Ramadan in critical times

2010-08-18 00:00

RAMADAN is a time to affirm our faith, a time for community and charity and a time for moral and spiritual assessment. The end of the fast is when Muslims, at the sunset prayer called Maghrib, eat and should contemplate together. This month was a joyous occasion throughout the Muslim world until recent times; now it is marred by continual terror in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Pakistan, threats to Iran and the violent blocking of aid to Gaza.

A strange dual consciousness pervades Muslims when it comes to modern violence. When Khalil al-Sakakini, a Palestinian Christian, reminded the Palestinian leadership of the importance of adherence to the highest principles of engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he remarked in his diary that “they viewed it as romantic chivalry, incompatible with the realities of modern warfare”. Sadly, this is the reality of modern people. Expediency has won out over principle.

The modern Muslim has learnt well the lessons of his or her secular counterpart. American/Zionist military action rarely distinguishes between combatants and civilians. The United States Pentagon callously refers to them as secondary effects or collateral damage. When some Muslims use tactics of indiscriminate violence towards their objects of hate, too often other Muslims are quick to defend them, saying: “They kill our innocents, then expect us to sit by and watch”. Apologists for the wanton killing of women and children on both sides nauseate anyone who considers the real impact of blood spilt so injudiciously.

Like all things in which humans engage, religion has many paradoxical aspects. On the one hand it elevates our ideals and aspirations to the heavens themselves, giving us such ethical principles as “do unto others as you would have others do unto you”; “taking one life unjustly is as if you have killed all humanity”; and the entire Torah can be summed up in two statements: “Love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself”. Everything else is commentary. These are taken from the Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths respectively.

Meanwhile, some adherents to each faith justify, with their teachings, the most heinous depredations against their fellow human beings. Jonathan Swift remarked that we have just enough religion to hate one another and not enough to love one another. Perhaps that is true, but for many people, more religion is no longer a solution for anything, but very much part of the problem.

The great tragedy of modern religion is that it is now seen as a toxin polluting the waters of possibility. We who claim faith and commitment have too often made our faith the object of hatred. With our zealousness we have driven away countless people who see the worst aspects of people embodied in religion. For some of us it is easy to write them off as sceptics or secularists who just hate religion. The truth is, most of them are none of the above. They are simply people who intuitively know that such behaviour is simply lacking in humanity, leading them to seek other philosophies to guide them. They look to motivational speakers for inspiration, or some give up the search for meaning altogether, contenting themselves with film and rebellious musicians as their ostrich holes.

The irony, of course, is that religious people feel the results of pugnacious secularists forcing secularity down their throat; ignoring their most sacred beliefs and relegating them to a few minutes on thought for the day. The more religion is marginalised the angrier religious people get. We are in a vicious clash between secularists and people in a religious utopia battling for a piece of turf in the modern world. Both sides have bitter minorities who use indiscriminate violence to lesser and greater effectiveness and who are becoming increasingly intolerant.

It is tragic that so many Europeans feel disillusioned with Christianity. It was for centuries at the centre of intolerance and pointless religious violence. Muslims, on the other hand, were far less prone to religious violence and the levels of tolerance for other faiths were unparalleled in the pre-modern world. But violence and intolerance have become the pursuit among religious thrill seekers in much of the Muslim world.

It is not only non-Muslims who find this cosmetic Islam odious. Increasingly, many modern Muslims are becoming disillusioned with the faith itself, blaming the behaviour of the practitioners on the religion and they are seeking alternatives, or other faiths or philosophies. Many Muslims are in deep denial about this, and are refusing even to consider it but I am seeing its signs everywhere and it troubles me deeply. Unfortunately, many do not know what every sincere Muslim scholar, a dying breed, knows; that the worst enemies of Islam are from within. The worst of these are those who delude themselves and others by the deeply dyed religious exterior that they project. The Prophet of Islam, peace be upon him, said about them: “When you see them pray you will consider your own prayers insignificant. They recite the Qur’aan but it does not exceed the limits of their throat.”

In other words, they don’t understand the true meanings. The outward religious appearance and character of these people deluded thousands in the past, and continues to delude people today. Muslims should be aware that despite their adherence to certain aspects of Islam, they are extremists of the worst type. Our real situation is this: we Muslims have lost a theologically sound understanding of our teaching. Islam has been hijacked by a discourse of anger and the rhetoric of rage. We have allowed for too long our mimbars to become bully pulpits from which people with often recognisable psychopathology use anger — a very powerful emotion — to rile Muslims up, only to leave them feeling bitter and spiteful towards people who in the most part are completely unaware of the conditions in the Muslim world, or the oppressive assaults of some Western countries on Muslim peoples.

We have lost our bearings because we have lost our theology. The so-called spiritual centres, spiritual masters and scholars that should guide and caution the predatory elite of the community, have themselves become slaves to their Mastercards and they in turn issue a Visa card for the dysfunctional role of institutions. Ramadan is the time to reflect.

• Irshad Soofi runs the Soofi Mosque in Masukwana Street. He writes in his personal capacity.

With acknowledgement to Sidi Hamza Yusuf.

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