An Unforgettable Ramadan: Fasting, Feasting and the Beast

Nazim Baksh (May 17. 2020)

A seismic drift is taking place among Muslims in the West. It began in earnest this Ramadan, but it is abundantly clear that we are heading in the direction of a new norm. 

In these last days of Ramadan, it’s as good a time as any to evaluate whether the drift and the resulting new norm has the potential to subvert the spatial and spiritual geography of Muslim communities in Canada, the United States and Western Europe. 

The overarching reason that has precipitated this drift is what the Cuomo brothers – Governor of New York Andrew and CNN host Chris – have labelled “the beast”:a novel coronavirus that is proving to be adept at settling old scores.   

The Social Significance of the Communal Iftar Feast

Our Ramadan experience hovers between a private struggle to obey a divine command and a natural urge to celebrate its opening at sunset with a feast. 

If suhur followed by long hours of thirst and hunger are intensely private time, the iftar meal links our sacrifices with the sheer joy of commensality. 

Which fasting person could refuse an invitation to a sumptuous communal potluck iftar around friends, relatives and complete strangers? 

The thought of partaking in a cornucopia of dishes from diverse cultures after a long day of hunger quickens the dying hours of the day.  

While these iftars have become a victim of the pandemic, eating at home has made me realize just how little food I need to be satisfied. 

And yet I miss these iftars, not so much because of what was usually on the menu, but because our faith and the effort we make to hold on to it, is elevated in the act of commensality.

Commensality is a sunnah of God’s Messenger. Food is always better when shared with others. One would be hard-pressed to find a single instance in the noble sira of the Prophet of God, peace and blessings of God be upon him, where he ate alone.  

The Messenger of God taught us that God’s blessings (barakah) causes food to  “grow”, making a meagre amount enough to satiate. 

If Arundhati Roy’s observation is true, that pandemics serve as a portal from one world to another, my small prayer is that our iftar feasts will become less about what’s on the menu and more about the immense grace of commensality. 

I pray that we will find a creative way to avoid generating a mountain of plastic spoons and forks, styrofoam cups, plates and leftover spicy biryani. 

Fasting 16 plus hours does not entitle us to create as much waste as our stomachs desire. 

I am sure our municipal dump site, hidden from plain sight even as the stench of its odor stifles the air for birds and bees, is breathing a sigh of relief this Ramadan. 

Feasting on Technology

The trend this Ramadan of virtual iftars and digital night vigil (tarawih) prayers, Friday (jumu’ah) prayers, and soon Eid sermons (khutbah), indicate a significant drift to a new norm that will no doubt impact the contours of our communities. 

Mind you, VR Hajj is already a thing.

Over the last ten years both Muslim scholars and social justice activists have urged Muslims to observe “a fast from technology” in Ramadan. 

This year though, by their own actions, they’ve been advocating for a feast on technology with online offerings of what appear to be a disjuncted smorgasbord of traditional lectures (durus), discussions, interviews and political opinions.    

Every imam, maulana, moulvi and professor with something to offer, any subject will do fine, can be found online this Ramadan. The virtual mosque is open for business 24/7. 

You don’t have to wait anxiously for the next ISNA, ICNA or RIS conference to listen to your favorite “exotified scholar” as Yasir Qadhi once described them, himself included in that category. 

Qadhi’s online performances have a flair for the dramatic. Theatre defines the moment especially when he is interviewing his friend and Indian preacher in “self-imposed exile,” Zakir Naik.

When Naik begins to brag about how great Peace TV once was, Qadhi failed to  remind his guest to whisper a word of gratitude for the millions in petro-dollars that helped turn it into a colossal and wasteful mega-media company it once was. 

With return on investment doing poorly in North America for Qadhi and Omar Suleiman, they’ve turned to building bridges with wealthy donors in Malaysia, the same folks sheltering Naik, but hardly anyone wants to talk about that.  

To be fair a lot of what is being offered online this Ramadan, Qadhi’s and Suleiman’s contributions included, and especially from many frontline faith workers who serve as imams at mosques with actual walls, is beneficial, even though a great deal of it competes in a shallow pool of mediocrity.  

However, mediocrity is not a sin. If it was, more of us might have stopped showing up for Friday jumu’ah prayers a long time ago. 

What’s disturbing is how easily Muslims have gravitated to scholars that operate with greater internet bandwidth and high-end recording equipment, abandoning their local and now financially struggling communities in favour of online content consumption.  

