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Ramadan vs. Ramzan: How to Do Things with Words

Nationalism is a funny thing. It can be the source of bonding and camaraderie as well as the cause of animosity, chest-puffing, and downright silliness.

Just consider all the online debate about the recent article “Why are Indian Muslims using the Arabic word ‘Ramadan’ instead of the traditional ‘Ramzan’?“, written by Shoaib Daniyal.

The article details how, historically, the Arabic word for Islam’s sacred month “Ramadan” came to be pronounced “Ramzan” in the sub-continent and how, recently, many South Asian Muslims are reverting to the “Ramadan” pronunciation due to, as the author puts it, the effect of a “Saudi-influenced brand of Islam” and “cultural insecurity” on the part of said South Asians.

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Apparently, this is a debate that has been cropping up annually in South Asian communities around Ramadan time, and there are a lot of competing socio-political tensions that underlie and color the conversation. As far as this article is concerned, however, much of it is little more than nationalism and thinly-veiled anti-Arabism masquerading as serious historical and linguistic analysis.

The Urge to Purge

Calls for abandoning “arabicized” language in preference for a more “authentic,” “traditional,” or “pure” use of language is hardly new and certainly not limited to South Asia. Historically, many nationalist movements in the Middle East have called for dropping vocabulary, pronunciation, and script associated with Arabs and Arabic. In 20th century Turkey, for example, part of Ataturk’s compulsory modernization program was replacing the Perso-Arabic script of Ottoman Turkish with a new Latin-based Turkish alphabet that was meant to be truer to the modern secular Turkish identity. In Iran also, government programs under the rule of Muhammad Reza Shah attempted to “purify” the Persian language by excising any and all Arabic vocabulary and replacing it with Farsi equivalents, even if that meant inventing a Farsi word from scratch. Historically, these calls for purging Arabic almost always coincided with efforts to secularize society and attenuate the influence of Islam in people’s lives.

Beyond the Middle East and Arabic in particular, attempting to reform the way people use language is often little more than a way to bolster, entrench, or cultivate nationalistic identities. Mundane linguistic details become the battlefield for ideological tug of war. What often features in these debates, however, is partisan historiography and what Prof. Reza Zia-Ebrahimi of King’s College in London calls “dislocative nationalism.” Prof. Zia-Ebrahimi’s research is concerned with how Persian nationalists in the 19th and 20th centuries invented an Aryan national identity that they then back-projected thousands of years to claim that Iran — as a cohesive nation with its own distinct identity, religion, and language — existed in ancient times and persisted throughout history despite the “corrupting” influence of invading forces and cross-cultural mixing. Nationalist reformers in modern times then attempted to “purify” what they anachronistically believed to be that essence of Aryanness by “decontaminating” cultural markers of anything believed to be foreign and non-Aryan, e.g., the Arabic language and even Islam as a whole.

What these nationalists failed to appreciate, however, is that the concept of a nation is a modern construction — strictly speaking, just a figment of our collective imagination — and that the history of any given geographic region is a rich tapestry of interweaving cultures, languages, and traditions. Only a highly selective (and, hence, inventive) reading of history could ignore all that diversity in partitioning off a specific nationalistic or racial essence. This kind of nationalistic essentialism is, of course, not unlike what renowned scholar Edward Said identified and bemoaned as being operative in Orientalism and Western colonialism generally.

Truth be told, this kind of caricaturing and mythologizing of history in service of contemporary nationalistic identity politics is ubiquitous, whether it is modern Egyptians feeling a sense of connection to and national pride for the Ancient Pyramids or modern Americans celebrating Thanksgiving as a commemoration of a peaceful partnership between the Pilgrims and Native Americans.

What does all this have to do with Ramzan?

We can see this selective and romanticized reading of history in Daniyal’s Ramadan vs. Ramzan article. For example, the author repeatedly uses the term “traditional” to characterize the “Ramzan” pronunciative variant. The question to ask is, what makes “Ramzan” so traditional? Given that the sub-continent is home to hundreds of distinct languages and dialects, each with its own storied history, why insist on this one particular pronunciation? As Mahtab Alam noted in his post on this issue last year, not all Indians, let alone South Asians, claim Urdu/Hindi as their mother tongue. Besides “Ramzan,” many South Asians have Ramojan, Ramjan, Rumjan, Ramazan, and so on. As he succinctly puts it, “Insistence on one [variation] is as hegemonic as the other one.”

Further selectivity can be seen in how Daniyal describes the historical influence of Persian/Farsi on the Indian native language as opposed to the purported influence of Saudi Arabia today. The author does not see anything problematic or objectionable about the adoption of Persian language and culture in the evolution of the sub-continent over the course of centuries. But, when it comes to the contemporary adoption of Arabicized speech patterns, that is somehow indicative of Saudi meddling and “cultural insecurity” on the part of Indian Muslims.

