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Ramadaan Diary of a South African Muslima

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Ramadaan Diary of a South African Muslima
11/27/02 at 01:59:43



When I was little, my mother would prepare us for Ramadaan by telling stories about the arrival of a “special guest”.  This special guest brought with it untold blessings and favours from Allah.  At a time when I was still trying to come to grips with an All-Powerful Allah, who created me and everything around me, it was difficult for me to comprehend that there was another “invisible” entity in our home.  All I knew, was that this guest, whose name was “Ramadaan”, made life wonderful for me: my sisters would be extra tolerant of me, my mother would cook and bake all my favourite treats, and my imagination would not rest with all the wonderful tales everybody would relate about Ramadaan.  When my friends would talk about how special Christmas was, I would smile, knowing that Ramadaan, our special guest, made a whole month even better than Christmas!

Whenever I would want to fight or start screaming, my mother would remind me that I was not affording our guest its due honour and respect.  Even today, when my temper surges and is about to erupt, this warning still rings true.  

I would listen attentively to the stories my mother would tell about this month and the Bounties Allah has set out for us.  I would fantasize about the beautiful gardens being built in Paradise for those who fasted.  She once so enthusiastically told us how all the fish in the ocean would pray for the forgiveness of the fasting, that I spent an hour just gazing at my friend’s pet goldfish, swimming around in its bowl, waiting for a sign that it was praying for me!  I dreamed about entering Paradise by the gate called Ar-Rayyan, which is reserved for the fasting people.  I would tell my non-Muslim friends to fast with me, so that we would enter that gate together and be able to play together forever.  

Every year I look forward to Ramadaan with the same enthusiasm as I did as a child.  Even my mother’s stories gain in meaning each year, as I grow in my understanding of what Ramadaan is truly about.  

[i]The meaning of Ramadaan[/i]

The meaning of Ramadaan lies beyond just refraining from eating and drinking.  We seek Allah’s Mercy, Forgiveness and protection from the fire of Hell with certainty, as the promise of Allah is true.

We recall that Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was fasting when the Angel Gabriel came to him with the first revelation.  Fasting is a means to reawaken our spirits, enlighten our hearts, and a method of preparing our minds and souls to accept and understand the true Word of Allah.  By fasting we achieve self-purification and aim for self-discipline.  Ramadaan is an intensive period of training for our bodies and minds to become Allah conscience.  Through diligently abstaining from not only that, which is prohibited, but also from that, which at normal times would be allowed, we reach a state of satisfaction and learn the discipline necessary to abide by the very tenets of this beautiful way of life, Islam.  Ramadaan equips us with the strength of purpose and mission to face the trials and tribulations of the rest of the year with Faith and optimism.

Everyone is encouraged to increase the performance of voluntary prayers and the recitation of the Quraan, as the Quraan will stand as a proof for us and act as an intercessor for us on the Day of Reckoning.

Just as the months logically lead from Rajab to Shabaan building up to Ramadaan, so the first ten days of this special month bring Allah’s Mercy, leading to Allah’s Forgiveness in the next ten and ultimately emancipation for us from the fire of Hell.  Oh Allah, let not any of us be amongst those cursed to see Ramadaan and not attain forgiveness and your Mercy in it!

[i]The Story about "Nafs"[/i]

O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that ye may (learn) self-restraint (God-consciousness). [2:183]

One of my favourite stories about the effects of fasting is that of the encounter between Allah and Nafs (the lower self, our desires).  Allah told the angels to fetch Nafs from his abode.  When Nafs came before Allah, he was asked, “Who am I? And who are you?”  Nafs replied, “I am me, and you are you!”  Upon hearing this Allah ordered that Nafs be taken to the coldest place on Earth.  After spending several days there, Nafs was brought back before Allah and asked the same question, whereupon he answered, “I am me, and you are you!”  Then Allah ordered for Nafs to be taken to the hottest place on Earth.  He was brought back after some time and again answered, “I am me, and you are you!”  So Allah ordered that Nafs be starved of food and drink for a whole day.  At the end of the day Nafs was brought before Allah.  Allah asked, “Who am I?  And who are you?”  To this Nafs replied, “You are my Lord, and I am your servant!”

