslims of Arabia were a particularly self-flagellating lot — but that the beating heart of Islam — and, indeed, most religions — is empathy. That even if there is a feast at the end of the day, you had experienced hunger and thirst the same way as those for whom there is none.
But, of course, fire and brimstone preachers have made a living by bellowing from the pulpits about penance being the centrepiece of faith, how we’re up to our ears in sin, how humankind is under siege from malignant tumours such as Instagram and feminism. What a sad, foolish thing to do to faith.
This was also my introduction to religion — kneeling on a well-worn velvet musallah (prayer mat) and reciting the Istighfar, an incantation of repentance. What does a nine-year-old have to repent anyway? But my pious, unhappy mother, who resented her cloistered immigrant life in Saudi Arabia, taught me the guilt of sin before the love of good. Religion — at that point — was reduced to the many million ways of saying “Forgive me”.
Which is why the month of Ramzan was like an oasis of joy. The port city of Jeddah, where I grew up in the ’90s, would transform into a fiesta where every shop offered ludicrous discounts and freebies, streets were lit up with colourful, blinking lights, beaches were full of families waiting for iftar — the evening meal marking the end of the day’s fast. Heck, even the Saudis were smiling. If you ever thought Ramzan was a dour, abstemious festival, you were proved wrong — feast by feast. It was enough to be happy and grateful and generous — forgiveness was never in our hands, to begin with.
Two decades on, I am still kneeling on a musallah. My prayers have changed. So much so that I often wonder if my mother and I are praying to different Gods in an insistently monotheistic faith. I don’t know what Ramzan in Jeddah is like these days.
When I fast in Delhi, I struggle to remain hydrated, calm, virtuous, or even intelligible. I miss most of my five prayers and then get too lazy to complete them. But the first sip of water at iftar is — and always will be — a rush of fierce, elemental gratitude.
I want to believe that this is where God is — in the acknowledgement of our ordinary, all-too-human limitations, in the delicate balance of things that conspire to keep us alive and well. I want to pray to it. I want to vote it to power.
Ramzan is an occasion to experience the faith in a private, personal register — to reclaim it from the overwrought expressions of organised religion and hyperventilating clerics. Actually, to borrow a line from the poet Mary Oliver, this is how I understand the purpose of this holy month: “That your spirit grow in curiosity, that your life be richer than it is, that you bow to the earth as you feel how it actually is, that we — so clever, and ambitious, and selfish, and unrestrained — are only one design of the moving, the vivacious many”.
With or without water.