So why the inconsistency? If it is a legitimate, natural, organic process for language to shift over time in the sub-continent due to Persian influence historically, why is it suddenly illegitimate, unnatural, objectionable when that language continues to shift in present times due to an Arab (or American, or English, etc.) influence today? In other words, why does Daniyal take a laissez faire attitude when it comes to language transformation historically, but when it comes to modern transformations, suddenly “tradition” is so important and we have to preserve the pronunciations of old? What is so special, culturally iconic, and indispensable about this one particular Persian variant, “Ramzan”?

All that Daniyal has to offer in response to this is that “Ramzan” is traditional because that is how “most Muslim” Indians have been pronouncing it for a few hundred years. Of course, he does not cite any statistics or census results to substantiate this. But, lack of verification aside, if we go back in time, at one point that “Ramzan” pronunciation itself was brand new and unprecedented in the sub-continent, just like “Ramadan” is (supposedly) brand new and unprecedented today. Maybe in a few hundred years, “Ramadan” too will be considered the “traditional” and culturally correct pronunciation. Only Khuda knows.

Persian Confidential

To step back and comment on this entire debate, I just want to say that, ultimately, it does not matter how one pronounces Ramadan or if a Muslim says “namaz” instead of “salat.” From my own life experience and observing the cross-cultural Muslim communities in the West and abroad, I have found that these cultural debates are often nothing more than tribalism (`asabiyya) rearing its ugly head.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am Persian American and grew up saying “Ramezan,” “namaz,” “roozeh,” “sahari,” “Khuda,” etc. I still use these words when speaking to my Iranian family members and do feel a warm connection to my Persian heritage. At the same time, I have no issue using the Arabic equivalents when speaking to others, e.g., my Egyptian wife, or my half-Persian, half-Egyptian sons, who speak both Farsi and Arabic ma sha’ Allah. And, coincidentally, in Persian, my first name, “Daniel,” is pronounced “Daniyal.” Hopefully, my pronunciation of my own name “Daniel” instead of “Daniyal” is not cultural insecurity on my part.

As far as orthoepy is concerned, correct pronunciation is religiously significant when it comes to obligatory prayers as well as the study of the Islamic sciences, e.g., transmission of hadith. Beyond this, as Muslims we should also not lose sight of the fact that Arabic is a special language for a number of reasons, chief among them that it is the language Allah chose for the Quran, His final revelation to mankind. Also, it is the mother tongue of the beloved Messenger of God ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him). Given these two facts alone, how can any Muslim not feel a deep abiding love for lisan al-`arab? As an American and a Persian, I personally feel no contradiction in or threat to my sense of identity by acknowledging this love. And when we look at the history, literature, and scholarship of non-Arab Muslims the world over, we also see a reverence for Arabic.

Of course, it should go without saying that one’s appreciation of Arabic has no bearing on one’s opinion of the Saudi government or any other state institution. And, furthermore, this love of classical, formal Arabic, i.e., fusha, does not give modern Arabs the right to look down on non-Arab Muslims as somehow less authentically Muslim for any reason, least of which the fact that non-Arab Muslims use the words “Ramzan,” “sehri,” etc., in lieu of the formal Arabic counterparts. Keep in mind that the first and, arguably, most influential book of Arabic grammar ever written was completed in the 2nd century of the Hijri calendar by the Persian Muslim scholar Sibawayh, who was a non-native speaker of the language to boot.

Whether we like it or not, if we go far enough back in time, all of our personal family and cultural histories are inevitably an amalgam of a multitude of cross-cultural influences, regardless of the modern national identities we may currently associate with. In that wider sense, vociferously insisting on a nationality and imbuing so much significance on a singular national identity and language just seems historically illiterate, chauvinistic, and, well, silly.

And a Final Note…

In this post, I have made a big deal about historical diversity and the intellectual inconsistency of essentializing and mythologizing the past in order to serve modern nationalism. But, as it turns out, this is precisely the reasoning many modern academics use to argue that there is no essential, definitive “Islam” with a capital “i”. Rather, there are only “islams,” i.e., myriad historical interpretations, all equally legitimate and normative because who’s to say otherwise? According to this reasoning, it is nothing more than crass essentialism and historical constructivism to pick out an “orthodox Islam” and try to tie that alleged orthodoxy to a past community, e.g., the Sahaba, the Salaf, the Khalaf, etc.

As I have argued elsewhere in response to this argument, there is a brazen double standard in modern academia where religions, like Islam, are portrayed as lacking the robust objectivity and internal coherence — in a word, an essence —that Western normative systems, like liberalism, secularism, communism, capitalism, etc., are believed to have. No one is charged with essentialism, for example, by claiming that liberalism stands for, say, equal rights for all. That is just what liberalism means, and then further details can be debated by scholars in an analytic way. Whereas for Islam, there are as many equally valid interpretations as there are interpreters, for liberalism, Marxism, feminism, etc., not any and every interpretation is valid. This is because those thought systems have an essential meaning that it is the job of a scholar to study and understand.