Neither the scorching heat nor the freezing cold for extended periods of time could get Nafs to acknowledge Allah.  But depriving him of food and drink for just one day could make him realise that Allah is Lord and that he is His servant!  May our fasting lead us to the same realisation, and may we learn to act accordingly, by worshipping Allah in the manner in which He deserves to be worshipped- Ameen.

---next post cont...

Re: Ramadaan Diary of a South African Muslima
11/27/02 at 02:01:35

“At least while you are working, the time will pass by more quickly!”  This is how my favourite professor responded to the fact that I would be working in the hospital with him during the month of Ramadaan this year.  He is not Muslim, and his assumption that I would be grateful for the time to pass “quickly” did not anger me.  I took my time to explain to him what Ramadaan means to me and that it is the one time of the year when I am the “best” me.  How I wished I had the words to explain that I wished that Ramadaan would last the whole year!

For the last few years, Ramadaan has fallen in my summer vacation, and I was thus able to spend the whole month at home.  I did not have the opportunity to experience Ramadaan in a university or hospital environment.  My professor asked if I would not rather have been at home instead.  Of course I was resentful at first, that I would not be able to spend as much time as I have grown accustomed to, to doing my extra prayers and reading the Quraan.  But on the very first day in the hospital I saw the look of intense gratitude in the tearful eyes of the mother of one of my young patients, and I conveyed to my professor that serving Allah’s creation is a means to serve Him too, which is one of the main aims of any Muslim during this month.

I described to him that the Holy month of Ramadaan is a special time for Muslims all over the world.  It is a time of year that we look forward to.  We rejoice at being able to seize the opportunity to make the most of Ramadaan, remembering all those who were with us last year and are not present to see this Ramadaan.  We also remember that we have no assurance that we will ever see another Ramadaan.

Nobody dreads having to fast if they truly understand the meaning and gift of Ramadaan.  Unlike some of my Christian friends who resent having to abstain from their favourite foods during Lent, most Muslims I know cherish the time their bodies are deprived of food and drink, to enable them to focus on their relationship with Allah and renew their faith, steadfastness and self-restraint.

Ramadaan is seen as the ideal opportunity to renew our commitment to Allah.  This commitment is both physical and spiritual- not only do we increase the number of prayers we do, or the amount of time we spend in the recitation of Quraan, or the amount of charity we give, but these physical acts are accompanied by more reflection, more introspection, more humility and a corresponding increase in our faith and commitment to our way of life.  

He understood that one of the other major effects of fasting is that it makes even the richest of men feel the pangs of hunger that the poor have to perpetually endure.  This makes us thankful to Allah for making us among those who have enough to eat and drink, and also develops sincere sympathy with our fellow men.  Ramadaan is the month of giving, and even more so now than in any other month, Muslims should endeavour to engender sympathy and graciousness from the sustenance provided to us by Allah.

During the ward round today, he jokingly promised to take it easy on me, all in the “spirit of generosity of Ramadaan”.  He has grown quite fond of me over the last year, not because I am ever able to answer his questions correctly, but because I have never been afraid to try.  We only got to the fourth patient, when I knew that he had forgotten his “generosity”, as the questions started flying in my direction once again.  Luckily what I answered was correct for a change.  This inspired him to ask more difficult questions.  They forced me to invent even more creative answers.  

I felt like a blind person whose other senses were suddenly more developed.  I had no food in my stomach, and all of a sudden a part of my brain I didn’t know existed, allowed me to come up with plausible and creative answers to his questions!

