Sunday, September 9, 2007

Reviewing ‘The Blessings of Ramadan’ by Javed Ali

This beautifully presented book is written primarily for children and young people of the Islamic faith but it serves as a simple and clear resource book for anyone wanting to learn about Ramadan.

English-based author, Javed Ali, has developed this short book (56 pages) from a series of talks he has given to Muslim young people during the holy month. It is written in English but Arabic expressions are aplenty as well as the inclusion of a comprehensive glossary and references.

It would be easy for the uninitiated to think that Ramadan is a hard deal having to go without food, drink and sex for the daylight hours over an entire month but the book’s title indicates the positive blessings that come from Ramadan. These blessings for one who follows the Ramadan traditions include the development and purification of character, ‘getting into training’ for the new year, growing in God-consciousness, coming to a better appreciation and involvement with the needs of the poor, developing a shield of protection against evil, developing one’s self-control and the communal blessings of community building, reconciliation and peace.

In a nutshell Ali says, “The essence of the month is to become a better person, who remains conscious of God throughout his or her life.” (p4)

Ali offers this book as a primer as he explains such things as the timing of Ramadan according to the lunar ‘clock of nature’, the reasons for fasting, the exceptional cases (elderly, manual laborers, the sick, children, travelers and expectant mothers), the pre-dawn meals, the breaking of the fast at Iftar, special night prayers, the ‘Night of Power’, the giving of alms (zakat) and the final festival (Id-Ul-Fitr). The author is swift to recognize that Ramadan inculcates a sense of solidarity with all Muslims but it has flexibility and diversity as it is practiced in different ways in different countries around the world.

The style of the book is straightforward, thoughtful and prophetic. He probes beyond the customs to reflect on their intended meanings. Ali recognizes that many Muslims seem to gain weight through this month of fasting and he challenges the extravagant overeating of special foods and the endless partying which flies in the face of the whole principle of fasting.

Ramadan celebrates the special month in which the prophet is said to have received his revelation so there is in this month a focus on Quranic readings. Instead of having a month where one can ‘pay your religious dues’ the author emphasizes how this month is a springboard that sets you up for the practice of these disciplines, including voluntary fasts right throughout the year. In no way does the author encourage or endorse a ‘Frequent Flyer’ approach to Ramadan, in which a diligent practice for one month can build up points and credit to let you off the religious hook for eleven months of riotous living.

A distinction is made between practices that are mandatory and those that are voluntary. One of the areas that some will find difficulty in accepting is the concept of doing religious duties or works to atone for one’s sins. For instance, the Prophet Mohammed said, “One who spends the Night of Power [the night when the revelation of the Quran is said to have come] in worship with faith and hoping for its rewards, will have all of one’s previous wrong actions forgiven.” (quoted on p45) The book and the volume that it quotes raise tantalizing questions about the nature of God. To what extent does one need to show works of goodness and generosity to be ‘saved’? How much does one have to do for the forgiveness of sins? Can one be sure he or she has won the favour and acceptance of God? How much does the prophet reveal at the first Ramadan a God of grace?

The blessing of giving zakah (alms) finds its echo in other religions, as does the right of God to a person’s wealth. What is distinctive, as hinted by Ali, is that “once the Zakah is given, the remaining wealth of the person becomes pure and legitimate.” (p47)

Javed Ali describes the celebratory culmination of Ramadan at Id, in which the coming together over meals is a time for forgiveness, reconciliation and building community. The invitation to those who are not Muslims to join in the festivities is a beautiful symbol of reaching out in peace, a commitment to unity and tolerance to those who hold differing views.

Javed Ali, The Blessings of Ramadan (New Delhi: Goodword, 2002; reprinted 2005) is available in the United Arab Emirates from Magrudy’s bookshops at a cost of Dh14.00.

Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of The Blessings of Ramadan.