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Fifth column

May 11, 2019

Ramadan, Ramzan, and the crescent

Opinion

May 11, 2019

Prior to the commencement of the holy month, it has now become almost a ritual to get drawn into the simmering debates, mainly over social media, on how to rightly articulate its name. In my childhood, it was almost always called Ramzan. Having studied in an Islamic school up until matric, I can say with certainty that our learning of Arabic was in the Kashmiri accent and nobody ever thought it was any less ‘Islamic’ or inferior.

Long after we’d left the school, about two decades back, the elocution underwent a gradual but definite change, when emphasis was placed on reverting to ‘original’ Arabic delivery. Therefore, Ramzan became Ramadan and namaz was increasingly described as salah. It was only during my stay in the United Kingdom when the original Arabic terminology became the standard; more because amid various cultural and linguistic communities of the faithful, Arabic words became the authentic and acceptable way for a majority. Besides, the new generation of Muslims – those born and brought up outside of their parents’ socio-cultural geographies – preferred to use the terminology that asserted their faith as their salient and new cultural marker rather than their ethnic background.

I happily embraced the change. I would start my fast with 'suhoor' instead of traditional sehri. This brought the attendant feeling as if the decades-old practice of praying on a jai namaz was perhaps a little inferior. Therefore, from then on, I had to negotiate my prayers on a mussala. There was some exception though. Working in East London, the holy month was overwhelmingly called Romjan – under the irresistible influence of a large immigrant population of first-generation Bengalis who refused to comply with the new format of piety.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also displayed his partisanship, albeit a subtle one, on the debate. In 2015, on June 16, he talked about ‘Ramadan’. Extending his warm wishes he tweeted: “Spoke to President @ashrafghani, PM Sheik Hasina & PM Nawaz Sharif to extend my best wishes at the start of holy Ramadan on June 18”.

Some of his followers pilloried him for what they blamed was a glaring example of Arabisation. Obviously, Modi Ji has since moved on – and by miles. In this election season, where he has been accused of fanning Hindu extremism to suit his electoral victory plan, he has quietly moved back to the Indian vernacular describing the holy month as Ramzan as depicted by his tweet earlier in the week. “Greetings on the start of the holy month of Ramzan. May this auspicious month further the spirit of harmony, happiness, and brotherhood in our society”.

The lexical war on Ramadan vs Ramzan debate is often laden with tensions and what is disconcerting is that it is being unnecessarily escalated as some sort of a clash between progression and regression. The change in the delivery of the terminology is being obdurately contested by a dedicated bunch of people who would like to designate themselves as liberals but won’t tolerate any attempt by their lesser educated countrymen to recast their religio-cultural identities. Such attempts are made to contain a so-called Islamisation or Arabisation movemen. I have heard some gleeful narrations from people who are ready to display pride at their children speaking foreign languages like natives or even mimicking their practices but any attempts to interchange Arabic words for local jargon is loathed. On balance, the other side also seems to be dedicated in their efforts to nullify the vernacular expressions of faith or its identity.

The other exciting aspect of Ramadan is the sighting of the moon or, if one is more technical-minded, the appearance of the crescent. Of late, this has become such a deeply contested practice that one can divide Muslims on the basis of their opinion on the issue. As Kashmiris from the Indian side, we have traditionally been accustomed to deciding our Ramadan and Eid on the basis of the moon-sighting by Pakistan’s Ruet-e-Hilal Committee, as communicated by official Pakistani radio or television. Much to the chagrin of the Indian establishment, the practice has continued despite the government’s efforts to prop-up local ‘muftis’ or ‘mirwaizs’. Bashir-ud-Din, a self-designated ‘Mufti-e-Azam’ of Kashmir who passed away sometime back was often blamed for deciding the advent of Ramadan or Eid after listening to news reports on Radio Pakistan. Bashir Ahmad Bashir, Kashmir’s first news cartoonist with mass appeal, had once in the mid-1980s made a highly controversial cartoon depicting the Mufti-e-Azam delivering his verdict on moon-sighting while receiving updates from a tiny radio transistor fitted hidden inside his ear, tuned to Radio Pakistan.

It was only in the past few years that we learned that Pakistan does not have a consensus on the issue, despite an official body dedicated to harvesting the sighting from the vast skies. Armed with an array of long telescopes that almost prod the sky on the designated occasions, the Ruet-e-Hilal Committee headed by Mufti Muneebur Rehman makes little impact on his lesser known but more powerful Mufti from Peshawar.

One cannot fail to pay profuse tributes to the most powerful vision of Mufti Popalzai for winning where technology often fails. He has created an indelible record of creating moon-sightings even on occasions when it is virtually impossible to do so by the most advanced equipment. To be fair to him, this lunar division is not confined to Pakistan. Muslim communities in Europe, and in particular in the UK, have often been divided on the issue. This has caused widespread confusion as Muslim communities in a locality have ‘celebrated’ the arrival of Ramadan or of Eid on varying days. This has diluted their demands for a holiday on Eid as they could never arrive at any consensus on its date. This sounds quite regressive at a time when employing a little bit of time-tested scientific know-how could solve this issue, once and for all.

In this backdrop the recent announcement by Federal Minister for Science and Technology Fawwad Chaudhry to form a scientific committee to decide on the lunar calendar is a welcome step that could save a lot of agonizing and disagreements.

Twitter: @murtaza_shibli

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