For those of my readers who are not familiar with Ramzan and our culture, Ramzan is the month during which Muslims Fast for their Creator and Benefactor, Allah. A fast means abstaining from basic necessities of life such as food, water, intimate companionship of spouses, etc, from dawn to dusk, while dedicating the entire day & night to the worship of Allah. The rewards and sins multiply during this month.
(Which is perhaps why you see so many Muslims regain practice of their beliefs with renewed zeal during the holy month, even if they don’t fulfill daily requirements during the rest of the year. We Muslims, btw, are encouraged to encourage this return to faith of sorts, of less practicing Muslims brethren – who knows this might be the turning point for someone to continue with the routine s/he develops during Ramzan).
Anyway, similarly, during this holy month, Muslims mingle a little more with their neighbors as compared to other months. This mingling, among other cultural practices, usually includes exchanging aftaaris (the meal which one has upon the breaking of the fast – even a khujoor (date) and a glass of water can be counted as aftaari). [This post will not be touching upon the commercial aspect of Aftaari buffets and all that have become the norm of the modern society].
Over the years, this practice of exchanging aftaaris has evolved into an elaborate ritual, a cultural must, and so, unfortunately, is beginning to lose its essence. People feel it is an obligation to send out aftaaris on pre-numbered fasts (such as on the 10th Roza/fast, or on one of the major nights of the last ten days, and so on). They go through quite a bit of unnecessary trouble to prepare lavish platters, often in a bid to outdo other neighbors. Some families also have the culture of waiting till the last or so Roza to send out aftaari platters that gives them the opportunity to outshine the rest of the muhalla (neighborhood). I have even come across elders who seem to feel relieved that they did their share of sharing aftaaris at least once during the month.
This is something that has bugged me a lot for several years. This is where I am reminded of taking inspiration from the “There is no obligation in religion” bit. At the core of this message is the fact that Islam believes in invitation to itself, an encouragement toward Islam, while at the same time it instructs tolerance of other religions. [I would highly recommend people to look up the meanings of words such as ‘invitation’, ‘encouragement’, ‘instructs’, ‘tolerate/tolerance’ etc in dictionaries]. And to those who embrace Islam, Islam is lenient in that it encourages the following of whatever is feasibly possible (so while it is obligatory for a Muslim to perform Hajj at least once during his/her lifetime, Allah will understand if the man/woman could not have afforded the pilgrimage; similarly, it is obligatory to pray 5 times each day or fast each year, but with allowances/ease for life’s tolls).
Today was the 25th Roza (fast), and upon the receipt of a platter of aftaari items from a neighbor, my mother commented on the ease of sharing aftaaris that people nowadays had developed. She said something to the effect of, “How easy it is these days for people to send out aftaaris; all they simply do is get snacks (samosas, pakoras, jalebis, etc) from snack shops, spill a few of each item on a plate, and send it out to neighbors. How smart.” – to those of us who have experienced Ramzan since childhood, we understood that her implication was that gone are the days when people used to sit down and prepare all these items at home, and cater to a larger muhalla (neighborhood).
I couldn’t stop myself any longer, and I’m glad I didn’t. I commented back with this message:
Islam does not tell you to do this as part of your fasting ritual. Islam merely encourages that one keep one’s neighbor in mind, a value that is applicable to all 12 months of the year (Hadith available), not just Ramzan, like people have made a necessity out of the same which they now can’t imagine life without. And our elders tried to inculcate in us this value of caring for thy neighbor, by demonstrating it as a ritual (which if you note, was not something restricted to the holy month of Ramzan alone), mostly because they could afford it on so many levels: food items were less costly a generation or two ago; more families were based on a joint family system & less women used to be employed on full time jobs outside the house and thus there were more hands to prepare seemingly more lavish aftaari platters; these were, again, easier to distribute because of the presence of more male hands in the joint family who could manage the distribution once back from offices. However, our elders perhaps didn’t educate us well enough – the purpose of this practice of theirs was to demonstrate that one must want for one’s brethren/society what one wishes for himself (Hadith available), which is why they teamed up to prepare home-made aftaar platters (meals as well in some cases). Our elders truly ‘shared’ with neighbors, from what they had prepared for the family at home, rather than preparing something, (whether less or more), separately for them.
The point being that Islam instructs and encourages caring for the people who you live amongst, teamwork if you must, and caring for them goes beyond ensuring that you sent out the annual platter and yours was one of the best: it means being aware of whether your neighbor has had a decent meal before his family retires for the night or not, be it Ramzan or any other day of the year; it means being inclusive of the whole society; it means wanting for one’s neighbor what one wants for oneself – the entire routine points towards strengthening of societies. In this regards, sending out food acts as an ice breaker of relationship building.
And what do we do? We turn it all into a competition: a competition of what we ‘managed/got away with’ with the least bit of inconvenience to ourselves, a competition of doing something because others expect it of us, a competition of whose platter was the best, a competition of who sent out the first platter of the month, and a competition of who sent out the most platters each Ramzan.
Ramzan is a month that helps you picture & taste the ideal Islamic life. And the ideal level of justice that we would be doing to Ramzan is by understanding the reasons behind instructed way of life, and slowly and gradually adopting good practices from the month’s routine, for the rest of our lives.
At the end of my short comment (the explanation was not required at the table because of obvious group dynamics :p), my mother, and other family members on the table, were first taken aback to a very tiny extent (understandable because these lessons perhaps jumped a generation), but understood and agreed with silent nods.
I hope my friends who read this, will too. And more than that, I hope I can live up to my own positive understanding of life and my religion of choice.