In other words, Western ideas are typically studied for their own independent merit as abstractions with logical implications completely apart from any sociological, cultural, or historical contextual considerations. When you study Descartes’ Meditations in modern introductory philosophy classes, for example, little attention is given to Descartes’ social or cultural milieu; the only concern is to understand the thesis of the work as Descartes intended it. Contrast this with how the Quran, for example, is treated in Islamic and religious studies departments. Little attention is paid to trying to understand what the Author of the Quran could be propounding and whether those propositions have any independent logical merit. After all, who’s to say what the text of the Quran even means? It is all open to interpretation, and any claim about the text is more a reflection of the biases and cultural and political commitments of the commenter than the text itself.

Now imagine if we took this same approach to an economics or analytic philosophy class, arguing that the concept of “democracy” is open to interpretation, and while in the cultural context of the US, we might understand democracy to mean one thing, in North Korea, it means something else entirely, and who’s to say which interpretation is more “correct” or “orthodox”? Or how about a physics class. Unless one’s physics professor is an unabashed postmodernist, he is not going to be amused by a student arguing that he does not deserve an ‘F’ on his midterm because Isaac Newton’s Principia or Albert Einstein’s The Field Equations of Gravitation are open to interpretation and the professor’s understanding is merely an ahistorical projection of biases onto the text in constructing an “orthodox physics.”

I, of course, do believe the Quran and the Islamic sciences in general have an internal logical coherence and intrinsic meaning (within a range of diversity of opinion). The question then is, why is such essentialism acceptable here but unacceptable in the case of nationalism? Answering this question in full is beyond the scope of this already long post, but part of the answer is that, over the centuries, scholars of Islam put a lot of time, energy, and thought in preserving the religion, preserving the Sunnah, and actively warding off  illegitimate deviation. And, importantly, they were perfectly aware that that was what they were doing — that was their explicit intent, as the historical record shows. Nationalism, in contrast, lacks that historical continuation and self-reflexivity since, of course, the concept of a “nation” is only a couple hundred years old and anything even approximating contemporary nationalistic identities are notably absent from the historical record. Furthermore, when we look at historical discourse, say a thosand years ago, we do not find Indian or Persian scholars, for example, theorizing about the Hindustani or Aryan essence or concerning themselves with preserving an ethnic discursive tradition or racialized normative system til the end of time. With Islam and Muslim scholars, however, we do see this concern with preserving the normative vision of Islam indefinitely, and that is a crucial distinguishing factor. WaAllahu`alam.

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16 Comments

16 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Daniel Haqiqatjou

    June 24, 2015 at 4:45 AM

    PS: The whole Ramadan/Ramzan debate can be understood through an analogy with food. For example, I am Iranian, but I am not ashamed to admit that my favorite cuisine is South Asian food. That doesn’t take anything away from my Persian-ness. Of course, I grew up eating Persian home cooking, and I do love Persian food and it has a place in my heart. But there’s also a special place in my heart for desi food… I guess I have a big heart (and high cholesterol)! Ultimately, each individual will have his or her own dietary preferences, especially in our increasingly globalized world. And when we even look at the history of different cuisines, we also see a smorgasbord of cross-cultural mixing. For example, one of my favorites, Biryani, is conventionally a South Asian dish. Some gastric historians, however, locate the origin of Biryani in classical Persia. Arabs also have many different versions of what is essentially Biryani, e.g., makloubeh, etc. Obviously, it would be impossible to try to tie a dish like Biryani to one nation since there is much influence from a great number of cultures over the course of centuries, as recipes and spices traveled throughout the Muslim world. But, at the end of the day, who cares? Let’s just enjoy the delicious Biryani together, whether for iftar or for suhur/sehri/sahari! Anyway, don’t know if that was coherent. Fasting is obviously affecting my brain…

  2. Avatar

    Mohammed Khan

    June 24, 2015 at 4:56 AM

    Masha Allah. You made the common sense prevail with objectivity.

  3. Avatar

    Mohammed Khan

    June 24, 2015 at 5:02 AM

    I want to believe that Biryani is Hyderabadi :-)

    • Avatar

      Haider Rehman

      June 27, 2015 at 3:50 AM

      Biryani is Pakistani ;)
      At least for me.

  4. Avatar

    Maleeha

    June 24, 2015 at 7:38 AM

    a really objective, thought provoking and an interesting read! Thank you for the article :)

  5. Avatar

    Ali

    June 24, 2015 at 8:26 AM

    Nationalism, the one type of cancer that will never be cured.

