By Zehra Kazmi for Youth Ki Awaaz:
A few days back, I woke up to find my editor’s excited, frantic messages offering me to work on a series of articles on Ramzan and linking it to questions of Islamic history, identity and culture. After I agreed, I realized that this would be quite a journey for me as well because I am not the most devout Muslim you will meet. I am not entirely sure where I stand with something like religion. So I am not going to write about Ramzan solely from a theological perspective, there are plenty of other more appropriate platforms and informed voices one can refer to for that. But given that I intend to make this a month of discovery and exploration myself, it’s only fair that I first briefly look at what is it that we are celebrating this month.
Ramzan or Ramadan is the month that celebrates the revealing of the Quran to Prophet Muhammad. The first revelation was sent down on Laylat al-Qadr (The night of Power) which is one of the five odd nights of the last ten days of Ramzan. The sighting of the crescent moon or hilal, marks the beginning of the holy month of Ramzan and it ends with the celebration of Eid-ul-Fitr. The most important aspect of Ramzan is fasting and praying. Muslims are not allowed to take in a drop of water or food from dawn to dusk for thirty days and spend the month in spiritual reflection. The fast also requires its observers to exercise restraint and abstain from swearing, gossiping and intercourse for the length of the fast.
What was Ramzan like for me growing up? Anticipation would start building a few weeks before hilal, and my mother would stock the kitchen with bakharkhani, dates and sewai. My parents would always fast for the length of the month and rarely missed a day. I remember I kept my first roza (fast) in second grade, much to their apprehension because they thought I was too young then. Ramzan and Diwali fell on the same time that year and I remember it was Diwali the day I decided to fast. It ended with me forgetting that I was on a fast by the time it was 2 pm and happily munching away on the dry fruit collection someone had brought home for Diwali. I was gutted when I realized my great carelessness and cried buckets. It required many hugs and a great deal of placating to finally make me shut up.
I also remember lying to teachers in middle school about fasting to get out of those hated ‘physical training’ periods and chilling in the bleachers while my less fortunate Hindu friends ran 5 rounds of the sports field. Ramzan for me meant waking up grudgingly for sehari (pre-dawn meal before fajr), memorising all the surahs one must recite during namaaz (when I prayed for the first time in front of my flatmates in Delhi this year, they were all very impressed with my surah rapping skills), marvelling at my more resolute friends for never skipping school and diligently fasting for thirty days throughout the month, negotiating with Allah that I score well in my ICSE boards in return for being a good Muslim and trying very, very hard to not swear out loud or gossip from dawn to dusk. A sense of discipline and the smell of really good food would pervade our household every year during Ramzan. Whether I keep a roza or not, I am still the first person to sit on the dining table for iftaar.
It is deeply flawed to describe Islamic identity as a unified, monolithic entity because there are so many cultural, historical, social and personal factors that come into play when it comes to identity- how you or I choose to define ourselves. An Indian Shia woman’s impressions of her spiritual faith and social life will differ markedly from that of a Lebanese Sunni man. In the series, I will try to shed some light on the varied ways in which we celebrate Ramzan, what it means to someone like me, why it matters if I call it Ramzan or Ramadan and contextualize Islamic tradition and history to cover these issues.
I realize that I am in discord with what people (Muslims and non-Muslims alike) expect a Muslim woman to be like. I don’t really fit. I wear skirts and don’t cover my head, I don’t pray five times a day and I am too boisterous to be considered demure by any standards. But I also don’t drink alcohol or eat pork. The black taveez peeping through my collar, the surahs I find myself reciting unconsciously every night before I go to sleep, the way I pronounce ‘kh‘ from my epiglottis and of course, my name – the Muslim in me never leaves me. This dilemma or identity flux however every educated young Muslim faces, in varying degrees.
Am I at peace with myself? Largely.
This article is part of Youth Ki Awaaz’s special coverage of Ramzan this month. Follow Ramzan With Zehra for more.