Something extraordinary happens to Muslim societies around the world during the holy month of Ramadan. It is a surreal experience and only those who have been touched by it would identify with what I am trying to say. Ramadan brings out the best in the Islamic world, as the faithful fast, pray and opens their doors and hearts to the less fortunate.
It has been yet another lonely Ramadan for me personally. It’s not easy spending this time of the year alone, far away from home and loved ones. It gets particularly lonely and depressing at the Iftar time. I miss those lively family evenings and all the happy chatter and chaotic buzz that children generate on such occasions.
There’s nothing to beat a Ramadan in Hyderabad. No words can truly capture the atmospherics and endless hustle and bustle of a Ramadan back home, not to mention its much-loved haleem — a delicate, delectable fusion of meat, wheat and lentils — and other delicacies served especially during the month of fasting.
Even as I miss my kids, I cannot help revisit the Ramadan of my own childhood. The excitement of getting up for seher or suhoor and then looking forward to all the fun and games with friends at iftar time. My kind mother seemed to stay awake all night to prepare the predawn meal.
And who could forget those surreal, pre-dawn drumbeaters who would go around singing to wake up the neighborhood! Come Ramadan and I begin hearing those hauntingly beautiful, elegiac prayers and songs even here in Dubai.
It is for traditions like these that one desperately longs to be back home this time of the year. A fellow Indian, however, says he couldn’t miss a Ramadan in Arabia for anything.
"The holy month seems to transform this ancient land, bringing out the best of the generous Arab spirit. You indeed feel you are living and breathing in the holy land. This is the best time to be in this part of the world,” insists Hassan.
He is right of course. With the onset of Ramadan, the whole of Arabia indeed undergoes a mysterious metamorphosis, something out of this world. Peace and serenity seem to descend from heavens above to envelope everyone and everything. Life comes to a standstill. In Mathew Arnold’s words, there is sweetness and light everywhere. Everyone appears to be at their generous and kindest best.
Even Dubai with its posh malls, snazzy hotels, seaside villas and all that jazz wears a somber look as it joins the rest of the Islamic world in celebrating the month of blessings.
Sharjah, the traditional Emirate next door where most of those working in Dubai live, welcomes the holy month with great solemnity. Named the cultural capital of the Arab world by the UNESCO in 1998 for its over 600 mosques, two dozen museums, art galleries and libraries, the Emirate truly comes alive during Ramadan evenings when people come together to break the fast and then stand for night prayers.
But these are familiar scenes across the Islamic world, indeed around the world wherever the faithful live — from Americas to Australia. A billion and half people, tied to each other by an invisible bond of faith, live and breathe together like one body and soul. Faith, like love, conquers all and cannot always be explained by logic and reason.
The focal point of this extraordinary, liberating spiritual experience is seen in the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah where believers from around the world gather to celebrate the spirit of the holy month.
Indeed, nothing can compare with the life-changing experience of a Ramadan spent in the city that is home to the first house of worship and the city of the Prophet, peace be upon him. Madinah welcomed him when his own people persecuted him. No wonder the city remained his home and the capital of new Islamic state even after the whole of Arabia embraced Islam.
With nearly 2 million people thronging Makkah this time of the year and thousands perpetually circumambulating around the Kaaba, it presents an awe-inspiring and moving sight.
While fasting during the day and standing up for prayers at night reciting the Qur’an, revealed during this month, are the obvious highlights of these blessed days, there is more to Ramadan than going off food and water all day.
The abstinence from life’s essentials for 14 to 16 hours (it is 21 hours in some Scandinavian countries) is to help us appreciate the infinite blessings of the Creator and everyday things that we take for granted. It is also meant to help us identify with the less fortunate and their needs and hunger.
Ramadan is all about sharing and caring. The faithful open their doors and purse strings for the poor and disadvantaged and give and give throughout the month, besides offering the mandatory zakat, a fixed portion of their wealth, to the needy.
From fasting and feasting together to standing up shoulder-to-shoulder in submission before God, this blessed month brings out the spirit of fellowship and universal brotherhood like nothing else does. It is something that has to be really experienced to be believed.
Unfortunately, as with everything else, the Ramadan spirit is also being commercialized and even politically exploited these days. Malls pull out all stops to vie with each other with their crazy promotions while five-star hotels offer all sorts of amusement to entice the patrons during the holy month.
Then there are those bizarre television soaps on Arab television networks that are nothing but a mockery of the Ramadan spirit. Just as absurd are those endless “Iftar parties” hosted by assorted politicians in India with an eye on votes. What has all this got to do with Ramadan and its message of abstinence, piety and perseverance?
This Ramadan would be remembered, not just for the long hours of fast with temperatures touching 45 to 48 degrees in some parts of the world. It is hard to shut one’s eyes to the predicament of thousands of fellow travelers across the region and around the world.
The carnage and bloodletting in many parts of the Middle East and around the world even in this holy month is appalling but hardly unprecedented. From Iraq and Syria to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Muslims are being killed at the hands of lunatics who call themselves Muslims. These terror attacks in Europe, in Iraq and Afghanistan ostensibly carried out by an extremist fringe bring nothing but shame to the believers and help the agenda of their enemies.
While we enjoy the blessings of the holy month in the comforting safety of our homes with our families and look forward to Eid, there are thousands for whom life is a daily struggle.
This Ramadan spare a thought for the less fortunate and oppressed people everywhere. They need our prayers. When everyone and everything has failed to deliver, prayers might just work.