  6. Avatar

    June

    June 24, 2015 at 9:35 AM

    Assalamu Alaykum,
    Nice article. Very well put. The whole nationalism/tribalism being used to remove Arab influence in order to shift toward secularism really struck a chord with me. My in-laws are from Tajikistan and recently the country has been creating some very xenophobic laws very specifically against Arabic influences (and Islamic influences despite their claims against these accusations) for fear of Islamic radicalism (or, you know, just regular Islam. Men with beards?! Women wearing hijab?! EXTREMISTS!) They banned the use of Arabic names for anyone born from now on. As if having the name Muhammed or Khadija will turn you into a terrorist! grrrr….

    • Avatar

      Chang

      June 26, 2015 at 5:16 AM

      That was ridiculous

  7. Avatar

    Abdullah Ali

    June 24, 2015 at 4:37 PM

    Masha’Allah excellent article, and relevant discourse. Just because prior generations appeal to ignorance with regards to the linguistics of a foreign language, doesn’t make it OK for the next generations to adopt or accept an error based on the same logic. Sure, it can be a cultural exception for a particular generation based on the history of the error, but not a linguistic one. Words symbolize meaning. Although the variation of the word may mean the same semantically, the fact that two Muslims will pronounce an Arabic word differently, will in itself become a decisive factor in the interpersonal relationship. Atleast one of the two individuals will be cognizant of the difference, and therefore the word will become symbolic of not a different meaning, but ultimately a difference within the dyad. Whether they pay any mind to it or not, may also boil down to individual cultural norms. EXAMPLE: ‘door’ in Urdu would be transliterally pronounced ‘dharvaza’. No Urdu/Hindi/Punjabi speaker would be ok with someone saying ‘zharvaza’. It would be an error, that if used enough, could make one easily subject to correction by the native speaker. Where this issue gets stickier, is that the word Ramadan is used in the Qur’an. It’s meaning is derived from the Qur’an. Whenever it’s used by a foreign speaker, it’s almost always used in an Islamic context. Changing even a letter from the Qur’an can be easily discerned as a huge error. So when nationalism and history get in the way of acknowledging and correcting an error that gets passed on to new generations as norm, the idea of unity as a holistic society would demand we have this discourse. It’s not a debate. It’s about respecting the language of our faith. Fasting has nothing to do with this discourse. It’s about education, and the linguistics of a foreign language. The morphology of Arabic is very intricate, and even the smallest difference can change meaning. Committing to learning this intricacy with the right intention, could also reap spiritual benefit in this month as well. No debate necessary, just commitment to objectivity. Jazak’Allah khair!

  8. Avatar

    LearningArabic

    June 24, 2015 at 5:13 PM

    I’m a South Asian guy who used to say Ramzan as a child, but then started using Ramadhan once I started to learn Tajweed and proper Quranic recitation.

    Nothing to do with trying to be more Arab or letting go of my heritage. I don’t speak Urdu with an Arabic accent so why would I use Arabic words with an Urdu accent. I suspect many South Asians started to use Ramadan when they realized that it is the correct pronunciation.

  9. Avatar

    Mansoor

    June 24, 2015 at 11:44 PM

    This deconstruction is devoid of context. There is a creeping rejection of many cultural elements in sub continental societies along with a countervailing adaptation of such elements from the Arabian peninsula; not to mention some people rewriting their family trees to now trace their roots to that part of the world. This is seen by many (myself included) as a symptom of that creeping trend.

  10. Avatar

    Ali

    June 25, 2015 at 5:06 AM

    Assalamu alaikum warahmatullahi

    May Allah (swt) bless the writer of this article with ‘aafiyah, wisdom, and persistence. Ameen.

    JazakAllah Khayran. I love when Persians like you defend true Islam, because of the hadith of Rasulullah (saAllahu ‘alayhi wasallam). I hope that hadith is a source of happiness for you too.

  11. Avatar

    Mariam

    June 26, 2015 at 9:48 AM

    And to the dismay of my bretherns of South Asian descent, defending “ramzan”: If we were to live in a South Asian bubble this would have been easier to defend. I really think it is a matter of globalization. My spell-check doesn’t even recognize “ramzan”. The rest of the Muslim world is not Desi, and therefore, they would rather stick to Arabic “Ramadan” than Desi “Ramzan”. If you want to function with the rest of the world, gotta stick with original/approved spelling. After all, prez Obama says Ramadan ;)

    Ramadan, unlike how we would like to think, is not a food item. It is a religious month.

    We, south Asians, can now move on to patent the word “samosa” instead of Arabs “messing” it up by saying “sambosa” . After all, ours always tastes so much better!

    • Avatar

      Khaled Ahmad

      June 29, 2015 at 1:32 PM

      LOL, I’m always asking my Desi friends to hook it up with the Sambosas; now I feel ashamed….

