(Author’s note: Friday khutbah delivered at the Institute of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines Diliman on 16 August 2013).
QUEZON CITY (MindaNews/23 August)–We just finished our fasting in the Holy Month of Ramadan. There is a need for post-Ramadan reflection as we are faced with new challenges and issues.
On the whole, Ramadan 2013 has been a blessed month. It is a testament [of] how an enduring tradition of fasting continues to inspire people across the world by making them physically and spiritually empowered as they harness their inner tradition to reinvigorate themselves. The Qur’an says:
“Allah (SWT) intends every facility for you; He does not want to put you to difficulties (Baqarah: 185).”
Moreover, the tradition of fasting has made people firm and strong with their faith. It instills on them perseverance and discipline. It makes them feel the pangs of hunger and thirst like the rest of have-nots and oppressed. It has made them realize the virtue of being selfless: that life should not simply be a continuing pursuit of owning and possessing; it is also a process of discarding undesirables and giving up even our basic necessities – including eating and drinking at certain time – if we want our lives to maintain equilibrium or sense of balance.
Each month like Ramadan is an expression of specific moment with varying context and history. Ramadan 2013 is, in many ways, unique.
For sure, we have seen as we performed our eid prayer what to many is the existentially glaring expression of disunity amongst the ummah and their seeming difficulty not able to unite even on matters of sighting the hilal or crescent and in declaring universal eid l-fitr (Day of Feast) despite today’s facility of precise and scientific calculation of modern astronomy and calendar system.
Many loathe the seemingly old approach in sighting the hilal and in resorting to tradition as natural disturbance in weather like rainy days and cloudiness as obstacles in moon sighting. As we invariably celebrated eid l-fitr some people take it against us this perceived existential disunity.
As long as the essential principles of fasting are not violated, we ask: why are we made to quarrel over an issue of sighting the moon? Why should the celebration of eid become a controversy when the Prophet permits the conclusion of fasting either 29 or 30 days? If the intention is absolute precision of time over spiritual ease so that facility instead of difficulties in worship is achieved, then the Qur’an could have provided specific time for holding the eid.
The fact that the Qur’an provides a wide latitude when to stop eating and drinking in the suhor (meal before starting a fast) with such phrase “eat and drink until the white thread of dawn appear to you distinct from its black thread” and not specific time shows that the emphasis of the principle of ease and facility not difficulties (yusra maa usra) as the primary intent behind any form of worship like fasting.
Islam views science and the facility its provides like precise reading of time with high regard. Rigid appropriation of time should not sacrifice the “naturalness” or spiritual tasting or dawq of any worship; lest, performance of fasting simply becomes mechanical void of khusuh or concentration and preparation.
Ramadan 2013 and eid l-fitr are also unique because they have increasingly attracted international and national attention.
From the White House to Malacanang to the Office of the Deped (Department of Education) Secretary to the Office of the Chancellor in UP Diliman, extension of solidarity with eid l-fitr has now become an increasing and popular trend. Public and private organizations and foreign embassies, including the United States and European Union, sponsor iftar dinner and eid l-fitr celebrations. We take it as positive step in appreciating spiritual tradition of Islam like fasting; more fundamentally, we view it as peoples’ natural inclination to embrace universal tradition that lost it and tried to appreciate again. The Qur’an says:
“As it was prescribed to people before you (Baqarah: 183).”
On the contrary, there is basis on the reaction of some people on the hypocritical appreciation by some powers on such a sacred tradition of Islam like Ramadan and eid l-fitr while oblivious on their foreign policies in the Muslim world particularly the indiscriminate use of drones in killing both their enemies and civilians.
Omid Safi, a Professor of Islamic Studies at North Carolina at Chapel Hill issued “A Call to Conscience: Boycotting the State Department and White House Ramadan Iftars” by arguing that such an invitation for iftar (breaking of fast) does not make sense while US drones are killing innocent Muslim civilians, women and children in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. He said such indiscriminate killing is not only a contradiction with Islam as a religion of peace; it is also a blatant violation of American ideals.
