Tuesday, June 28, 2005

REFLECTION: From The Fringes of Ramadhan

(I wrote this piece in November 2004 (at least I think that's when it was) after visiting a friend who works behind a bar. I often used to visit her a work. When she is not serving beer and spirits to my mates and other customers, we would chat and listen and crack jokes and gas-bag like the 2 old men in the Muppet Show. Sometimes we would lose track of time, engrossed in conversation as we'd chat face-to-face with our chins resting on our hands and our elbows resting on some coasters, a bit like a scene from the British comedy duo Smith & Jones.

In those days, I felt so awful about not being able to fast. I told her as much, and she told me of her own frustration with knowing so little about her late father's heritage. It was then that I told her a few things about Ramadhan, about the Night of Power, about the significance of fasting and its spiritual aspect.

I had the feeling my words were getting through to her, but I had no idea to what extent. After that visit, I went home and penned this article for the MuslimWakeUp.com Ramadhan Diary section. It got published. I showed it to Jane a few days later but asked her not to read it until she finished work.

At 2am the next morning, I received the following text message on my mobile phone:

"Your story made of [me - she was using autotext] feel closer and included in a place I thought had died with my father Yet again you’ve made my reality a better one to exist in **Jane"

After receiving that text message, I could really feel the spirit of Ramadan. It was as if I could see the devils being chained before my very eyes.

Sometimes one can only appreciate spiritual life whilst standing on its fringe. Imam Hamza Yusuf Hansonn once quoted of friend of his as saying: "A religious person is someone who does not want to go to hell. A spiritual person is someone who has already been to hell and doesn't want to go back!")


This Ramadhan, I am happy and sad to announce that I will not be fasting. Yes, I know it is bad manners to make this public. After all, we are meant to be hiding our sins.

My failure to fast, however, is not a sin. In fact, for me to fast would be a virtual act of suicide. Now that’s what I call a sin!

Like many millions of Muslims out there, I have to take medication. So my announcement that I will not be fasting brings me mixed feelings.

I am happy because I will continue my successful management of a health condition that has plagued me big-time since February 2002. It was during one day of that month and year that I virtually collapsed. After numerous tests, it was discovered that my thyroid was not the best. The result was my having to take some 14 months off work.

I am sad because my health conditions and my need for medication at strictly appointed times result in my having to miss out on fasting. I feel like I am on the fringe of Ramadan.

Tonight I met up with a friend from New Zealand. Jane’s father was a Malay Muslim, though she never met him. When Jane’s mother was pregnant, the parents split up. Dad stayed in Malaysia and mum went to New Zealand. Jane knew about her father but never actually met him. Some 12 months after he passed away, Jane got a chance to visit Malaysia and meet her half-brothers and step mother who showed her the grave of her father.

For Jane, Ramadan is a distant yet important part of her life that always seemed to be missing and absent like her father. So when she asked me about Ramadan tonight, I felt embarrassed to tell her that I was not fasting. She found it hard to relate to my embarrassment.

I then explained to her that fasting is to Ramadan what Bethlehem and Jesus are to Christmas. I grew up with fasting during Ramadan. I can still remember the first time I fasted. I was some 6 years old, a rather chubby lad with long hair and big ears. And an even bigger stomach. I don’t think I had ever eaten so many ‘pakoras’ (deep-fried Indian potato cakes) as I did when breaking my fast on that day.

Jane could not help but compare Ramadan to the Christmas and Easter of her mild-Hispanic Catholic upbringing. She knew it was somehow related to visiting friends and family. She knew it lasted one month. She knew there were times when extra blessings were in store. She even had heard that people who died during this month were able to avoid hell (perhaps she confused this with typical hajj stories).

So here I was, trying to make Ramadan real for someone who loved it but had never seen it (much the same way as she had loved her father but never seen him). Even my half-hearted attempts at explaining the timings of fasting, the tarawih prayers and the significance of the Laylat al-Qadr and the last ten nights during which the search is on for this powerful night, seemed to captivate Jane’s attention.

Perhaps someone could convince Michael Wolfe to write a book on Ramadan in Morocco (or at least cut out the first half of his book on the Hadj and publish it separately) so I could give a copy to the Jane’s of this world. That way we could both feel a little less like Ramadan fringe-dwellers.
And so that the Irfan’s of this world could speak to them with greater conviction. Because moving onto my third Ramadan without fasting has made me feel a little bit rusty. I know I do not have to fast. But you don’t know what you’ve got until medication takes it away. I guess I will have to make-do with the spiritual burst of the super-fast turbo-charged tarawih at the local Turkish mosque. Speaking of which …

Words © 2005 Irfan Yusuf

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