Sunday, August 19, 2012

Eid al-Fitr Reflections

Today in the Middle East we hear greetings of "Eid Mubarak" heralding the celebration of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan.  From what I have heard and read I understand that it's a time to reflect on the achievements and successes following the undertaking of religious discipline that has involved especially daily practices of more intense prayer and abstinence, and also acts of charity.   It has some parallels with Christian observances of Lent, but the quality and practice of restraint seems more pervasive: Muslims who are fit and able are generally expected to abstain completely from food and water from dawn until sunset, at which point they break the fast with Iftar.  In Islamic countries this is clearly manifest - for example, at my workplace all catering facilities ceased during Ramadan and I didn't see anyone eat or drink in the office.

To those not used to such a discipline it may seem quite extreme.  It's certainly not a trivial undertaking in summer - Muslims in the tropics or near the equator have to contend with the heat during the day, whilst their brothers and sisters in the extreme north or south have to experience very long days.  The risks are well known and so there is medical advice to help practitioners prepare.  I tried for a day and managed okay, but that felt enough for me!

I asked an Indonesian restaurant staff member about her practice and she related that as a young child her parents had not expected her to join the fast and so had not woken her up just before dawn to join Suhoor.  Feeling she was missing out, she complained until her parents relented.  She has had no regrets since and today relates how she doesn't find the fasting a great ordeal.  Instead she extols the healing virtues of this regimen, indicating that it would help detoxify the body.  In a world of conspicuous consumption - and my present hotel life is surely part of that - it sounds a refreshing antidote.

I think all the local newspapers irrespective of language have been featuring Ramadan on a daily basis.  I've been reading the articles published by The Peninsula newspaper.  I have kept and put to one side quite a number of these special features as they reveal interesting facets about Islamic practices and local traditions.  There's considerable theological content applied to daily life, for which the closest UK equivalent I can think of would be a Catholic newspaper such as The Universe or the Catholic Herald running a series of articles on Lenten preparations. Some of the concerns expressed by the authors and community elders - particularly about consumer culture and the challenges of modern technology to personal encounters - are very familiar, having strong echoes among commentators in the West. 

Regarding commentators, among the secular broadsheets in the UK probably only the Daily Telegraph would presently feature these kinds of theological views.   So I find it interesting that The Peninsula when choosing to convey a UK perspective reproduces key articles and opinion pieces from the Financial Times and The Guardian, the latter known for its contributors' advocacy of secular liberalism, particularly the separation of religion - deemed as a private matter - from affairs of the State.  In contrast, newspaper articles in the Gulf generally have an underlying assumption that religion is pervasive and cannot be separated from the way society is run.

Many of the Ramadan articles in The Peninsula have provided close scrutiny of the individual and family within the wider fabric of society, all of which are topics earnestly discussed in the UK.  Whilst British society enjoys many freedoms, there are anxieties about personal safety: for instance, how safe is it to walk along the streets?   You'd seldom get an unequivocal statement that it's fine at any time.  On the other hand here in Doha it is claimed that individuals and families can wander around the city around the clock and feel safe - and I tend to think this is true.  How important then are the methods in which this safety is ensured?

I think there are pros and cons, but if you were to measure safety and well-being based on, say, hospital statistics then I expect in Qatar the annual per capita health bill from accidents and illnesses relating to drugs and alcohol is probably minimal compared with the NHS in the UK.  I think this sense of well-being derives a lot from Islamic practices rooted in moral virtue and situated in cohesive families.  Irrespective of discussions on liberties and the wider regional situation, I'm sure there are some valuable social insights to consider. 

Hence I have an idea.  Perhaps UK broadsheets such as The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian may one day like to try and reciprocate by publishing a regular series of contributions from Middle Eastern papers such as The Peninsula, especially the religious features.  Would this not be a liberal attitude to another perspective on society...?

I think some aspects, though, will probably just stay here - not sure Thames Valley Police would be distributing Iftar boxes like this. :-) 

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