The creative spurt lasted a long time, and I had just run out of ideas, when my stomach sounded an explosive borborigm, as if wanting to answer on my behalf!  Akin to eruptions from volcanic Mount Etna, I knew that everyone within a 100 kilometre radius must have heard it and was speechless from pure embarrassment!  “Another effect of fasting, I hear Shahida!”  We laughed and I was thankful that we could move on to the next patient without much delay.

My sighs of relief were short-lived, when at the very next patient he asked my friend Niki a series of questions, which she could not answer.  After almost moving onto another unsuspecting student, he gave her one last chance “before Shahida’s gastrointestinal tract gets impatient and answers on your behalf!”

Jokes aside, compassion and empathy seem to come naturally to him.  I have watched in amazement and awe at how he treats everyone around him.  And it was perhaps these qualities, which fasting in Ramadaan encourages so strongly, which appealed to him the most.  When he turned to me after the round, in an earnestness I have noted only when a patient was critically ill, and said that he can see that Ramadaan could only be a gift from God, and that I should feel honoured to be able to enjoy it, I almost wept.  I prayed that the other aspects of Islam would have an equally impressive and inspiring effect on him.

---next post cont...

Re: Ramadaan Diary of a South African Muslima
11/27/02 at 02:04:11

People I meet abroad find it difficult to believe that I am South African.  “Are there really Muslims in deep, dark Africa?” they ask.  With the advent of Ramadaan questions abound as to how we observe Ramadaan at the tip of this beautiful continent.

In fact, Ramadaan in South Africa is filled with the same spirit as it is in other parts of the world.  But unlike many of our bothers and sisters in Islamic countries, we do not have holiday during this time.  We go to work as usual, children attend school as usual, everyday life goes on as usual.  Living in a non-Muslim country does not decrease the significance of this Holy month, nor does living in an area where Muslims are a minority, make this time any less special.  

The worship and devotion of this Holy month is the same all over, but because our ancestors came from many different places, we have assimilated many foreign traditions and developed our very own cultural customs during Ramadaan, which are unique to South African Muslims.  

[i]Who are we?[/i]

The first Muslims arrived in South Africa from Indonesia almost 400 years ago.  Then came the Indian slaves and merchants more than 200 years later.  During Apartheid, people were segregated into areas for their specific race groups.  Muslim immigrants and reverts would also choose to have their race reclassified or choose to live illegally in order to live in the areas where there would be a Muslim community.  Unlike the Christian Lebanese Arabs, who accepted the classification “white”, most Muslim Arab Immigrants, like my paternal grandparents, asked to be classified as “other” in order to live near to the mosques and Islamic centres.  This enabled us to have Ramadaan more as part of a closely-knit community, as many neighbours and friends in the same area would be Muslim too.  

Even today, when people have freedom to choose where to live, we still have concentrations of Muslims in certain areas, notably near the mosques and Islamic shops.

The Apartheid system did not appeal to many other voluntary immigrants, so it was only after the demise of Apartheid that other foreign Muslims graced our shores once again.  Many of them came here looking for economic prosperity, others sought refuge from civil wars and unrest in their home countries.  The Muslim community we have now is as diverse as any I have come across in Europe or America.

[i]Meal times in Ramadaan?[/i]

Because we are fasting during the Summer, Iftaar is quite late, and Suhoor is early.  I cannot cook anything edible, so I generally only help to make both meals.  I arrived home early thinking that I would be able to help my sister bake the blue berry muffins I asked her to make for Iftaar.  They are my favourite, and although I am perfectly capable of reading the recipe book, it’s so much better when someone else can make them!  

I arrive home too late!  She teases me, saying that she could not possibly invite any temptation into my day of fast- an allusion to my famous episodes of breaking my fast on cake dough and hot, out-of-the-oven biscuits when I was little.  I could never resist the chocolate trimmings, and would swear that I did not break my fast even though my mouth and fingers would be totally covered in evidence to the contrary!  They all know I would never do this now, but I have never been able to live down my past indiscretions!  May Allah forgive me.