  12. Avatar

    D G Ahmed

    July 3, 2015 at 4:00 PM

    In India-Bangladesh-Pakistan Subcontinent there existed fighting between ulemas (Pls note Ms. Mariam My spell-check doesn’t even recognize “ulema” – although it is most recognized word for meaning “Islamic Scholars”) over the last word of Suratul Fatiha. It is pronounced “DaLe-en” correctly by all today. But some 50 years before there were a group of ulemas- mostly from Deoband, who used to pronounce it as ‘ZuaLe-en”. In those days supporter each group would not go for prayer in a mosque in which his opposite was an Imam. Some times there would be physical assaults. So far I have gathered information ( Pardon me, I am not a linguist), in Turkey the Arabic letter ‘Duad’ is to be pronounced as ‘Zuad’. And dispute started from there. But in Egypt, which claims their Arabic is purer and classical, they pronounce the letter as ‘Duad’. Most of the eminent reciters of Holy Qur’an came from Egypt so the letter now found its original phonetic place. Now no one pronounce ‘ZuaLe-en’. True, in Subcontinent we have tremendous Persian influence as Persian was official language for 7 hundred years. Only British Raj drove Persian out from offices, but influence of Persian remained popular in Islamic Schools- we call “Madrashas’. Because of rise of nationalism Persian language is loosing its charm. True, now days Saudi Arabia is spending lot of money in these countries building mosques and other institutions to promote their version of interpretation of Islam encouraging Muslims to renounce 4 Schools of Imams, disrespecting Sufi Dervishes (who actually brought Islam to most of the Subcontinent), everywhere finding ‘shirk’ but no shirk in inviting America to protect them instead of seeking help from Allah Subhanu wata’ala. In fact Islam & Muslims are passing through a very critical moment in history now. May Allah Guide us through ‘Siratul Mustaqim’.

  13. Avatar

    Zia-e-Taiba

    October 31, 2016 at 8:45 AM

    Everybody should read this article The Campaign of Protecting the Sacred Words

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Torment And Tears: The Emotional Experience of Tawbah

Have you ever had that moment where, all of a sudden, you remember something that you said or did in the past, the severity of which you only realized later on?

That sharp inhalation, shortness of breath, the flush of humiliation, the sick lurching in the pit of your stomach as you recall hurtful words, or an action that was so clearly displeasing to Allah… it is a very physical reaction, a recoiling from your own past deeds.

It may not even be the first time you think about those actions, it may not even be the first time to make istighfaar because of them… but sometimes, it may be the first time that you really and truly feel absolutely sickened at the realization of the gravity of it all. It might not even have been a ‘big deal’ – perhaps it was a cruel joke to a sensitive friend, or not having fulfilled a promise that was important to someone, or betraying a secret that you didn’t think was all that serious.

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And yet… and yet, at this moment, your memory of that action is stark and gut-wrenching.

It is a deeply unpleasant feeling.

It is also a very necessary one.

The Act of Tawbah

Tawbah – seeking forgiveness from Allah – is something that we speak about, especially in Ramadan, the month of forgiveness. However, it is also something that we tend to speak about in general terms, or write off as something simple – “Just say astaghfirAllah and don’t do it again.”

In truth, tawbah is about much more than muttering istighfaar under your breath. It is a process, an emotional experience, one that engages your memory, your soul, and your entire body.

The first step of tawbah is to recognize the sin – whether seemingly small or severe – and to understand just how wrong it was. Each and every one of our deeds is written in our book of deeds; each and every deed will be presented to us on the Day of Judgment for us to be held accountable for. There are times when we say things so casually that it doesn’t even register to us how we could be affecting the person we’ve spoken to.

As RasulAllah ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) once told A’ishah raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her),

“You have said a word which would change the sea (i.e. poison or contaminate it) if it were mixed in it.” (Sunan Abi Dawud)

The second step is to feel true remorse. It’s not enough to rationally acknowledge that action as being sinful; one must feel guilt, remorse, and grief over having committed it.

Tawbah is to feel that sucker-punch of humiliation and guilt as we recall our sins: not just the mildly awkward ones, like a petty fib or mild infraction, but the genuinely terrible parts of ourselves… ugly lies, vicious jealousy, violations against others’ rights, abuse.

Some of us may be actual criminals – others of us may seem presentable on the outside, even religious, maybe even spiritual… and yet have violated others in terrible ways. Abuse comes in so many forms, and some of us are perpetrators, not just victims.

Facing that reality can be a gruesome process. 

It is a necessary process. Token words, glib recitation of spiritual formulae, those do not constitute tawbah in its entirety. Rather, it is a matter of owning up to our violations, experiencing genuine emotion over them – true humiliation, true regret – and striving not to be that person ever again. 