When “the beast” is made to retreat, will this techno-obsessed generation – Gen Z – be willing to trade up the allure of their virtual sheikhs and return to communities of real people? 

Many mosque administrators worry that our masajid, centres and musallahs will sit empty in a post-pandemic world.

Almost half of all Muslims in Canada are below the age of 30 and approximately 70 per cent of them have a post-secondary education. It is not a stretch to see how attractive and convenient virtual online spaces can appear to this crowd especially when the alternative is a sonorous Friday khutbah and the grit and grime of managing the financial affairs of local mosques.     

Real vs Imagined Communities

Real communities have an important characteristic that imagined communities don’t possess – boundaries. 

Boundaries are defined by rituals that sometimes serve as symbols. 

They shape the identity of communities, defining who is in and who is not. More importantly, boundaries amplify a consciousness of community, i.e. how members of the ummah of Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, are expected to behave.     

By allowing ourselves to be seduced by the simulacra of a community that exists virtually, we are trodding a path that could eventually bring about the erasure of religious boundaries and subvert our strongest asset – real communities. 

In a 2005 study titled “Western Perceptions of Islam and Muslims: A Study of Public Opinion and the Role of the Media in the United States and Western Europe,” funded by Kuwait’s Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs and conducted by the Communique Partners in California, the fact that Muslims have thriving communities was seen as an advantage that could help mitigate against the rising tide of anti-Muslim resentment. 

If ritual boundaries spell out commonalities, they also demarcate differences. It is for this reason why non-Muslims aren’t normally allowed into Mecca and Madina. 

Boundaries are also why in ancient cities like Fez in Morocco, the authorities don’t allow non-Muslims to enter mosques such as the Qarawiyyin or Dar al-Andalus. There is nothing stopping them from gawking at the doorways, selfie cameras at the ready.    

It has nothing to do with purity or impurity, but rather, with acceptable behaviour expected within and outside the boundaries of our community.  

Boundaries go hand in glove with a defined system of symbols. The dome and minaret are symbols of submission (sajdah) and ascendancy (mi’raj). The mihrab and qibla are symbols of direction and purpose. 

The pulpit (minbar) is a symbol to remind the one who stands on it that he is addressing the community of the final prophet to all of mankind. 

The call to prayer (adhan) too is a symbol that tells us it’s time to take a break from the mundane and enter the realm of gratitude.  

How does ritual boundary translate in the realm of virtual space? It doesn’t. There are no useful metrics to employ even though some overzealous scholars are determined to give it a go. 

At the onset of Ramadan, a local Toronto scholar labelled his elders in India who once debated the permissibility of using loudspeakers to amplify the voice of the imam during salah, as “backward” for refusing to embrace technology. He did this to advance a porous argument that virtual tarawih and jumu’ah salah, while modern, were nevertheless acceptable modalities of prayers.

The debate over the permissibility of deploying loudspeakers during salah had to do with the issue of ritual boundary. If salah – and there is no greater symbol for the Muslim community – begins with the imam’s standing in the mihrab, where exactly does the scope of his imamate end? 

To answer the question one would have to dig a bit deeper than the basic rules of istinja to appreciate the level of social and cultural awareness of our fuqaha and the methodology they employed to prevent the dilution and dissipation of the Islamic tradition, i.e. the Prophet’s sunnah. 

The perils of migrating to an online virtual space and becoming stuck there, could inadvertently result in the shattering of the moral, spiritual, spatial and in some cases quasi-legal, architecture of boundaries that have defined our ummah, our jama’ah, our millah, for centuries.  

To those most adept at navigating the modern virtual landscape, such as the free floating post-modern left-leaning, mostly liberal and vaguely Marxist activist Muslim “leaders,” all religious boundaries are social constructs and therefore, negotiable, even if they have to be sacrificed at the altar of inclusivity. 

‘God is Merciful and the Prophet was sent as a Mercy – what else do we need to know?’ has become the new mantra from a cabal of preachers and activists who trip awkwardly over each other for a slightly more comfortable seat at today’s social justice banquet where just about every sort of perverted behaviour elicits their sympathy.  

That being said, with the alarming rise of Islamophobia, I don’t blame them. 