The opening of the fast is a joyous time for family and friends. Before Iftaar every day, children carry parcels to their neighbours.  These could be a gift of dates or a special treat their mothers had prepared.  All in the spirit of giving and sharing in Ramadaan, in the hope of gaining reward for providing something for someone else to break the fast with.  Families and friends are invited to each other’s homes to break the fast.  In my home we usually open the fast with dates and a cup of my grandmother’s famous Afghan tea.  It is a special family recipe that her mother brought from their village in Afghanistan.  I become convinced that I must be adopted, when I try and make the tea, and it tastes nothing like what it should!  

Most of the mosques here do not have facilities for female worshippers, so the Iftaar meal usually takes place in the home, once the men have returned from prayer.  Mass Iftaars are held at most mosques, although they are usually for the underprivileged members of the community, Muslim and non-Muslim.  On weekends, local Islamic radio stations organize mass Iftaar meals in different areas and people come from all over to partake in them.

During the last ten days of Ramadaan, the families surrounding the mosque take on the extra special responsibility and honour to prepare the meals of the men who sit for I’tikaaf.  Tonight I will send our neighbour’s young son with the (hopefully) ripe and juicy watermelon I bought on the way from work this afternoon.

Sleepy-Eyed at Suhoor

My family is usually very happy and cheerful during Ramadaan.  Even the morning Suhoor meal, that my non-Muslim friends see as a hardship for us, is a pleasure.  In fact, despite my mother’s pleas for peace and quiet at that sublime time of the morning, my sisters and I always find something to chuckle about.  This morning it was the fact that even though I had been awake for 20 minutes before coming to the table, my left eye still could not open properly!  More often than not I am the cause for the commotion at the Suhoor table.  I wonder if I look as sleepy eyed when I work in the emergency department at the hospital?  I don’t think patients would be very comfortable to be attended to by a doctor who looks so sleepy, however mentally cognisant I may be!

There is great blessing in partaking of the Suhoor meal, and special effort is taken not to miss it, or the opportunity to pray Tahajjud at that hour or read Quraan before Fajr.

From my home I can hear 5 distinct calls to prayer for Fajr.  This is the beauty of living in an area where there are mosques! This is the blessing of living in a country, where nobody would dare think of silencing the Athaan!  I really missed this peaceful call when I was in Germany, where I know my friends would give anything to be able to hear just one Athaan.  Even during Apartheid, when no Muslims were allowed to live in the area where I live now, the mosques were not silenced.  People would travel distances to make it to these “forgotten” mosques for prayer.


In South Africa we tend to be more serious about “observing” Ramadaan rather than “celebrating” it. Our “celebration” takes the form of worship and spending quality time with this we love, and forging links with others in the community, Muslim and non-Muslim.  Unlike the Ramadaan I witnessed in Egypt, people here do not go out after the Taraweeh prayers to restaurants or cafes.  At most we would spend Iftaar with family and friends and then leave to the mosque together.  

Ramadaan nights are spent in prayer.  Mosques are filled, and it astounds me where the energy comes from to make it through a long day working and still be able to spend the night in the mosque.  There are 2 mosques within walking distance of my home.  The one just up the road does not allow sisters, so we go to the one eight streets away.  When it is dark, it can be quite dangerous, so we have to drive there.  This particular mosque only opens its doors to women during Ramadaan for the Esha and Taraweeh prayers. The men who are sitting for I’tikaaf use the upper level, where the sisters pray, to store their belongings and to sleep.  They scatter once they see us at the door.

Before the Esha prayer begins, one of the trustees of the mosque makes an announcement that “all the children upstairs should be quiet”.  I am the youngest person upstairs, and yes, still a child in my mother’s eyes, but I was certainly not making any noise.  All the women look at each other and chuckle, puzzled that those downstairs think that the noise could only possibly emanate from upstairs!    

[i]A Hafiz around every corner[/i]

It is a source of pride and honour to have a son who is a Hafiz, and most families in South Africa are blessed to have at least one!  This gives us the unique privilege of having many able and willing leaders for the Taraweeh prayers.  