On the surface, the validity of Professor Safi’s view is undeniable. US approach of transforming heart and mind in the Muslim world while intensifying drone attacks in Muslim countries is unacceptable. The contradiction is becoming more glaring these days. There was also closure of 22 US embassies in Muslim countries during the Ramadan. The reason being is that, it is in response to jailbreaks in Pakistan, Libya, and Iraq. By taking “overabundance of caution,” the impression implied is that, there is an imminent threat against the United States in the Muslim world – a situation that did not even happen in the aftermath of 9/11.
Such strategy of fear-mongering does not only reverse the clock of US post 9/11 relation with the Muslim world; it impresses that the US is back again with its usual antic in harping the rhetoric of war on terror – a policy that the Obama Administration tried to veer away from the George W. Bush’s war on international terrorism but had remained very much ambivalent while worsening it with drone war. With spate of bombings in Cagayan de Oro, Cotabato and other parts in Mindanao with authorities invariably harping against old and new enemies like the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, Jemaah Islamiyah and the Khalifah group, we are puzzled as to what new game is being played out today.
Given these contradictions, even a progressive thinker like Professor Safi had reason to doubt the sincerity of the US State Department and the White House inviting Muslim academics for iftar.
In this regard, we can probably extrapolate and discourse upon the view of Prof. Safi by asking: if he doesn’t attend the iftar at the White House, would it change US foreign policy in the Muslim world? Won’t US government still invite other people perhaps those with lesser persuasions and scruples to fulfill US public relation strategy on Muslim intelligentsia in America?
Incidentally in his book, “Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters,” Safi wrote:
“If Muslims are to be worthy of the name “Muhammad’s people” if the adjective “Muhammadi” is to be meaningful, then it is incumbent on Muslims to embody the qualities of mercy and justice that Muhammad so perfectly embodied. If “Muslims” is not to be simply a historic designation or civilizational marker but a spiritual indicator of aspiring to the ethics of Muhammad, then it is vital to live by the “lovely example” that Muhammad set.”
With this thought of Dr. Safi on the need to embody Muhammad’s values everywhere including most importantly at the center of power, isn’t the opportunity to exhibit such values and to engage is lost by refusing to attend the White House’s sponsored iftar? If Prof. Safi attends, at least, his presence and his engagement and conversation with his fellow academics with those US policy and decision-makers would be able to make a posture against power; and hence, they would be able to exhibit the so-called Muhammadi values of justice and mercy that Prof. Safi recommends.
The relationship between intellectuals and power has been, no doubt, critical these past years. At the core is, how holders of knowledge should become instrument of truth so that power is tempered and eventually humbled. Undoubtedly, holders of power and decision-makers are also individuals with their hearts, their fears, and their longings. How hard-hearted they may be, they are also in need or in search of understanding including the opportunity to learn from rich reservoir of inner tradition of Islam like fasting and so on. Hence, why deprived those in need with the light of Islam by closing the door of mercy and justice during short engagement and interaction during iftar?
For sure, US power structures have their own motive in inviting Dr. Safi and others with their own preconceived notion of Islam. The fact they try to reach their hands, they have to be engaged while fully aware that no amount of PR strategy can mute the voice of truth even in the halls of power. It is an opportunity with which the “hungry” and the “thirsty” are able to sit and to engage with the carriers of Muhammadi ethics of compassion, mercy, and justice.
Idea and real
It is indeed difficult to reconcile when we try to reflect on the balance sheet of what the Ramadan supposedly enjoins us including the effect it has already created given the trend of recognition extended by holders of power vis-à-vis the real situation of the Muslim world as she passes through a very critical challenge and ajal or disposition.
The Month of Ramadan should supposedly be a month of contemplation. But what we have seen this past month and few days ago are carnage and violence that should not happen in the first place given the imperative for spirituality in that month. The killing of hundreds of Egyptians perpetrated by the Egyptian military and death of many civilians in the continuing war in Syria not to mention the sectarian violence between the Sunni and the Shiites are, from external perspective, difficult of being reconciled with what the Ramadan should supposedly imbue on Muslim community.
Very recently, an international conference was held in Kuala Lumpur where former Prime Minister Mahathir expressed his sadness over the death of hundreds and thousands Egyptians and the on-going war in many parts of the Middle East. And we share this sentiment, although it is also unclear whether Mahathir was consistent with his pronouncement earlier calling for the rapprochement between Sunnis and Shias. In fact, a high-ranking Iranian official visited Kuala Lumpur to share a common platform of peace with Dr. Mahathir. But few days after that when the news of the presence of the Shia was known by Dr. Mahathir, he also took a very conservative stance by saying that the Shia has no place in Malaysia.
