Reflections on Ramadan in Troubled Times, A.H. 1432
by Stephen Schwartz
The Islamic holy month of Ramadan has arrived – a time for religious commitment, penance, reflection, service to our communities, and joy among all Muslims. During the holy month, Qur'an was revealed to our beloved prophet, Muhammad sallallahualeyhisalaam.
During Ramadan, Muslims will fast during the daylight hours, dedicate our time to prayer, and break the fast at sundown with dates and water, the beginning of the iftar observances that include prayer and a special dinner, preferably held collectively. Iftar meals may be served in mosques, public facilities, or at home.
As Sunni Muslims, we will pray Tarawih and read a section of Qur'an each night of the holy month, while Shias will offer tahajjud as additional nocturnal prayers. The transmission of the divine message will be celebrated in particular on Laylat ul-Qadr, "the Night of Power," commemorating the moment when it was first delivered to Muhammad.
Having become Muslim in 1997, I have fasted Ramadan 14 times. As with many Muslims, the most difficult aspect of the daytime fast for me is abstinence from drinking water. But I had fasted frequently before becoming Muslim, and have not found it to be an excessive burden.
Ramadan is more fulfilling as a pillar of Islam, in my experience, in a Muslim-majority city like Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Hercegovina, where I became Muslim. This should be logical; in a Muslim community, the spirit of Ramadan is felt among all residents, and mosques and restaurants offer food to the public.
During the Bosnian War of 1992-95, the Army of the Republic of Bosnia-Hercegovina (ARBH) did not employ jihadist vocabulary, because the government that commanded it and the combatants serving in it were fighting for the right to live in peace with their non-Muslim neighbors and fellow-citizens. But ARBH soldiers sang songs with a religious content, and one famous melody, the Martyr's Ballad, included a chorus that said:
"Only let me once again
At the gates of heaven
On the wings of the call to prayer
Smell the scent of Ramadan
Coming from our marketplaces."
It should be noted here that the Bosnian Muslim combatant did not look with excitement towards his arrival in heaven and rewards for martyrdom, but was conscious of the felicities of the life he experienced in the real world in which he was born. He was attached to life, not death.
Ramadan in this Islamic hijri year 1432 comes to us amid troubles for the whole world, and not simply the Muslims. The developed economies are undergoing a deep social and political crisis. Our ummah continues to be afflicted with the internal illnesses of radicalism, whether in the form emanating from the Iranian regime or the extremist Wahhabi doctrine originating in Saudi Arabia and continually spreading across the Muslim lands and Muslim congregations in non-Muslim countries. In Libya, Muslims inspired by their people's history of Sufi spirituality and resistance to oppression are struggling to rid themselves of a cruel dictator. The Syrian stalemate continues, between the minority, sectarian regime of Bashar al-Assad and the majority of his subjects, who risk their lives to protest against injustice.
But our penance as Muslims is not limited to our own acts. As the Western month of July approached its end, the people of Norway learned in the most tragic and dreadful manner that Islamophobia is real, and is not simply a pretext invented by radical Muslims to avoid debate about Islam. They also learned that Muslims may not be the only victims of Islamophobic rage. In an act of unspeakable cruelty, the author of a 1,500-page polemic against Muslim immigration in Europe bombed the center of Norway's government in Oslo and then journeyed to a summer youth camp run by the Norwegian Labor Party, where he murdered 69 young people. The total of victims surpasses, as I write these words, 77 killed.
I find to my undiluted horror and disgust that the author of the atrocity in Norway, a certain Anders Behring Breivik, had even copied a reportage of mine on exaggerated radical Islamist claims of discrimination in Europe, written in 2005, in his screed. At the same time, however, the anti-Muslim terrorist filled his diatribe with false charges against the Muslims of Bosnia-Hercegovina and the Albanian Muslims of Kosovo, based on the most disreputable elements of Serbian propaganda. Anybody who reads my books and articles knows that I defend moderate, traditional, and spiritual Islam against radical ideology, and that I was active in supporting the Bosnian Muslims and the Albanians, both Muslim and non-Muslim, against Serbian aggression, before the rest of the world was forced to pay attention to the bloodshed, rape, vandalism, and other crimes visited on these peoples by the Belgrade terrorists.
Nevertheless, I pray to Allah subhanawata'la, now and in the fasting month of Ramadan, for mercy in the face of the abuse of my writing by such a diabolical figure as the Norwegian mass-murderer. I further ask forgiveness from the martyred people of Norway, a people I know and admire, for the inclusion of my work in the hateful writings of the killer. This is not the first time that criticism of Wahhabism by me and other Muslims – the great majority of who, across the world, repudiate Islamist ideology – has been misused by Islamophobes. The abominable manipulation of our criticism of radical Islam to the detriment of all Muslims – and, as we see in Norway, to the endangerment of the security of non-Muslims as well – cannot be laid against us.
Our candid statements about the internal contradictions within the Islamic ummah do not make us Islamophobes, any more than the principled opposition by leftist oppositionists, democratic socialists and liberals to the Stalin dictatorship made the antifascist foes of Soviet imperialism allies of Hitler. We are not Islamophobes or complicit with them. We love Islam, our Prophet, and our traditions, and we seek their betterment. We will defend our religion and our fellow-Muslims, as well as our non-Muslim neighbors, against Islamophobic as well as radical Islamist violence. But we also recognize, and declare openly, that Islamist radicalism supports the evils of Islamophobia much more than a criticism of Muslim extremism from within the ummah could ever do. The Islamophobes and the Muslim radicals, whether the latter carry the banner of Ahmadinejad or of al-Qaida, of the Taliban or the Jama'at-e-Islami in South Asia, of the Muslim Brotherhood or of the hard-core Wahhabis who masquerade as "Salafis", need one another. The Islamophobes agree with the Islamist agitators in defining "real" Islam as violent and exclusionary.
This should surprise nobody; each form of extremism mirrors and appears to justify the existence of its supposed enemy. Without Islamophobia, and the violence of Islam-haters from the Balkans in the 1990s, where many non-Muslims were killed for refusing the join the Serbian "crusade," to Norway today, extremist Islamists would have sparse evidence for their claims that Islam is under global attack. Without Muslim radicals, Islam-haters would gain no audience for their spurious arguments that the faith of Muhammad itself, stripped of history or nuance, is a threat to humanity.
With the arrival of the holy month of fasting, we will refrain from eating, drinking, smoking, and sexual relations during the daylight hours, and we will celebrate our common faith with the commencement of iftar. Heavier responsibilities lie upon us now, as we assume an even greater burden than in the past. During the past two decades, the believers in Islam have been tested repeatedly, by our enemies – such as the Russians in Chechnya and the Serbs in the Balkans – as well as by our alleged champions – the protagonists of the false "jihad" of the fanatics. In some countries, we have shown a good example – I think specifically of the Balkan lands, India, Indonesia, and the immigrant Muslim communities of France and Germany. Elsewhere, our fellow-believers have been led astray by heedless and conscience-less agitators just as our non-Muslim neighbors have been seduced by the acolytes of fear and panic.
In fasting, we are reminded of the sacrifices of the poor and the call to all Muslims to acts of charity and penitence. In breaking our fast, and praying, we are provided with evidence of Allah's grace and the rewards he has promised us in this life and in the hereafter. Yet as the aqida of imam Tahawi reminds us, "Certainty and despair both remove one from the religion, but the path of truth for the People of the Qibla lies between the two."
In the holy month of Ramadan, let us all pray for our improvement, the security of ourselves and our neighbors, and for guidance on the straight path.
May all who read this experience a generous and blessed Ramadan! Ramadan karim, Ramadan mubarak!