Ramadan fell on 9th July to 7th August this year in the Islamic world. As I’m sure you know, it’s a time where Muslims don’t eat or drink during daylight hours. The period coincided with my visit to Uzbekistan – a country where over 80% of the population are nominally Muslim, although only around 5-15% attend mosque. It is estimated a similar number would strictly observe Ramadan.
I had made friends with a guy who was strictly following Ramadan during my stay in Tashkent. As I had a number of days to kill whilst waiting for my Kazakh visa, Farhod had kindly offered for me to stay at his house. After a couple of days of watching him observe the tradition, I felt that it would be an enlightening experience for me to partake just for a day. I wanted to experience just what it felt like for the billion or so people around the world who keep fast, and learn a little bit more about Islam in the process. Here are some of the things I learned and reflected on during the day.
How Judaism, Christianity and Islam fit together. The computer software analogy
We spent a lot of the day discussing the Islamic religion – its beliefs, customs and some of the fundamental components. Although I felt I knew a bit about the religion prior to the day, in hindsight I really knew shamefully little. I think Islam is probably one of the most misunderstood religions by non Muslims and Farhod gave me the clearest explanation I’ve received to date about some of the fundamentals. We discussed a lot of things including the difference between Sunni and Shia , the concept of jihad and the 5 pillars of Islam. It doesn’t need me to churn them out here – click the links if you’re interested. But there was one particular analogy which Farhod drew which I thought was particularly illuminating and worth sharing here.
Fundamentally, it was explained to me, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all based on the same stories from the same prophets. But a crucial difference lies in which prophets are given the most prominence and which are accepted. Farhod explained how through the course of history there have been 124 000 prophets. All of the religions above pay homage to most of the same prophets until Jesus. However, when Jesus came along saying he was the Son of God, this was seen as blasphemous by Jews who had their allegiance to the previous prophets – notably Abraham and Moses. Hence this marks the split between Judaism and Christianity.
Muslims believe in all of the prophets, including Abraham, Moses and Jesus. Mohammed just happened to be the last of the prophets and for Muslims, the most important. Mohammed came after Jesus, effectively with the latest word from God. Christians failed to see this, and like the Jewish before them, refused to accept the prophet who offered an (newer) alternative to their own who they had allegiance to.
‘It’s a bit like updates to computer software’ he explained ‘it’s like everyone is using a PC, but some are using Windows 95, some Windows 98 and some Windows XP. Each group is wedded to their version of Windows and refuses to get the new update. Muslims have the latest version.’
The privilege of eating and drinking.
One of the great things about having food and water taken away from you for a day is that it really makes you appreciate how great they are when you do get them. Looking at it like that, fasting made a lot of sense to me. How often do I stop and give thanks for having food and drink whenever I need/ want it? How often had I really experienced what it was like for the millions of people who are thirsty and hungry every day (fasting or not)? Very rarely is the answer
I’m not sure that everyone has to fast to appreciate food and water, but perhaps it’s important to limit it sometimes in order to appreciate it more. Indeed, I’ve been thinking quite a lot recently about the power of ‘limitation’ to appreciate things on my journey. One of the potential drawbacks of having an amazing sight or experience thrown at me almost every day is that I can feel a little complacent about them precisely because they are so plentiful. Certainly during my time in Uzbekistan, in the moment I’m sad to say that I felt a little numb rather than excited about the prospect of seeing ‘yet another’ intricately designed mausoleum, Mosque or madrassa. Perhaps some of the experiences of travel are best digested after rather than during the journey…….
What do you do when someone you really like and respect expresses views you completely disagree with?
Through our conversations about Islam during the day, there were certain views expressed which I found completely alien to my own. Specifically regarding the role of women in society and evolution. Looking specifically at the role of women, he explained to me that his belief that women’s role was to serve man was explicitly stated in the religious texts. “Read the story of Adam and Eve’ he told me. I had a quick look (regrettably my first since primary school) and yep, it’s there written pretty clearly.