Much as we hate to admit it, we have our own fair share of red flags that we create and wave, even before we get into the nasty business of committing the worst of our sins. Tawbah isn’t just feeling bad for those Big Sins – it’s to recognize what led us to them to begin with.

It requires us to acknowledge our own flaws of character, of the ease with which we fall into certain behaviours, the way we justify the pursuit of our desires, the blindness we have to the worst parts of ourselves. Tawbah is to sit down and face all of it – and then to beg Allah, over and over, not just to forgive us and erase those specific actions, but to change us for the better. 

This experience is so much more powerful than a mere “I’m sorry,” or “omg, that was awful”; it is an act that embodies our submission to Allah because it requires us to make ourselves incredibly emotionally vulnerable, and in that moment, to experience a deep pain and acknowledge our wrongdoing. It is to hold your heart out to Allah and to beg Him, with every fiber of your being, with tears in your eyes, with a lump in your throat, wracked with regret, to please, please, please forgive you – because without it, without His Mercy and His Forgiveness and His Gentleness and His Love towards us, we have no hope and we will be utterly destroyed.

Surah Araf Verse 23

{Rabbanaa thalamnaa anfusanaa, wa illam taghfir lanaa wa tar’hamnaa, lanakunanna mina’l Khaasireen!}

{Our Lord, we have wronged ourselves, and if You do not forgive us and have mercy upon us, we will surely be among the losers!} (Qur’an 7:23)

This experience of tawbah is powerful, emotional, and heartbreaking. It is meant to be. It is a reminder to us of how truly dependent we are upon our Lord and our Creator, how nothing else in our lives can give us joy or a sense of peace if He is displeased with us. It is a reminder to us of how deeply we crave His Love, of how desperately we need it, of how His Pleasure is the ultimate goal of our existence.

Finally, there is the step of resolving never to commit that sin again, to redress the wrongs if possible, and to follow up the bad deed with a good one.

The vow is one we make to ourselves, asking Allah’s help to uphold it – because we are incapable of doing anything at all without His Permission; the righting of wrongs is what we do to correct our transgression against others’ rights over us, although there are times when we may well be unable to seek another individual’s forgiveness, whether because of distance, death, or otherwise; and the good deeds to undertake as penance are numerous, whether they be sadaqah or increased ‘ebaadah.

But it doesn’t end there. And it never will.

Tawbah is not a once-in-a-lifetime event. It is not even a once-a-year event, or once a month, or once a week. It is meant to be a daily experience, a repeated occurrence, in the earliest hours of the morning, in the depths of the last third of the night, during your lunch break or your daily commute or in the middle of a social gathering.

Tawbah is a lifelong journey, for who amongst us doesn’t commit mistakes and errors every day?

All we can do is beg of Allah not only for His Forgiveness, but also: {Allahumma ij’alnaa min at-tawwaabeen.} – O Allah, make us amongst those who are constantly engaging in repentance!

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Moonsighting Gone Wrong, Again.

Moonsighting is just not working out.

Atleast not for our community here in the Toronto area. As I speak to my friends in other large (read: fragmented) communities, such as those in the UK, I hear similar tales of confusion, anxiety and horror. The problem in these communities stems from the fact that there are numerous moonsighting organizations in the same area, all following different methodologies for declaring Eid and Ramadan. This naturally results in a catastrophe and Muslims from the same family living in the same city are forced to celebrate the holidays on different days.

To give you a taste of how (and why) things went wrong in this year’s Ramadan declaration, here’s a summary highlighting the series of events as they unfolded. (Reminder: Ramadan was expected to start on Friday, April 24th or Saturday, April 25th 2020 in North America)