Blame it on “The Beast”

Is “the beast” the reason why so many Muslims are willing to toss out the ritual signposts that defined the boundaries of our ummah for 1400 years? Don’t we need signposts to find our way home? We should be planting them more firmly during this pandemic, not ripping them out.  

“The beast comes at night,” said the coronavirus stricken Chris Cuomo on an episode of the CNN’s Prime Time show he hosts.  “The beast is still alive. We did not kill the beast. The beast is under control, but the beast can rise up again,” says his brother Andrew, Governor of New York. 

The Cuomo brothers were invoking a very Christian narrative of “the beast,” the Antichrist who bears the mark of 666, to frame the rampage of the novel coronavirus. 

Muslims also have a notion of “the beast,” it is a dabbah, from the root da-ba-ba which means to move slowly, to spread, to create. It precedes the Antichrist (al-Dajjal)  and is a distinct entity.   

The Quran says that in the last days “God will bring forth a dabbah from nature (al-ard) and it will speak to mankind regarding Our signs which they have discarded” (27:82). 

Ibn Majah relates on the authority of Abu Huraira that the Prophet said, “The beast will emerge from nature and will have the staff of Moses and the ring of Prophet Solomon.” 

In his account of apocalyptic events, Imam al-Tabari tells us that the beast will speak Arabic and emerge from Safa in Mecca and its body will be as hairy as the hirsute that crowns its head.    

“Not content to make men ashamed of their impiety and hypocrisy,” Imam al-Tabari says, “the beast will itself bear the sign of universal death and the imam of the Ka’ba will recognize it.” 

Reports have it that “the beast” is made up of different animal parts – pig, elephant, stag, lion, cat, camel, etc. – with its feet on the ground and its head in the clouds, i.e. airborne. I couldn’t get the wet wildlife market in Wuhan from where this particular coronavirus most likely emerged out of my mind after reading this. 

The sahaba and intrepid traveller, the legendary Tamim al-Dari, is believed to have encountered the beast – al-Jassasa – on a faraway remote island. 

It is not clear from the hadith literature who al-Jassasa (“The Spy”) is spying for. However, the fact that he exposed the location of the one-eyed and shackled al-Dajjal to Tamim, suggests that he is not in the service of al-Dajjal, but is an entity that can breach your security long before anyone realizes it.   

After Tamim miraculously returned to Madina years later, and his wife had remarried and failed to recognize him, he informed the Prophet about what he experienced. According to a hadith in Sahih Muslim, the Prophet affirmed the veracity of his experience to an assembly of Muslims in his mosque.

If the marvelous narrative of Tamim’s encounter with al-Jassasa and al-Dajjal bears any resemblance to the novel coronavirus, perhaps we could model our response to it much like the eschatological approach the Prophet of God took with his community  – make amends before the terror of the ‘chained creature’ is unleashed. 

SCHOLAR vs JOURNALIST – Avoid Tripping Over Live Wires

Shaykh Hamza Yusuf’s interview with Mehdi Hasan at the Revival of the Islamic Spirit (RIS) convention in Toronto on December 23, 2016 ignited an unprecedented controversy. I suspect the fallout from his interview will have a negative impact on an already tenuous relationship between Muslims and the media. Before we move on from this hiccup on our collective radar, I believe there are some important take-away lessons, particularly for anyone courageous enough to agree to an interview.  

The Muslims I know don’t trust the mainstream media and will run as far away as possible from investigative reporters. Those who can speak intelligently are few in numbers. From experience I can say that imams and community leaders in Toronto are not interested in attending training courses, even cheap ones organized and taught by qualified Muslim journalists.

In a paper I wrote for the Tabah Foundation in February 2011, I argued that when it comes to the mass media, our community is stuck in “flak attack” mode. In other words, the media is a sworn enemy of Muslims, and rather than engaging with the media, we attack it.     Continue reading

Tariq Ramadan and Western Muslim Discourse – Elevating Politics Above Faith

The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) is getting its fair share of criticism these days. Some within the Muslim community accuse its leaders of being “spineless”  for not objecting to remarks made by the governor of Michigan at ISNA’s 51st annual convention held this year in Detroit. ISNA eventually issued a press release calling on Americans to object to Rick Synder’s blatant exclusion of Palestinian rights while he affirmed the right of Israel to exist. 

