Surrounded by the panic created by Covid-19 -- practising social distancing, going around with a mask on one's face, not being able to be part of the congregation in a mosque have assumed a sensitive identity in the important month of Ramadan, an iconic part in every Muslim's life. Fasting during this month is considered one of the Five Pillars of Islam. The fourth week of April will see the vast majority of the Bangladeshi population participating in a format where they will be wilfully refraining from eating for a period of time.
Fasting during this month has not only spiritual connotations but also Sufistic elements. Muslims believe that fasting is more than abstaining from food and drink. Fasting also includes abstaining from any falsehood in speech and action, abstaining from any ignorant and indecent speech, and from arguing, fighting, and having lustful thoughts.
There is a symbolic interpretation in the matter of observing fasting, particularly during Ramadan and that needs to be upheld with all sincerity.
We, after the emergence of this terrible malaise, have gradually learnt to practise discipline and help each other in overcoming socio-economic challenges. The month of Ramadan should assist us in moving forward with greater determination.
Fasting should assist in strengthening control of our impulses and help develop good behaviour. During this sacred month of Ramadan, believers can strive to purify their body and soul and increase their taqwa (good deeds and God-consciousness). This purification of body and soul will harmonise the inner and outer spheres of every individual.
For more than one month we have watched in the electronic and print media how the virus and the imposition of quarantine and semi-lockdown has resulted in pain for hundreds of thousands of people and their family members who have not been able to earn enough for daily subsistence. There is concern that despite aggressive government actions, the overall approach in many areas appears to be less than sufficient. Many people lack regular access to water and soap, space for social distancing, and healthcare. Wide swathes of the population are also out of work.
Our government, despite being a representative of a Lower Middle Income country has been trying its best to reduce people's terrible misfortune. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has initiated a US Dollar 1.7 billion relief package for farmers affected by the restrictions, part of a government stimulus worth $11.3 billion, so far. The efforts of the government have also included helping the more than 4 million workers in the RMG industry and also those associated with the health sector. The government is also trying its best to ensure quarantine conditions through extension of the nationwide holiday and providing free food to those who are elderly and also below the absolute poverty level..
Fasting in the month of Ramadan in its own way could probably not only help us to feel this general distress but also inspire us play a more proactive role in overcoming the emerging challenges.
However there is also the denotation matrix within the framework of fasting. It needs to be remembered that Muslims aim to improve their physical health by reducing food intake and maintaining a healthier lifestyle. Overindulgence in food is discouraged and eating only enough to silence the pain of hunger is encouraged. Muslims believe they should be active, tending to all their commitments and never falling short of any duty.
On a moral level, believers strive to attain the most virtuous characteristics and apply them to their daily situations. They try to show compassion, generosity and mercy to others, exercise patience, and control their anger. In essence, true Muslims try to improve what they believe to be good moral character and habits. It is this that will be most necessary not only throughout the month of Ramadan but also in the subsequent period when the people of Bangladesh will try and emerge out of the terrible after-effects of the Covid virus.
Fasting is obligatory for every adult Muslim during the month of Ramadan every year, unless, one is physically indisposed or suffering from some other drawbacks. Each day, the fast begins at dawn and ends at sunset. During this time Muslims are asked to remember those who are less fortunate than themselves as well as to bring them closer to God. Non obligatory fasts are two days a week as well as the middle of the month, as recommended by our Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).
Although fasting during Ramadan is fard (obligatory), exceptions are made for persons in particular circumstances. Some of these conditions are applicable in the case of: (a) prepubescent children; (b) one suffering from unconditional vomiting; (c) serious illness; (d) if one is travelling; (e) an ill person or old person who is not physically able to fast; and (f) a mentally ill person.
It is at this point that one needs to understand how the spiritual injunctions in Islam can be helpful in a COVID-19 affected situation. Our Hadith specifies that those who will not be able to fast can donate a meal (or an equivalent amount of money) to the poor or needy for each day of missed fasting. In the case of women, for each day of fasting missed during Ramadan, they should donate the amount of a normal person's diet to the poor or needy. These stipulations will, however, apply only if the concerned person is financially capable.
At this point one also needs to draw attention to the end of Ramadan and the arrival of Eid-ul-Fitr. For Muslims, this is a joyous festival that has both spiritual and social connotations. It arrives in the wake of this holy month and marks the end of fasting for Muslims seeking purification and salvation.
The crescent moon that heralds the end of this special month also brings with it spontaneous delight for each family. However, this time round, in a COVID-19 affected country, efforts need to be undertaken that the happiness is shared throughout the community. All of us, who can, either through individual or institutional means, should try to bring joy and fellowship for the young and old living with and around us.
Our efforts will be clear and visible when we see happiness instead of tears in the faces of children, their parents and also among the elderly on that special day of Eid.
Nevertheless, before concluding, one needs to make a particular suggestion. During the month of Ramadan, in all likelihood, we might be asked to continue to fast and remain at home practising social distancing. That will mean the limitation of not being able to participate in Tarabih prayers in a congregation in a mosque. However, the relevant authorities, unless they decide to usher in some change could possibly carefully consider arranging that Tarabih prayers are uniformly telecast and/or broadcast from one common media source, which could possibly be decided upon by the Ministry of Religious Affairs and the Ministry of Information. In such a situation, citizens interested in participating in this prayer could do so from their residences - maintaining social distancing.
One has to remember that there is a generic symbolic aspect, and that was reflected in the famous line of Kazi Nazrul Islam- "Ramzaner oi rojar sheshey elo khushir Eid". Let us all try and work together. Every smile that emerges because of our efforts will help us to move forward and overcome challenges within every tier of our social framework. It will also reaffirm the nuance as enunciated in Surah 107 (Al- Maun) - true worship requires faith and also love for the needy.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.