  • Wednesday, April 22, 10: 13 pm EST: Crescent Council of Canada (CC) declares Ramadan to start on Friday, 24th April based on the fact that it received no reports of moonsighting sighting on Wednesday night. This committee follows global moonsighting and it declared Ramadan so early because it was already the 29th of Shaban based on the lunar calendar it follows (for most of North America, the 29th of Shaban was to be on Thursday). So, starting Ramadan on Saturday was simply not an option for the group (as it would have meant observing 31 days of Shaban). Also to note is that this group gives precedence to official declarations from authorities from Muslim-majority countries, even if these declarations conflict predictions of visibility charts and astronomical calculations. It argues that testimony of witnesses takes precedence in the sharia over astronomical data.
  • Thursday, April 23rd, 7:27 pm EST : The Hilal Council of Canada (HC), another committee in the area that follows global sighting, states that there has not been any sighting of the moon in any country, including South and Central America (it is past sunset in most of the Muslim world by now). The committee decides that it will wait till sundown in California to receive the final reports before making a declaration. Confusion starts spreading in the community as one organization has already declared Ramadan while another claims no one in the Muslim world saw the moon. Note that HC does not accept moonsighting reports if they contradict astronomical data.
  • 8:39 pm: Confusion continues. The CC claims that Saudi Arabia, UAE, Malaysia, Turkey and a host of Muslim countries have declared Ramadan. The committee thus feels validated in its original declaration which it made on Wednesday night.
  • 8:48 pm: More confusion: California-based CrescentWatch.org also claims that moonsighting reports from the Middle-East and Africa are all negative. People naturally start wondering how so many countries supposedly declared Ramadan if there were no positive sightings.
  • 9:40 pm: The Hilal Committee of Toronto and Vicinity, the oldest moonsighting group in the city, declares Ramadan to start on Saturday the 25th of April. Since the committee did not receive any positive reports by sunset from areas in its jurisdiction, it declared Ramadan to commence on Saturday. This committee follows local moonsighting and doesn’t rely on reports from the Muslim-world. Two of the three major moonsighting groups in the city have declared Ramadan on different days at this time. Residents are confused whether to fast the next day or pray tarweeh as its almost Isha time.
  • 11:11 pm: The HC finally declares Ramadan to start the next day, i.e. Friday, based on confirmed reports from California. Mosques following the HC advice to pray tarawih – an hour after Isha time had already entered. After an anxiety filled and frustrating evening, residents finally know the positions of the various moonsighting groups in the city. Now they just have to decide which one to follow!
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This baffling circus of contradictory declarations is nothing new; it has become a yearly occurrence. Last year we saw the exact same series of events unfold and the same confusion spread throughout the community; it is entirely expected that the same will happen again in future years.

Our leadership has decided that it is acceptable to put the average Muslim through this nerve-racking experience every year. For Eid declarations, the experience is far worse as thousands are often waiting till midnight to decide whether to go work the next day or send their children to school. The stress and anxiety this decision causes for the average person year after year is simply unacceptable.

Popular advice in these situations has been to ‘follow your local masjid’. However, this idea is impractical for large communities where there are numerous local mosques, all following various opinions. It is also impractical for the thousands who simply don’t frequent the mosque and are not tied to a particular organization. The layperson just wants to know the dates for Ramadan and Eid; it is an undue burden on them to research the strength of various legal opinions just to know when to celebrate a religious holiday with their families.

Only one way forward: astronomical calculations

There have been numerous sincere attempts to solve these long-standing problems associated with moonsighting over the past 50 years – all have failed. I have documented in detail these attempts, the reasons for their failure and argued for the only viable solution to this problem: astronomical calculations.

Since its introduction in 2006, Fiqh Council of North America’s calculations-based lunar calendar has proven to be the definitive solution for communities struggling to resolve the yearly moonsighting debacle. An example of such a resolution is the 2015 agreement by some of the leading mosques in the Chicago area who put aside their differences and united behind FCNA’s calendar. This approach has brought ease and facilitation for the religious practice of thousands of Muslims in that community.

While the use of calculations has been a minority position in Islam’s legal history, it has a sound basis in the shariah [1] and has been supported by towering figures of the past such as Imam Zakariya al-Ansari and Imam Ramli. Given the challenging circumstances we find ourselves in now, it is incumbent on scholars of today to revisit this position as a means of providing much needed relief to the masses from this lunar quagmire.

References:

[1]  From SeekersGuidance: Scholars upholding this can be traced all the way back to the first Islamic century. The textual basis for this opinion is the hadith narrated by al-Bukhari, “When you see it [the new moon of Ramadan] then fast; and when you see it [the new moon of Shawwal], then break the fast. If it is hidden from you (ghumma ‘alaykum) [i.e. if the sky is overcast] then estimate it (fa-qdiru lahu);” (al-Bukhari, hadith no. 1900). The last verb, fa-qdiru, can be validly understood to mean calculation. Of the scholars who held this, are Abu al-‘Abbas b. Surayj (d. 306/918), one of the leading founders of the classical Shafi‘i school, the Shafi‘i scholar and renowned mystic Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri (d. 465/1072), the leading Shafi‘i judge Taqi al-Din al-Subki (d. 756/1355), the Shafi‘i legal theorist al-Zarkashi (d. 794/1392), the renowned Maliki legal theorist al-Qarafi (d. 684/1285), and some Hanafi scholars. The late Shafi‘i commentator al-Qalyubi (d. 1069/1659) held that all sighting-claims must be rejected if calculations show that a sighting was impossible, stating, “This is manifestly obvious. In such a case, a person may not fast. Opposing this is obstinacy and stubbornness.” See al-Mawsu‘ah al-fiqhiyyah al-kuwaytiyyah, c.v. “Ru’yat al-hilal,” vol. 22, pp. 31-4. The leading scholar of the late Shāfi‘ī school Muhammad al-Ramli (d. 1004/1596) held that the expert astronomer was obliged to follow his own calculation as was the non-astronomer who believed him; this position has been used by some contemporary Shafi’i scholars to state that in the modern world, with its precise calculations, the strongest opinion of the Shafi’i school should be that everyone must follow calculations; see ‘Umar b. al-Habib al-Husayni, Fath al-‘ali fi jam‘ al-khilaf bayna Ibn Hajar wa-Ibn al-Ramli, ed. Shifa’ Hitu (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2010), pp. 819-22. See also the fatwa of the Hanafi scholar Dr Salah Abu al-Hajj (http://www.anwarcenter.com/fatwa/معنى-حديث-لا-تصوموا-حتى-تروا-الهلال-ول) last accessed 9/5/2016) which states, after arguing against relying on calculations, “However, the position of [following] calculations is the position of a considerable group of jurists, so it is a respected disagreement in Islamic law, whereby, if a state were to adopt it, it is not rejected, because the judgment of a judge removes disagreement, and the adoption of a state is [as] the judgment of a judge.