There are three Hufaaz leading the Taraweeh at this particular mosque.  Each having a beautiful voice, reciting the Quraan with due care and respect.  The one who reads first is a African brother, who reverted to Islam only 3 years ago.  He takes my breath away with every syllable he utters. When I hear people talk about him, I become so ashamed of myself, thinking of all he has accomplished in the 3 years he has been Muslim, compared to my entire lifetime of Islamic achievements!  

The other 2 Hufaaz are brothers.  It is not uncommon to find families in which all the sons will be Hufaaz.

My prayer when I witness this abundance of people who keep the Quraan alive in their hearts, is that someday daughters will be afforded equal opportunities to learn and internalise the Holy Quraan.  And I also pray that the day will come when there will not be a separation in types of knowledge, when people will be encouraged to seek Islamic knowledge, to learn the Quraan and in addition also seek other forms of knowledge.  I know it is possible, because there are many Hufaaz at my medical school.  I know that it is possible, because that it how and why Muslims of past generations were so successful in every field of science, medicine, philosophy and every other branch of knowledge.

---next post cont...
11/27/02 at 02:06:29
Re: Ramadaan Diary of a South African Muslima
11/27/02 at 02:05:39

During these, the last ten days, we actively search for that elusive night, which we are told is better than a thousand months: Laylatul Qadr.    This “search” entails staying up longer, doing extra prayers, remembering Allah often, and reciting Quraan until the early hours of the morning, in the sincere hope to catch the blessings of that night.  Those who seek forgiveness with the sincere anticipation of such forgiveness and reward, verily their prayers will be answered.  May Allah make us amongst those whose prayers are not rejected.

At this time every year, a famous story does its rounds in the neighbourhood.  I have come to call it “The Night the Ocean became sweet.”  It tells the tale of the forlorn and destitute family of the Imaam of our masjid’s sister.  She and her husband both had lost their jobs, their home, their life’s savings.  In an attempt to seek better opportunities, they moved to the coast, using the last of their money for petrol for the journey.  At the coast they stayed with friends for a few weeks, and it was during Ramadaan that they really felt at their wits’ end.  They knew that they could not live with friends forever, but they had no luck finding jobs either.  Their children had become depressed because of the uncertainty inherent in their futures.  Although the parents kept reminding them of Allah’s Might and His Mercy, Ramadaan still held no joy for them.

In an attempt to cheer their children up, they took them to the beach one night after Taraweeh.  They could not afford to buy the children ice-creams or toys, and hoped that the ocean itself would be enough to bring the smiles back onto the innocent faces of their little ones.

While the mother played with the youngest daughter in the sand, the child got a little cut from a sharp seashell.  As is customary for mothers to do, after washing off the tiny speck of blood, the mom kissed her little wound “better”.  It was then that she tasted the water on her lips.  She scooped up another handful just to make sure.  The water had turned from salty to sweet.  She screamed for her husband to reassure her that what she had found was not just a figment of her imagination.  When he tasted the water, tears flowed from his eyes.  

The family will never forget that night.  It was the night when things changed for them forever.  They never lost their hope in the Mercy of Allah and were blessed on that night.  Both found excellent jobs, and eventually they even opened their own thriving business.  The youngest children were too small to remember the events of that night in Ramadaan, but the eldest still recalls her mother and father’s cries of joy and their thankfulness to Allah for showering his Bounty upon them.

May Allah allow each and every one of us who truly seeks the blessings of Laylatul Qadr, to be blessed with the reward of that magnificent night.  “Oh Allah, You are the one who pardons.  You love to pardon, so grant us forgiveness” -Ameen.

---next post cont...
Re: Ramadaan Diary of a South African Muslima
11/27/02 at 02:07:41

Ramadaan is also a time for remembering times past and present, both victorious and tragic.  

