Tuesday, July 22, 2014



Her daughter kept getting pregnant and having miscarriages because her mother-in-law kept pestering her for a grandson.
If you remember in the book ‘Cheaper by the Dozen’ (the movie was awful), Mr Gilbraith had the entire family’s (he had 12 kids) tonsils removed on the same day because it was ‘cheaper by the dozen’.
The temptation to get the most out of one’s money has always been present; you see the yearning everywhere. Recognising this very fact, market gurus have come up with ‘two for one’ deals which everyone loves, for good reason. I do too myself. You can get useful things like two cartons of diapers for the price of one, two boxes of cereal for the price of one (eat one use the other deal) or two cartons of cat food for the price of one...and then remember to get a cat but make sure it’s a full grown cat or by the time your kitten gets old enough to eat 10 lbs of cat food meant for five to eight year olds the cat food will have died.
 I knew a lady from Lahore residing in the US who bought two sets of dentures for the price of one. But then, as predicted, her jaw shrunk and she would take the other set with her to parties in her Gucci handbag and offer it to unsuspecting guests before dinner. I believe her son has had the hiccups ever since because he couldn’t stop laughing and it turned into a spasm or something.
A few days ago, our cook told us that her daughter, a married 17-year- old who is now pregnant, was ‘looking a little peakish’. The daughter had been staying with her mother for some days now so I sent her some tempting food and asked after her. Yet, I was always told that she was still feeling really lethargic, without knowing the cause of it all.
No, no, please carry on reading. It gets interesting.
I wish I could write Punjabi in English, because really it was much more effective in that language, particularly the expletives, but the following conversation took place in our kitchen yesterday at noon, in Punjabi:
Me: Give this sattu to your daughter. It’s very cooling and she will like it. You can add some milk to it if you like as that’s how I have it.
Cook: I’ll give it to her after iftar. Thank you!
Me: No, give it to her now. It’s terribly hot at this time, especially today. She doesn’t have to drink it in front of her father (since he’s fasting).
Cook: But she’s fasting too!
The glass of sattu falls from my hand and breaks into a million pieces. *Insert popular Punjabi expletive*
Let me tell you a little about that little girl.
This girl (let’s call her M) was married when she was 14. Her mother-in-law is a harridan. This is why after her second miscarriage, M’s mother told me that her daughter kept getting pregnant and having miscarriages because her mother-in-law kept pestering her for a grandson. M’s mother was worried that M may not be able to have a child if she miscarries yet again. I offered to take M to a gynaecologist for an Intrauterine Device (IUD), a long-term birth control method. For good measure, I took her mother-in-law as well and requested the doctor to inform her that it was dangerous for M to become pregnant so often and so close together. If she wanted a grandchild (gender not guaranteed), there should be gaps of a certain time period between each time they try. The mother-in-law agreed and the doctor carried on with the procedure.
Three months later, I heard that the mother-in-law (harridan for short) had pulled out the IUD and M was pregnant again. And so this was that pregnancy the one prayed for and yet tried to be prevented. And now she was fasting. Not only that, she was fasting in temperatures well over 40 C. 
I believe I yelped or something, I don’t remember, then I calmed down and told my cook that her daughter must not fast and that it was dangerous for her and the baby. I told her that pregnant women, the old, the very young and the sick are not supposed to fast.
And do you know what she said?
Baji, I didn’t know. We were hoping that if she fasted now, it would be two fasts for one and it would mean ‘good kismet’ for the baby later.”
After thoroughly explaining it to her, she agreed not to let her daughter fast anymore. All this makes one wonder who is responsible for all the ignorance going around in this poor nation? Tell me and I’ll kill them.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014



The Holy Quran, although quite specific on certain points, usually leaves its readers with principles behind the ritual and expects us to perform accordingly. PHOTO: REUTERS