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#Current Affairs

COVID19: Calling The Conscientious

Violating borders, scaling every wall and traveling faster than a rumor, COVID19 is now around nearly everywhere. It has reduced nations and societies, low and mighty, to their knees, demoted all preoccupations to insignificance and is threatening to torch everyone in its path.

The imperial hubris of nations, with and without nuclear weapons has crumbled. Mighty militaries have been reduced to mere spectators. Borders are closed. Markets have tumbled. Even the gods amongst humans – rulers, monarchs, dictators, religious heads, generals, billionaires, movie stars, icons of sports and music –have been forced to recede from the limelight. Neither they are in control nor can they perform. All of them are forced to surrender by an unseen microscopic speck with an insatiable appetite to devour humankind, bit-by-bit, part by part.

A pre-COVID19 world is now a blurred memory. It was not long ago that we were a different planet and a different people. Neither hand-sanitizers nor masks were precious enough to purchase let alone hoard, or even think about. YouTube was popular but not so much for videos on how to wash hands or what to do when self-quarantined. And, shaking hands were a norm and we used to respond with a “bless you” to our neighbor’s cough or sneeze.

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That was pre-COVID19.

Places of worship are already shut down and airports, train stations and shipping ports are shutting down. Boulevards and avenues are eerily silent. Shopping malls and theaters stand abandoned.

This is post-COVID19.

Yet, there are flashes of hope and inspiration. Medical professionals and health care workers are fighting to save mankind, a patient a time. Our ill equipped and fatigued hospitals are abodes of our new heroes and true patriots. And no less are trash collectors, grocery workers, truck drivers, postal workers, fruit pickers among others whom we took for granted all along.

Covid-19 is not just the biggest story of our time, it is the only story.

Amidst a piercing cacophony of politicians’ press conferences and public interest advisories, we cannot afford to miss out the soft whispers of COVID19.

It is telling us to pay more attention to the under-estimated meaningful over the hyper-marketed mundane. Its whispers remind us to remember that we are but a mere mortal. We are reminded in the Quran that God made us from a mere speck (40:67).

Not, too long ago, we seldom had to remind ourselves that we are human. Not too long ago we could afford to be enemies of ourselves. Humans were enemies of humans, fighting and taking life of those considered ‘others’. We fostered division … “them” and “us,” “citizens” and “illegals.” COVID19 has spoken: no more. We stoked exclusion … “black, brown and white,” “conservative and liberal,” and “urban and rural.” COVID19 has spoken: no more.

In its sweeping trail of destruction, COVID19, is imploring us — harness my power to cause dread in each one of you, across borders, across genders, across races — and unite. COVID19 is challenging us: find a common cause against me. When any of you find an antidote against me, may that be a reason for your coming together, even if right now I have forced you to stay away from each other – six feet part.

COVID19 is an equal opportunity and a non-discriminating enemy, which will kill no matter how we worship, what we eat, where we live. One touch strikes all with equal precision.

Today, as we face an existential threat from a mortal molecular foe, we must remind ourselves about what matters most, our humanity and not our race and nationality.

The truth is that long before COVID19 struck us, we were sick. We spread viruses; hate and bigotry, we held thoughts of xenophobia for those who did not deserve it. We wallowed in bias and built echo chambers. COVID19 exposed all of our pre-COVID19 shortcomings.

Coronavirus will kill us for a while, but then in the end, we will overpower it. But before that happens, all the human deaths would be in vain if we don’t realize that in a world of such threats, we never needed to have been at each other’s throats.

In fear and panic, people resort to extreme behavior, it amazes us with their capacity for wisdom and kindness, or stupidity and cruelty. COVID19 is beseeching us to reclaim and regain our humanity of compassion and kindness. It is telling us to come together to fight our common battles. It is forcing us to wash our hands of all sins of our past and then lock our hearts and hands and build a world where meaning must matter more than the mundane.

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MuslimMatters has been a free service to the community since 2007. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

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