Ramzan’s Long Lost Simplicity is Back in the Times of a Pandemic

It took a calamity to remind the Muslim population worldwide of the simplicity that lies at the heart of the roza.

4 min read
It took a calamity to remind the 1.8-billion strong Muslim population worldwide of the simplicity that lies at the heart of the roza.

Looking back, I am unable to pinpoint the exact age when Ramzan became Ramadan and Khuda Hafiz morphed into Allah Hafiz or, for that matter, when people began to greet each other with ‘Ramadan Kareem’. I suspect it may have gradually started with the growing Saudi influence and the robust petro-dollars sent back home by expatriate South Asians from the mid-80s onwards.

Thirty years later, fuelled by social media fanned by extravagant religiosity, we have a full-blown case of Ramzan/Ramadan over-hype – be it through whatsapp greetings, special aisles in grocery stores the world over promoting iftar staples such as Rooh Afza and dates, advertisement campaigns, special sales and offers leading up to Eid bonanzas.


What Ramzan Was Like in My Childhood

Spending this Ramzan in lockdown, with ample time for introspection, I am reminded of the simplicity of the rozas of my childhood and the absence of religiosity from religion.

The run-up to Ramzan began with the family gathering before the television set waiting for the 8 o’clock news bulletin.

With any luck it would be the gorgeous Salma Sultan informing the nation, with a hint of a dimpled smile, that the moon had been sighted and the month of Ramzan would commence from the following day.

And without further ado the special month would commence: alarms would be set, people would get up (or be woken up by harassed parents), eat simple sehris, go back to sleep and then proceed to their respective offices, schools and colleges. In the evenings, the family would gather for an extensive iftar followed by an ample dinner where one or two family favourites would invariably be cooked.

However, everyone in the family went about their normal work days while fasting, making time for prayer and scripture but never at the cost of one for the other.

Normalcy of Ramzan Now Seems Lost

Looking back, I am struck by the sheer normalcy of the Ramzans of my childhood and youth, of how our daily rhythms were modified but not radically altered. Food would be prepared and sent to the local mosque in large trays daily and at least once to neighbours; occasionally friends or neighbours were invited for an iftar because the idea of sharing food with strangers and family lies at the very heart of Ramzan.

Quietly and discreetly packets of atta, dal, chawal would be made and sent to those in need.

My mother has always had an especial knack of identifying those at the fringes of acute poverty: the widow of our old sabziwala, an out-of-work driver, an ailing ayah, people who wouldn’t beg despite living in dire straits. Through it all, the sheer normalcy with which Ramzan was treated year after year, without any hype or hoopla, certainly without excessive zeal or grand gestures of piety, seems remarkable today.

Perhaps that is why the poet and humourist, too, could write about the rigours of fasting in a lighter vein, something that seems unconscionable in our politically-charged, hyper-religious times.


Urdu Poets’ Light Treatment of Ramzan Would be Impossible Today

In this ghazal by Riyaz Khairabadi immortalised by Mallika Pukhraj, ‘Jaagey tamaam raat, jagaayein tamaam raat’, there is a sher that cannot be written today:

Zahid jo apne roze se thoda savab de
Mai-kash ussey sharaab pilain tamaam raat

If the devout were to lend some blessings from his fast
The drinkers would ply him with wine all night long

Referring to the popular belief that Muslims had asked for a reduction in the five daily namaz, only to be awarded with compulsory fasting, Ahamd Husain Mail says:

Mangi najat hijr se to maut aa ga.i
Roze gale pade jo chhudane gaya namaz

We asked for deliverance from separation and got Death instead
We went seeking exemption from namaz but got the rozas instead

On the importance of eating dates upon opening a fast, here is Mushafi Ghulam Hamdani with his tongue firmly in his cheek, or should one say on his lips:

Ai 'Mushafi' sad-shukr hua vasl mayassar
Iftaar kiya roze mein us lab ke rotab se

A hundred thanksgivings for this union, O Mushafi
I did an iftar during my roza with the ripe date of her lips

And here’s a cheeky reference to the faithful who flock to the preachers during this month by Wazir Ali Saba Lakhnavi:

Hum rind-e-pareshan hain mah-e-Ramzan hai
Chamki hui in rozon mein vaaiz ki dukaan hai

We drinkers are a troubled lot in this month of Ramzan
While the preacher’s shop is bustling during the days of fasting

Coronavirus Calamity Has Brought Simplicity Back to Ramzan

For the Urdu poet, the conjoined roza-namaz was almost a trope or metaphor for the strait-jacket of organised religion. Such as this sher by Mir Taqi Mir:

Manind-e-sub.ha uqde na dil ke kabhu khule
Ji apna kyuun ki uchte na roze namaz se

The knots of our heart did not open like the beads of the rosary
Why then should I not be disenchanted by roza and namaz

And a legendary scholar and teacher from Deoband, Shibli Nomani could write:

Tiis din ke liye tark-e-mai-o-saqi kar luun
Va.iz-e-sada ko rozon men to raazi kar luun

For thirty days I’ll relinquish wine and the bartender
I’ll make the simple preacher happy at least during the fasts

Nazir Akbarabadi, the eighteenth-century people’s poet, summed the general sentiment on Eid day in most Muslim households, a sentiment applicable to this day, when he wrote:

Rozo’n ki sakhtiyo’n mei’n na hote agar aseer
To aisi Eid ki na khushi hoti dil pazeer

Had we not been captured by the severity of the roza
We would not have known the heart-warming joy of Eid

Fasting, prayer, reading the Holy Book, introspection, shoring up inner reserves of strength and stamina – this is what Ramzan was always meant to be about, not feasting and ostentatious displays of religiosity. Perhaps it took a calamity such as the present one to remind the 1.8-billion strong Muslim population worldwide of the simplicity that lies at the heart of the roza.

(Dr Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, translator and literary historian. She writes on literature, culture and society. She runs Hindustani Awaaz, an organisation devoted to the popularisation of Urdu literature. She tweets at @RakhshandaJalil. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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