In the region of the earth above the Arctic Circle called ‘the land of the midnight sun,’ the sun does not rise for several months in winter or set for several months in summer. In Finland, the sun stays above the horizon for seventy days at a stretch. What are Muslims in such regions to do if Ramazan occurs during one of these summer periods?
A response to this question on one of the forums online was that “the midnight sun is a myth and that there is no such thing”. The respondent added that the days are very long in these regions in summer, yes, but that people there do manage to fast regardless, and that they are compensated for these summer fasts by the extremely short fasts in winter.
This response reminded me irresistibly of an ostrich, head buried in the sand. No the ‘midnight sun’ phenomenon is not a myth, and yes, people in the extreme north, Norway and Finland, and in the UK and USA still fast, those sticking to the letter of what they perceive as the law, observing terribly long fasts. Some pray Taraweehs too.
The question is: what exactly is the law and is Islam inflexible?
Of course, one can manage anything armed with dedication, and that people fast 23 hours at a stretch is proof of dedication and faith. But a spiritual life in Islam does not preclude the practical, nor does Islam sanction hermits and self flagellation. Realistically, therefore, how does a person who fasts 23 hours a day and sleeps almost none remain healthy and function effectively as a soldier, a doctor, a labourer, a parent, or a student?
If Islam is meant for all times and places, and Allah (SWT) intends every facility for you, then surely its followers should change accordingly, by means of intelligent debate, without changing the principles prescribed in the Holy Quran.
The Holy Quran, although quite specific on certain points, usually leaves its readers with principles behind the ritual and expects us to perform accordingly. In the case of prayers, it does not specify the physical actions but lays stress on the worship of one God and no one else. In the case of Zakat, there is debate as to who is should receive it, so people follow the ruling they find most reasonable while agreeing on the percentage to be paid based on the spirit of charity and the need to circulate wealth – the principles on which Zakat is based.
Similarly, fasting is prescribed as an act of worship, a discipline, a sacrifice at the altar of the one God, and to develop empathy towards the less fortunate.
It is also prescribed as a means of cleansing the body, like spring cleaning; the intention is not to make the one fasting ill. It is clearly indicated when the fast must commence, as well as when it should end, and in the Arabian Peninsula, where the Holy Quran was revealed, these timings were reasonable. For those of us who arrived later and spread around the world, we were expected to carry the principles with us, but leave the peninsula where it stood.
The Holy Quran encourages people to use their judgement to fulfil their obligations, and the Prophet (PBUH) did so. In a hadith by Abu Dawud, the Prophet’s (PBUH) companion Safwan (RA) worked late hours, so he was unable to wake up for Fajr. The Prophet (PBUH) instructed him to pray Fajr as soon as he awoke instead. This hadith indicates that Islam is adaptable to exceptional circumstances.
In North America, the Islamic Council provides a fixed calendar based on lunar calculations, seeing that it is now (and has been for years) possible to track the path of the moon. This makes life measurably easier for Muslims in North America who accept this ruling because, otherwise, they would not know exactly when Ramazan begins and ends. In Scandinavia, USA and UK (particularly Scotland and Ireland) some people fast using the fasting time of the closest city or day with ‘reasonable’ fasting hours. They can follow their religion better this way and organise their schedules. These adjustments are endorsed by official fatwas.
Such informed adjustments are possible wherever required – in matters of rituals, dress and behaviour, if we are to live as rational Muslims today. It would be a pity, would it not, to be unable to do the very thing we have been asked to do because we are unable to adapt intelligently to changing times, which we are also asked to do?

Thursday, July 3, 2014



No time like the present by Nadine Gordimer

July, 2014

No time like the present by Nadine Gordimer

A parallel history from the author of ‘The Conservationist’

