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Ramadhan disciples stay strong in the trying times





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Earlier this week, we began the Muslim holy month of Ramadhan.

The believers marked its arrival with all due observance, despite the restrictions of these sad times.

We all know that the “sawm” or fast, exercised throughout this month, is one of the five pillars of Islam, the other four being shahada, salat, zakat and hajj (declaration of faith, prayer, charity and pilgrimage).

There is, however, much more to the saum than the Muslims’ conspicuous abstention from food, drink and all other comforts of life between the dawn and dusk of each day of the month.

It is a period of strict discipline, intense contemplation and ardent prayer. For me, as explained to me by my Muslim relatives, the spirit of Ramadhan is epitomised in the “laylat-al-qadr” (night of power), falling somewhere in the final 10 days of the month.

On this night, by Allah’s mercy, every prayer is multiplied many times over, up to as much as eighty-three years and four months’ worth of perfect worship.


After this presumptuous but sincere darasa (instruction), let us share three impressions that I have of these collective fasting and prayer exercises.

The first is the timing of the fasts, especially this year. Secondly, I recall and reflect on the genuine seriousness with which most of the believers take the observances.

Finally, I relate Ramadhan and other comparable devotions to our current experiences in these coronavirus times of lockdowns, quarantines and social distancing.

Regarding the timing, Ramadhan, this year, comes just after Lent, the Christian 40-day season of penance, focusing on fasting, prayer and acts of charity.

This, of course, points to the common Judeo-Christian-Islamic Abrahamic origins of our monotheistic faiths.

But more significantly for me is the fact that for the better part of 70-or-so days, there are large congregations of believers concentrating on disciplining themselves and reflecting on their relationship with their Maker.

This “synergy”, the concerted energy, of this human meditation, self-regulation and communal confession of the believers’ dependence on one another and, ultimately, on their Originator must effect significant changes in them and in their social and physical environment.

We believers, who are also sojourners in the so-called “intellectual”, academic world, are constantly challenged about our spiritual faith.

The modern community of scholars, you see, operates on what they call “systemic scepticism”.

You never take anything for granted. You must “interrogate” everything rationally and objectively, whether it is a piece of matter, a belief or a practice.

“Does prayer work?” for example, is a question I frequently hear from my scholarly comrades.

My standard answer is that, yes, prayer, especially communal prayer (mahoya ma kirindi?), does work, provided you understand that prayer is not a shopping list (I want this, give me that).

It is a way of relating to yourself, to your fellow human beings, and to the Essence of our existence, which we believers call God.

That, however, is a story we will interrogate some other day. For now, let us refer to our lived experience and say, as I often do, that I know that prayer works, although I am yet to work out exactly how.

That synergy, however, which we mentioned earlier, goes a long way towards clarifying how spiritual exercises influence and affect our reality.


Human beings coming together, organising themselves and agreeing (“with one mind and spirit”) to perform an act of devotion, whether it is praying, fasting or almsgiving, must obviously be changing themselves and the reality around them.

Historical experience also bears the believers out. The Christians, for example, have been at their act for over 2000 years, as of their latest Lent, and they are still counting.

The Ramadhan that we have just started marks 1,441 years from the Hijra (A.H), and the mu’minun (believers) are as ardent and as serious as ever.

If devotion did not work, all these people would have gone on to try something else.

It is, however, the seriousness and sincerity with which Muslims take their fast that convinces me of its efficacy in the community and in society at large.

As I said earlier, the sawm is not only about abstention from food, drink and other sensual indulgences.

Rather, it is a strict regime of self-discipline and self-control, ranging from absolute punctuality with rising, prayer and mealtimes to guarding against any acts, situations or interactions that might “spoil” one’s fast.

It is not uncommon to see a fasting person walk away from even closest acquaintances if they start indulging in provocative or inappropriate banter, with a remark like, “I don’t want to ruin my fast.”

Indeed, restraint, moderation and tranquillity are conspicuous characteristics of Ramadhan in genuine Muslim communities.

Those of us who have been lucky to spend these seasons with our Muslim relatives or friends can testify to their calming and uplifting impact on both the fasting faithful and on those around them.

Finally, the fasting season teaches us, in a very practical and down-to-earth way, to be disciplined and refrain from self-indulgence.

The strict 12-hour discipline over 30 days clearly shows us that we can jolly well do without many of those things that we imagined to be “necessary” in our lives.

The peckish urge to be constantly snacking throughout the day, to the great detriment of our bodies, is a fallacy. So is that “irresistible” urge to have a smoke, or stroll to the Karumaindo (neighbourhood pub) for a pint of this or that.

Equally unnecessary is that dropping in on the neighbour for a wee chat, which often degenerates into malicious gossip.

Even the addictive, zombie-like TV gazing or the online and social media obsessions can be curbed and controlled.

Mastery and management of such values and virtues will, I am sure, stand us in very good stead in these times of quarantines and lockdowns.

Interestingly, the Great Teacher, Jesus, aka Issa, taught his followers that “only one thing is necessary” (unum enim necesse est). I suppose that he meant the establishment and maintenance of healthy relationships.

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature; [email protected]

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