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Covid-19 & Ramzan: A Test of Faith

The traditional fasting and communal feasting during the holy month has taken a beating because of the lockdown. Will Muslims follow the strict norms of social distancing or indulge in old habits? By Asif Ullah Khan

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Ramzan during Covid-19 is one of the most severe tests for over 200 million Indian Muslims. Acts of omission or commission of the Tablighi Jamaat have already pushed the hate campaign to a new crescendo. Suddenly, the entire community has been painted as the villain of the piece with the media un­leashing the most vicious vilification campaign ever seen.

Although the Indian media paints all Muslims with the same brush, it’s not aware that they are not a homogeneous group and are deeply divided by sectarian and religious beliefs. This is the reason why no political or religious leader can claim to be the true representative of Muslims. Given these circumstances, the holy month of Ramzan has brought new challenges politically, socially and economically for Indian Muslims.

Post-2014, when the BJP came to power at the centre, Muslims have been at the receiving end from all quarters. However, a perceptible change has now come about and for the first time, they seem to be coming out of the stranglehold of the clergy. The Shaheen Bagh protest was one such example. The Tablighi Jamaat fiasco, where many of the attendees of a meet in Delhi were found Covid-19 positive, further loosened this hold as ordinary Muslims realised that more lethal than this disease was the vilification campaign ag­ainst them. It not only threatened their lives and property but their livelihoods too as there were instances of hospitals refusing to admit Muslims and customers not wanting to buy products from them or sell to them. For the first time, survival became more vital than religious rituals.

Surprisingly, it was the ghettoised Mus­lims who first realised this. The clergy too recognised that if they showed rigidity now, the surging wave of Hindutva would hit the community so hard that it would be rendered irrelevant. So even before the clergy could issue a general call, Muslims all over India stopped congregational prayers with a few exceptions. Strict implementation of the lockdown by state machinery also left them with no choice.

Better sense seems to have prevailed and Muslim religious leaders of all sects and schools of thoughts issued a joint appeal asking the faithful to offer taraweeh (special evening prayers during Ramzan) in their homes and refrain from organising community iftar parties in homes and mosques.

Abdul Rashid, a member of the managing committee of a mosque in Jaipur, told India Legal that Ramzan is primarily about fasting, worship and piety but one can’t separate economics from any religious festival in India. There is a co­mmon misconception that the dawn-to-dusk fasting brings down productivity and impacts business activity. Rashid said that one thing most people don’t understand is that apart from being a month of self-abstinence and piety, Ramzan is a month of celebration which culminates in Eid-ul Fitr.

In the western world, people spend billions during Christmas which gives economic stimulus to the economy. In the same way, he said, commercial and social activities are also attached to Ram­zan. This is the time economic ac­tivity sees a sharp surge. For example, the sale of Rooh Afza sherbet and dates shoots up as these two are inextricably linked with Ramzan. Though it is a fasting month, food consumption from the time of iftar early morning to sehri (midnight meal) exceeds normal consumption patterns. Not only do food bills double but the majority of families also change their consumption habits during this month. It is estimated that food consumption during Ramzan accounts for 15 percent of a family’s ann­ual expenditure on food.

Yusuf Khurram, a cultural anthropologist, told India Legal that Ramzan is observed with a different mindset. “People wait for this month all year long. It’s like Diwali or Christmas and many Muslim households repaint or refurbish their houses during this auspicious month. Making new clothes and wearing them on Eid is part of the culture. So it is a busy time for tailors, shops selling bangles and beauty products and doing henna work which is a must for women. Shops selling sewaiyan (vermicelli), dry fruits and special sweetmeats like sheermal start sprouting in Muslim neighbourhoods,” Khurram revealed.

Restricting entry into mosques, which are mostly a male preserve in India, is just one part of how the lockdown has affected the community and this is quite daunting for it. It will take some time for the “new normal” to be absorbed.

Shakil Khan, an entrepreneur who is an avid follower of the customs of fasting and obligatory praying, told India Legal that under the extraordinary circumstances of today, Islam gives many relaxations. “Of course, we miss the camaraderie seen during Ramzan as the number of people in mosques rises substantially. Even people whom we call “cultural Muslims” become “practising Muslims” now,” he said.

But the lockdown has hit the poorest of the poor among Muslims, who get financial help during Ramzan through charity known as zakat. “It is like a modern-day income tax. Every Muslim who meets the necessary criteria has to donate 2.5 percent of his income annually. There is no restriction of time or period but most Muslims prefer to do it during Ramzan,” he said.

It is estimated that Indian Muslims distribute Rs 50,000 crore among the poor during Ramzan as zakat. Rashid said that this generosity by the well-off empowers the poorer segments of the community. “In some Muslim countries, zakat has been institutionalised and the State is responsible for the collection, development and distribution of it. Some countries such as the UAE, Iran and Lebanon have established a voluntary system. In India, Muslims give zakat on an individual basis. This presents another challenge now—how to reach out to the needy during this lockdown.”

A Muslim Congress leader said on condition of anonymity that for the first time since Partition, Mus­lims in India were staring at an existential crisis. “The Congress had always tried to woo Muslims through the clergy. And their narrative of ‘Islam in danger’ was lapped up by common Muslims. But instead of it doing any good, it has harmed them more. From Shah Bano to Babri Masjid, Indian Mus­lims have remained entangled in these emotional issues without realising the importance of socio-economic issues such as employment and education des­pite the fact that they are the most backward sections of society,” he said. Cele­brating Ramzan during the time of the lockdown was challenging, he said, but it is also a godsent opportunity for Muslims to take charge of their destiny.

A joint appeal by religious leaders of all Muslim sects and schools of thought such as the Deobandis, Barelvis, Shias, Ahle-hadith, Bohras, seminaries like the Darul Uloom, Deoband, Nadwa, Ala Hazrat Academy and organisations like the Jamaat-e-Islami, Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, Majlis Ahle Hadith, etc. is a welcome step, he said, but Muslims must realise that it is the same leadership which divided the community.

“Without any official or social sanction, these religious leaders portrayed themselves as the sole leaders or spokespersons of the community. Some became the darlings of TV channels for their provocative and polarising comments without realising that their 15 minutes of fame did irreparable damage to Muslims who were at the receiving end post-2014,” he said.

In these digital times, he said, Mus­lims don’t need any kind of guidance from these religious scholars as any information regarding Islam, the Quran or the Hadith (sayings and traditions of Prophet Muhammad) is just a click away.

Hopefully, the post Covid-19 phase will usher in an era of Muslim self-empowerment.

Lead Picture: UNI

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