Some are citing ISNA’s faux pas in relation to Synder’s comment as a validation of Dr. Tariq Ramadan’s reasons for not attending the ISNA convention. Dr. Ramadan’s statement “Why I will not attend the ISNA and RIS conferences”, issued two weeks before ISNA’s gathering and months before the Revival of the Islamic Spirit (RIS) conference in Toronto, reveals his Islamist weltanschauung – politics trumps faith.  

We see this in the reasons he presents for severing ties with ISNA and RIS, his vision of Islamic conventions/conferences, the kind of sufism and sufis he prefers and in his master plan of what a new generation of Muslim leaders ought to look like. Continue reading

The Radical Middle Way – Why?

My dear friend Fuad Nahdi and I have had many chats over the years about the need for Muslims living in the West to have a sustained strategy of civic engagement and the meaning of radical activism.
Wanted WomenI admire his dedication and wish I had some of his excitement and enthusiasm.
He being in London and me in Toronto has not prevented us from talking at length about our daily struggles to balance instinctively left-leaning reactions and deep felt pain at the injustices we’ve been fortunate to chronicle as journalists against the teachings of a faith that demands compassion and love.
When Fuad left Mombassa, Kenya to study in London he was older and wiser than when I migrated from Georgetown, Guyana to Toronto. In the last three decades we’ve gotten married, raised families, established careers and jumped waist high into the turbulent politics of Muslim community affairs.
How we’ve managed to find and stay on the “middle path” is not really a mystery. We both came from homes where parents and elders were involved in our lives. We were raised in communities of faith that were real, not imagined. We both had teachers who taught us wisdom and didn’t lecture us with fire and brimstone speeches.
We might not have known much about Sufis, Salafis, Deobandis or Barelwis growing up, but we knew that being Muslim meant we had to be good to our neighbours and those less fortunate. This understanding, call it a firm grounding of faith and civic identities, eventually made us as comfortable in our newsrooms as we were in our local mosques. And although poverty was our lot as young men we never aspired to roll with the rich and live the high life.   
These thoughts about Fuad and I came to me as I got to the end of Deborah Scroggins book “Wanted Women: Faith, Lies and the War on Terror – The Lives of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Aafia Siddiqui.”

GOING AFTER THE DEAD

The mausoleum of Sidi Ahmad Zarruq in Misrata, Libya. Courtesy: Fareena and Abdur-Rehman Malik

The hard earned freedom of the Libyan people has been sullied by a band of zealots. In the last few months they’ve desecrated countless graves, bulldozed mausoleums and even exhumed and discarded bodies that have been interred for centuries.

Attacking the dead is sacrilege in every faith tradition and in every culture of the world except perhaps in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. While the majority of Libyans and indeed the global Muslim community have condemned these heinous acts and are insisting that the ignorant be punished, some senior Saudi scholars advocate the opposite opinion.  To read the blog in pdf format please click GOING AFTER LIBYA’S DEAD

The track below is taken from the Album “To the Guide’s Chamber:A Journey to the Prophet of Islam” by the Libyan Ensemble Bustan Al-Madihin (trans. Orchard of Devotional Singers). The Ensemble comprises 30 professional singers and musicians united in their love of the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him). The group is led by Shaykh Bahlul Sa‘id Abu ‘Arqoub, one of the most accomplished Libyan munshidin. The ensemble was formed in 1998 on the exact day the Muslim World was commemorating the birth of the Blessed Prophet. My friend Sohail Nokhooda at Kalam Research and Media (U.A.E.) wrote: “With the launch of this new and exciting album, “To the Guide’s Chamber”, the group brings their rich musical repertoire and soulful lyrics to a wider audience of listeners who long to be touched by the weaving of faith and poetry.” The album, released in 2010 by KM&R, was recorded in Syria – two countries rocked by shocking violence. To those who feel love not hate, enjoy this beautiful track by Bustan Al-Madihin and let us pray together that sanity triumphs over unspeakable cruelty.

Hasbuna-Allahu Wa Ni’mal Wakil

Hasbuna-Allahu Wa Ni’mal Wakil

All Dressed Up And No Where To Go

Afro-Arab summit in Sirte (2010)

One wonders what was so funny at the time. Posing for a photo-op at the Afro-Arab summit in Sirte (2010), these men share a laugh, perhaps the clown in front, their host, said something funny. Oppressors often mistakenly believe they’re immune from the wrath of the oppressed. That’s because they surround themselves with buffoons, court jesters, men and women who can’t risk telling the truth. Those who tell the truth don’t usually live to speak another day. I was thinking about Syria this morning after Fajr and particularly how ugly the situation appears to be and yet the people’s struggle continues. Why has this era of darkness descended on Syria and when it ends, what would have become of the great luminaries from whose doors our Ummah took knowledge?