"I am no stranger to censorship, living in South Africa,” wrote Nadine Gordimer reviewing Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Satanic Verses’ for the New York Times in 1989.  “At various times, three of my own books have been banned.”
Raise your hands if that rings some bells, bells that sound suspiciously like Geo, Malala or YouTube.
Gordimer was born in 1923 near Johannesburg in South Africa to Jewish parents during the Apartheid years.  A close friend of Nelson Mandela, she was one of the first persons to meet Madiba when he returned home after twenty seven years in prison.
In 1964 Mandela gave a statement from the dock which was edited for him by Gordimer. This statement later became recognised as one of the greatest (and longest) speeches of the twentieth century, known as ‘I Am Prepared to Die.’ In this speech Mandela said, “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
On the 11th of August 1947 Jinnah gave a speech which could  have been called ‘You are Free and Equal’ in which he said that, “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan...every one of you, no matter to what community he belongs, no matter what his colour, caste or creed, is first, second and last a citizen of this state with equal rights, privileges, and obligations.”
Pakistan’s history seems to have been running a parallel course to South Africa’s, and throughout this book you will find eerily familiar social and political problems, both past, present, and possibly future; that is why I recommend this book by Nadine Gordimer which, sufficiently removed in the distance of Africa, nevertheless reflects back upon ourselves. 
Gordimer is a Nobel Laureate in literature (1991) and a joint winner of the Man Booker Prize in 1974 for ‘The Conservationist.’ She is the author of fifteen novels, more than ten volumes of short stories, and three non-fiction collections. She achieved her first published work, a short story for children, in 1937 at the age of fifteen, and her first novel ‘The Lying Days’ was published in 1953. ‘No Time Like the Present’ published in 2012 is Gordimer’s latest novel.
Now ninety, Gordimer has led a full life.  After a secular (I love this word; it gets the most delicious reactions in Pakistan) upbringing, the political atmosphere of her time and her mother’s views on the matter drew her, a white woman, into the anti-apartheid movement and she joined the African National Congress (ANC) when it was still an outlawed organisation.
She helped its members actively, often putting herself at risk.  This book draws a lot from those personal experiences of racial struggle; the narrative is about Jabu, a black woman unusual in being a successful lawyer.  Jabu is married to Steve Reed, a white man and the son of Christian and Jewish parents, who studied to be a chemical engineer and now is an academic in the free state of South Africa, but at one time was employing his skills to make explosives against the apartheid regime. 
This interracial marriage straddles apartheid and freedom from colonial rule to freedom in South Africa, which carries so many parallels to the sub continent with its own century of British rule and the eventual struggle for freedom ; in both places when freedom finally arrives, there is euphoria, closely followed by disillusionment, and trouble once again.
Gordimer writes about divided opinions, the interlacing of personal lives within the political turmoil, layers upon layers of relationships, the divisions that diversity creates and history forges, they’re all in her writing with the fluency of thought and the genuineness of experience. It’s a brilliant novel, highly recommended.