This is a very serious subject that we don’t have easy answer: the internal schism between and among Muslims and the external forces that dominate the Muslim world. As it is, these two forces are now surfacing very glaringly so that we could hardly delineate the two. In fact, we could hardly know the line between our internal problem and the problem that is imposed upon us.
In this regard, even sacred month like the Ramadan is hardly recognized as a month without violence, without killings, without bombings. Hence, we are at loss as to how we reconcile the vision of Ramadan with the actual contradiction that is happening in the Muslim world.
And yet we don’t want to develop pessimism. We want to be always taking the side of optimism. And it’s difficult to do. If even a month – a Holy Month – were not already respected as month of peace and contemplation; therefore, the remaining months would be subjected to the same. Hence, a deeper contemplation is necessary for each and every one of us on how we are able to transcend beyond this dichotomy of ideal and real that is currently belaboring Muslim community.
Victory and challenge
Suratu n-nasr was revealed at the latter part of Prophet’s life. Some Mufassir said that it was revealed before the last verse was given to Prophet Muhammad (SAW). It reads:
When comes the help of God and victory, and thou dost see the people enter God’s Religion in crowds, celebrate the Praises of thy Lord, and Pray for His Forgiveness; for He is Oft-Returning (in Grace and Mercy). (Nasr: 1-3).
Yusuf Ali contextualized this sura in the light of the Prophet’s life in Makkah in the beginning when he was oppressed as he had to migrate to Madinah; and he eventually turned the tide when he liberated Makkah after establishing the social and the political institutions of Islam in Madinah.
What Yusuf Ali is saying is that, victory as far as the Prophet’s life is concerned comes at a most vivid level especially reflected at the latter part of his life when throng of people embraced him and eventually embraced Islam after despising and oppressing Prophet Muhammad (SAW).
On the contrary, the life of the ummah since the past until today hardly reflects in terms of vivid expression of victory and challenges and so on. Rather, it is a combination of events that reflect some moments of victory but also some moments of challenges. And they interweaved with each other so that we could hardly identify the beginning and ending of each moment. It’s not purely elimination of the undesirables; it is not also the continuing reign of the “other” against Islam. There is always a kind of tension, a relation that defines the history of the ummah since then until our time.
Yet, Yusuf Ali has this reflection taking off from Prophet’s experience. Let me quote it: “Not man’s self-glory, but humility; not power but service; not an appeal to man’s selfishness or self-sufficiency, but realization of God’s Grace and Mercy, and the abundant outpouring of God’s Praises in words and conduct.”
This reflection of Yusuf Ali is probably difficult of being accepted especially by realist given his seeming one-sided appreciation on how the ideals of Islam and the principles embodied by Muslims across centuries like humility, service, and so on, as primary elements or resources that made Islam and the Muslim community pervade until our time. In other words, it is almost a constant that there would always be ajal and challenges that the ummah have to face. Yet, the values of humility, of compassion, of grace, and of mercy are principles that have guaranteed the perpetuity of the ummah including the recourse even by big powers, by holders of policy and decision, in trying to reach out to recognize or to share the ummah’s spirituality of fasting, iftar and eid l-fitr even as we said that at a certain point they also had such spirituality but they abandoned it; hence, they are actually just recovering what they had lost. Muslims with their Muhammadi ethics and values would be helping in the recovery.
If we take Professor Safi’s approach by not engaging, then, as we asked, who would do the proper engagement as there are many entities and actors who do not reflect the scruples and principles like that of Professor Safi’s and who are just willing to be used as tools by big powers to advance their PR interest? And yet if we follow Professor Safi’s separate reiteration that there is a need to embody and to exhibit the Muhammadi ethics and values regardless of who the players are, then we find reason to engage and to feel energize: that despite the ummah’s sufferings and challenges there is that light within them that continues to attract the other.
What we are saying is that when we look at the balance sheet of the ummah including latest challenges we faced, the spiritual message of Islam and the message that the Ramadan tries to impart continues to evoke and to attract those who do not fully appreciate Islam. Such attraction and invitation could be done better on Ramadan without drones. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Julkipli Wadi is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of the Philippines-Diliman.)