I recently came across this brilliant passage in “Mau’izah-i-Jahangiri” written by Muhammad Baqir Najm-i Sani, a high-ranking Mughal nobleman in the early 17th C. (trans. from Persian as “Advice on the Art of Governance” by Sajida Sultana Alvi). In it Najm-i-Sani wrote: If the judge (shahnah-i ‘adl) (ruler) does not regulate the affairs of the people, a clandestine rebel, abetted by tyranny, will destroy the lives of the nobility (khas) and plebeian (‘am) alike. If the light from the candle of justice does not illuminate the somber cell of the afflicted, the darkness of cruelty will blacken the entire country just as it does the hearts of the tyrants.” The Mughals knew a thing or two about power and authority.

In the process of looking for something I stumbled on a pile of old MD discs. One was labelled “Sh. Hamza – Calgary Khutbah.” It was recorded during the Dec. 2002 Deen Intensive in Calgary. I had something to do with DIs at the time and recorded it although it has never been released. I thought this particular excerpt was remarkably prescient given what we see unfolding in Syria. Shaykh Hamza on the Abuse of Power. 

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

The Ikhwan and the Salafist political parties might be making electoral gains in the Middle East, but it appears a growing chorus of religious scholars is determined to test their commitment to the democratic ideals they so ardently espouse.

Among the scholars who are refusing to dance to the Ikhwan’s tune are Habib Ali Al-Jifry and Shaykh Ali Gomaa. Shaykh Ali Gomaa is Egypt’s Grand Mufti, a position that carries the weight of centuries of Muslim legal history. Habib Ali, on the other hand, is a rare type of public intellectual, admired by many Muslims both in the East and the West for the clarity of his religious commitments.

Masjid Al Aqsa

A few weeks ago they visited the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem on separate occasions. In so doing, they defied a fatwa that declares all visits by non-Palestinains to Al-Aqsa as “haram” on grounds that it leads to the “normalization of relationship with the state of Israel.”

Continue reading

I REMEMBER – BOSNIA

It’s hard to believe 20 years has passed since the start of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

After listening to the documentary of my distinguished friend and colleague at the CBC, Anna Maria Tremonti, I felt compelled to play the tracks on Yusuf Islam’s album, “I have No Cannon That Roar.”

For those who believe memories are important, even those of tragedies and unspoken human cruelties, please read the blog of Abdal Latif Whiteman titled “Goose Pimples in Sarajevo.” And if you want to hear something that is sure to touch your soul give a listen to his Arabic rendition of Tashaffa-ya-rasullalah. “Tashaffa-ya-rasullalah.” The song was performed at a concert in Sarajevo after the war ended and from that same concert came the tracks for “I have No Cannon That Roar.”

In the first part of her documentary Anna Maria takes us back to the start of the war that she covered for the CBC over a period of several years. In part 1 “Born of War” Anna Maria introduces listeners to two Muslim women who were victims of rape and who took their resulting pregnancies to term. It is not for the faint of heart.

Continue reading

Haggling over the Hilal

Ah, but my calculations, people say,
Have squared the year to human Compass, Eh?
If so, by striking from the calendar
Unborn tomorrow and dead Yesterday.
(Omar Khayyam, The Rubaiyat)

It’s been over three decades since Muslim leaders in North America have been dithering over the hilal, the new moon crescent that heralds the beginning and end of the Islamic lunar months. For the ordinary Muslim the dispute is a maze. They instinctively know that intentionally missing a fast of Ramadan is a sin that requires expiation and are perplexed why some very senior international scholars have adopted a cavalier attitude when many celebrate Eid on a day a significant number of others are still fasting.

For example, this year some national organizations have encouraged ordinary plebs “to celebrate Eid with their local community, following the dates and moon sighting methodology of their qualified leadership.” I am not entirely clear what “dates,” “moon sighting methodology” and “qualified leadership” means, but the jest of it is that the average mosquegoer should not haggle over the hilal. ‘Leave it to scholars,’ they’re told, scholars who seem blissfully oblivious to the implications of their decisions.