God says: “It is not good that man shall be alone; I will make him a helper and a partner” (Genesis 2:18)
After making Eve with Adam’s rib, and after the fall from grace in Eden, God then tells Eve
“Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Genesis 3:16).
Obviously a literal interpretation of this isn’t taken by all who follow the teachings from Genesis, but if someone does choose to interpret it literally then who am I to judge them and tell them not to? If you commit to following the teachings of your religion then views which others would find alien will obviously ensue. Although obviously I don’t agree with those views, the experience certainly gave me a newfound empathy with those who do hold them.
It would be nice to be religious…
Personally, I’m somewhere between atheist and agnostic. I don’t believe in any all knowing being watching over us, reincarnation or angels coming down and flying around on horses. I find it very difficult to have ‘faith’ in anything that I (or science) can’t logically explain. However, there are obviously some things that science can’t explain and the thought that I am ‘conscious’ and ‘exist’ within this body combined with the question of how the ‘big bang’ started in the first place prevent me from labelling myself totally atheist. I read a book recently called ‘the Dawkins Delusion’ by Alastair McGrath – arguing that just as you can’t scientifically prove God, you can’t scientifically disprove him either. McGrath is a scientist and ‘reformed’ atheist who has since found God. For me, his argument seemed a good one for agnosticism.
Anyway, whatever I am, the point is that I don’t belong to any organised religion and I don’t have faith in stuff I ‘hope’ for rather than what I think is actually more likely. Spending the day with Farhod, who was so convinced of certain things due to his faith was actually quite depressing for me. Dying? No problem – he was going to a better place. For me – shit, well that’s it. I can’t think of anything more scary and bleak! It’s a good excuse to abide by the mantra ‘you only live once’ – but personally I kind of wish there was something more to that ‘once’ or at least some sort of reunion party up in heaven…..
I was also a little bit jealous of the community to which he belonged, that sense of brotherhood and the way he could proudly say ‘I’m Muslim’. When Farhod asked me what religion I was, I kind of fluffed around an answer of being culturally Christian but being more atheisty agnosticy. Being defined as an ‘atheist’ seems rather cold and unappealing – and I was a little bit ashamed to say it to such a stout believer.
Spending time with Farhod made me think of all the great things that religions actually do for people – the community, the dealing with pain and suffering, the peace of mind, the beautiful places of worship etc. etc. Many things which are perhaps lacking in secular society. Is it possible to get all these things but without the blind faith and adherence to customs associated with religion?
It’s a concept I’m really keen on exploring – and have almost finished reading Alain de Botton’s ‘religion for atheists’ as a result. It’s got some excellent ideas!
And finally some amusing/ intriguing stuff….
During a walk at 4am in the morning after we had our middle of the night meal in preparation for the fast of the day ahead, Farhod played me this song in English about the glory of Allah.
‘It’s by Michael Jackson’ he said. ‘He was a Muslim’. It certainly sounded like Jacko to me, but I was a bit shocked that I’d somehow managed to miss that he’d converted.
During our rest time later in the heat of the day I found time to do some research into it. It looks like there was actually a massive debate about whether he did convert or not. The Sun reported that he did – and even that Yussuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) attended the ceremony where he changed his name to Mikaeel. This turned out to be total bullshit however – this alleged ceremony was completely made up. But there was still much debate as to whether or not Jackson had actually converted internally before his untimely death.
But what of the song? Sadly for Farhod, I had to break it to him that the song wasn’t actually by ‘the prince of pop’. Instead it was by ‘Zain Bhikar’, who just happened to sound a bit like him. Click here to find out more about this and the rest of the Jacko and Islam story.
Some people believe that Barack Obama and Osama Bin laden are the same person
I learned that there’s actually quite a large number of people who genuinely believe this! Farhod was not one – I hasten to add. But apparently before Obama finally knocked his doppelganger on the head, he would often don a white beard, turban and head to a nearby cave to make another scary video. If you’re still not convinced, check out this video…