We cannot forget our brothers and sisters in places where they are oppressed and prevented from enjoying Ramadaan.  Not a day goes by in Ramadaan when I do not think about the other members of my global family, especially those who are suffering under occupation by those who stand against Faith.  I hear the cries of those Palestinians who were forced to prematurely break their fast by armed soldiers manning one of Bethlehem’s many checkpoints of death.  I hear the cries of those who are homeless.  I hear the cries of those who cannot leave their homes to pray in their own shrines.  I hear the cries of those mothers, fathers, wives, husbands and children who have lost their loved ones.  I hear the cries of innocents who fear that they will soon be bombed in the war that men want to fight to achieve their own selfish desires.

Every opportunity is seized to ask of Allah to provide them with relief and freedom from the domination of those who seek to destroy them and Islam.

This month holds many memories for the collective Muslim psyche.  Some tragic: Who can forget the carnage at the Ibrahimi mosque in Ramadaan, when many innocent worshippers were gunned to death?  Who can forget the bombs that fell on the hearts and homes of the Muslims in many parts of the world?  

I take heart by remembering the victories alongside the tragedy: The Battle of Badr, which was won by an inferior, small Muslim army of fighter’s whose greatest weapon was their firm belief and reliance on Allah, also took place in this Holy month.

I am generally an optimistic person, but there are days in Ramadaan when my optimism knows no bounds!  I think this is part of the effect of the perfume of Mercy I sense in the Ramadaan air.  Allah’s promise is true.  Our prayers will be answered.  How can I despair at the Mercy of my Lord, at a time, when I know that His Mercy is infinite?

How can I despair, when I see how my brothers and sisters endure untold hardships, and still manage to fast?  How can I despair, how can I stop praying when the subjects of my supplications do not stop themselves?   I take courage in seeing them embrace even the most difficult situation and still hold onto their faith.  I wish they could feel the Mercy, which has surrounded me in this Holy month.

---next post last inshaAllah...
Re: Ramadaan Diary of a South African Muslima
11/27/02 at 02:08:58

At the end of Ramadaan there comes another special night, called Laylatul Jaa’izah (the night of prize giving).  The next morning is the day of Eid ul Fitr.  On that day, Allah will boast about His faithful servants to the angels.  Allah will acknowledge that we have performed our obligatory duty towards Him.  Remember that the Fasting is for Allah alone, and He will give us our reward in full.

When we sit in prayer at the Eid Salaah and praise Him, this pleases Allah so much that when we leave that gathering all our sins are forgiven.

We buy gifts for those we love to celebrate this day.  At the same time we are sad that Ramadaan is gone, and we can only pray to live to see the blessings of another one, if Allah wills.

In South Africa, children are the real object of affection and attention on Eid.  They go around to all the Muslim homes to greet the inhabitants.  They also get money from everyone, and at the end of the day most are happy with their “collections”. Those children who have made an effort to fast and attend the Taraweeh receive special gifts to encourage them and others to do the same next year.  To watch their faces, and see the look of true accomplishment is inspiring even for the older, more seasoned fasters.

In most areas everyone is allowed to attend the Eid Salaah, and from very early in the morning, you can see families dressed in their finest clothing moving towards the Eid Musallah.  There is a sense of accomplishment and love in the air, that is distinct about the Eid after Ramadaan.

Eid is a day for strengthening the bonds of friendship and family, which were established and rekindled during Ramdaan.

I pray that Allah allows all of us to enjoy the blessing of this wonderful day, satisfied that what we did during Ramadaan was enough to secure Allah’s pleasure.

Re: Ramadaan Diary of a South African Muslima
11/29/02 at 10:43:39

Wow sister Shahida....jakallahi khayr for taking the time and trouble to write these beautiful posts. I truely enjoyed reading them
[quote]I pray that Allah allows all of us to enjoy the blessing of this wonderful day, satisfied that what we did during Ramadaan was enough to secure Allah’s pleasure. [/quote]

Ammeeenn ya rabbal 'alameen

wassalam alaikum
11/29/02 at 10:44:33

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