Ramadan is here | Open letter to a season of open letters (honesty is a virtue)

Nigeria’s reputation for prayer doesn’t take a break – quite the opposite. Prayer seasons tend to overtake life, forcing most of it to take a break. It is what Ramadan is for Muslims, and what Lent is for Catholics respectively. Of course, it is so much more than that too.

This piece is about the avalanche of vacuous messages that precede Ramadan and why we have to do better if we are to ever reap the potential benefits of these seasons.

Ramadan – a month of spiritual reflection, self-improvement and increased devotion and worship for Muslims, is a few days away and the time-honoured order of events preceding it will unravel in quick succession in no time.

  1. First, Islamic religious leaders across the world will collaborate on moon sighting and the establishment of the beginning of Ramadan, to the extent that their denominational differences allow them to collaborate. Where these differences are too stark even this minor collaboration will not happen. Shi’a Muslims for instance care not at all what the 411 is on when Ramadan begins for Sunni Muslims, but these things are internal conflicts that must stay away from the meddling eyes of the world outside the global Islamic community.
  2. Then, once the beginning of the month is largely established across the world, the second item on the order of events preceding Ramadan rolls in. A flurry of well-meaning messages from Muslim and non-Muslim leaders from across the world will inundate the world. Each message exalting the beauty of Ramadan – or at least the intent behind it. Each address calling on Muslims to embody the “message of peace” that is at the core of the Islamic faith.

In Nigeria – where peace is precious and found in snatches of time and places, the address will doubtless come with a call to ‘pray for peace.’

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Prayer is central to everything here, even if the visible outcome of these things says little about its efficacy.

Ramadan

Muslim Nigerians will be called upon this year, like they have been called on the year before and the one before that and on and on through the years, to intensify prayers for peace and unity in this troubled nation.

They will doubtless answer in the affirmative because generosity of heart is an essential requirement for a successful Ramadan reflection.

  1. All well-meaning messages duly delivered, Muslims across the country will commence the observation of the practices that define this holy month – fasting, prayer and a wealth of acts of service which might in some extreme cases involve forcefully pulling straying Muslims back to the ‘right path.’

The last item is especially key because while the principle behind it may make sense at a glance, years of recorded cases of abuse of said principle at the expense of actual Muslims as well as non-Muslims prove that our well-meaning addresses are missing something.

The principle, simply put, is that while “there is no compulsion in religion” – a statement immortalised in Qur’an 2 Verse 256, this only applies to non-Muslims.

A non-Muslim by the studied opinion on that verse must not be forced to become a Muslim. Once one willingly accepts Islam, however, they are compulsorily subject to all of Allah’s every demand. The arrest and harassment of non-compliant Muslims by the Hisbah police during Ramadan on this principle is thus passable.

But …

How do you tell apart a Muslim who because of an illness can’t fast, a non-Muslim who has no business fasting because of Ramadan, and a Muslim who chose not to fast damning the punishment reserved by Allah for disobeying Muslims? The honest answer is that very often you can’t until a violation is afoot.

A Deutsche Welle (DW) report from 2016 recorded that among several people at the headquarters of the Hisbah in the Sharada area who were being held for non-observance of Ramadan were people who had no business being arrested.

One of the victims told DW’s correspondent Nasir Zango in Kano that he failed to fast due to chronic ulcers.

“I cannot fast while also taking both modern and herbal medicine to cure it,” he said.

His public disgrace would have been complete by the time this is established.

It has happened way too many times and will continue to happen until the million-plus well-meaning messages we send out ahead of Ramadan begin to include an admonishment for Muslims to respect themselves and stay out of the religious compliance or lack thereof of one another.

This will not only help Muslims, but it will also help the countless non-Muslims living in Muslim dominated areas who sometimes catch the stray bullets of emboldened religious fanatics violating human rights in the name of enforcing the laws of Allah.

This isn’t without precedence either, because it can be argued that the Prophet Muhammad in his foresight saw this coming.

In Hadith 34 of 40 of an-Nawawi the Prophet’a companion Abu Sa`eed al-Khudree, said:

I heard the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) say, “Whosoever of you sees an evil, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then [let him change it] with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart — and that is the weakest of faith.”

The time is past when the instructions about using one’s hands to correct others can be executed. The human, as much as most Muslims may dislike the fact, trumps the divine in this brave new world.

It is the responsibility of a secular democratic government to drive this message home to Muslims in Nigeria. What better time to do so than now when the endless open letters calling for prayers for peace will start rolling out?

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