Among his signs

July, 2014

Among His signs

The diversity of ritual

It may come as a rude shock to a few people that the followers of other faiths believed in fasting long before Islam made fasting compulsory for Muslims, and they still do.  Ramzan is therefore a good time to widen our horizons; to dispel the image of Muslims being the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow and realize that titles such ‘Ashraf-ul-Makhlooqat’ must be earned and cannot be inherited.  It is a great time, in other words, to study and understand both the dissimilarities and the similarities between Muslims and people of other faiths, since fasting Muslims are infused with some grains of introspection. 
Let’s begin with the practice of fasting itself.
At the autumn and spring equinoxes (called Ostara by the pagans and Nauroze by the ancient Persians) it was traditional for the pagans, ancient Romans, Mayans and Germanic people to fast as a means of cleansing the body.  Later the Christian Lent took place just prior to Easter, and Easter was calculated to coincide with the spring equinox.  Some other fasting periods such as the Bahai fasts in March also coincide with the equinox.
Fasting is also used as a supplication, to seek fertility for the land he tills, as protection against natural disaster such as famine and draught. It is also a penance, seeking God’s forgiveness after committing a sin.
Most faiths differentiate between a partial, normal or absolute fast. The differences are in what can be eaten or drunk and the length of the fasting period.  In the Bible, Daniel undertook a ‘partial fast’ when he ate no ‘pleasant food’, “No meat or wine came into my mouth, nor did I anoint myself at all, till three whole weeks were fulfilled.”
Jesus on the other hand undertook a ‘normal fast’ when, according to the Bible, he went into the wilderness and ate no food, surviving only on water. 
In the ‘absolute fast’ nothing at all is consumed, not even water. This is the rarer fast and is mentioned only a few times in the Bible, such as when Moses undertook the absolute fast on the two separate occasions he was before God and neither ate nor drank. 
Sometimes an absolute fast carries on for several days such as when Paul, during his Damascus Road experience, “Was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank.” Even longer fasts have been documented (which are unlikely to occur without supernatural intervention) as when Elijah is said to have travelled across the desert for 40 days without food or water.
The absolute fast however is most similar to the Muslim fast where each fast begins at dawn and ends at dusk, repeated over one month, and is compulsory for all except for the very young, the very old, the sick or the pregnant.
Fasting in Christianity differs according to denomination. For hundreds of years Catholics were forbidden from eating meat on Fridays but in recent times the Friday rule has applied to Lent alone, other Fridays are left to the discretion of individuals. Eastern Orthodox Christians on the other hand are meant to fast almost every Wednesday and Friday, and they observe several fasting periods in addition to Lent.
Fasting is common amongst the Hindus as well, where the method and days depend on the region and the individual’s preferred deity.  Wives seek long life and health for their husbands by fasting, sisters for their brothers. Devotees of Shiva eat just one meal a day on Mondays, those of Hanuman or Skanda fast on Tuesdays, of Vishnu on Thursdays. Most Hindus are allowed to eat starchy foods, milk products and fruit while fasting, but must not even touch animal products such as meat or eggs.
The monsoon and the Paryushana festival are a time of fasting for Jains, but a Jain may fast at any time in individual ways, especially if he or she feels some grave error has been committed. The span of the fasting period can be anything between a day, 30 days or more depending on the sect, they fast by limiting the intake of food and boiled water to just once a day, or by only having boiled water between sunrise and sunset.
The concept behind all Jain fasts is Ahimsa, or non-violence, a term familiar in yoga, and of great importance in other religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, it was also the principle behind Mohandas Gandhi’s hunger strikes against British rule in India. The crucial difference between Gandhi’s fasts and other fasts is of course that as a means of political activism, Gandhi’s hunger strike forced man to submit to man, while a person undertaking a religious fast submits to the will of God.
Sidharta, before he became the Buddha, indulged not in fasting but in strict austerity to help himself meditate and achieve nirvana, and this is what he had to say about it, “I took only a handful at a time of bean soup, lentil soup, vetch soup, or pea soup. My body became extremely emaciated, my limbs became like the jointed segments of vine or bamboo stems.”
Therefore Buddhist priests do not fast per se. Instead they practice a lifelong middle path ‘between asceticism and hedonism’ and maintain a disciplined regimen all year around rather than fasting on particular occasions, although on certain days they do not eat after the meal at noon.
The Sikh religion too does not promote fasting except on medical grounds, saying that it brings no spiritual benefit to a person. “Serve God, who alone is your saviour, instead of indulging in ritual,” says the Sikh holy scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib.
There are two major and four minor fasting days in the Jewish year.  Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement, the most important day of the Jewish year, is a major day of fasting, prayer, introspection and self-judgment, and is according to Jonathan Sacks (a Jewish Rabbi and scholar), ”That rarest of phenomena, a Jewish festival without food.”
Both major fasts last just over twenty four hours from one sunset until the next, when three stars can be seen in the sky. These fasts are absolute. The faster may not eat food, drink, brush their teeth, comb their hair or take a bath. On this day all Jews except the very young, the very old and the frail must fast.
For the Muslims fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam, and constitutes more than refraining from food, it means self control in every way.  Tariq Ramadan (an academic, writer, and a Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University) describes the Muslim fast as a philosophy that, ”Calls upon us to know, master, and discipline ourselves the better to free ourselves.” He says that, “To fast, is to identify our dependencies, and free ourselves from them.”
Fasting is a powerful spiritual tool for connecting with our Maker and His creation which includes all humanity. Whether Muslims realize these benefits to fasting, particularly the opportunity of developing empathy for their fellow beings, is debatable, so ritualistic and devoid of its true spirit the practice has become.
This Ramzan let us pray for wisdom and the ability to recognise God in the beautiful diversity of His creation which has been described thus in the Quran, “Among His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the variations in your languages and colours. Certainly, in that are signs for the worlds.“ (Surah al-Rum, verse 22)