In this month of Ramazan, we must remember that the Quran says, “la ikraha fiddeen”, meaning there is no compulsion in religion. If one were to adhere to this verse with all diligence, it would possibly ensure world peace. Islamic scholars usually explain this ayat as: “Islam has nothing to do with coercion, force, persecution or other such destructive behaviours.” So, Allah’s true believers should abide by His counsel and not force others to fast during Ramazan.
In Oman, the law makes it punishable to eat or drink in public during Ramazan fasting hours. Anyone found doing so, including non-Muslims, will be jailed for up to three months. Even eating inside a car is punishable. In Kuwait, fast-breaking in public during fasting hours is an offence punishable by one month in prison or a fine of 100 dinars. In Pakistan, a fine of Rs 500 will be imposed on people caught eating in public along with three months in jail. In many Muslim countries, eating in public is considered a crime during Ramazan. In Bangladesh, the restaurants are forcibly kept shut during the day and if anyone is found flouting the rule, the fasting mob arrives and vandalises their restaurants. Those not fasting remain in constant anxiety.
Many who fast believe that someone eating or drinking anything in front of them is an insult to them. I used to eat my fill sitting right in front of my fasting mother and she used to be happy seeing me content. I also never felt that she loved me any less because I had refused to fast. My mother was a very honest and pious woman, she knew how to respect one’s choice of not fasting.
Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal, despite not being a Muslim herself, prays namaz and observes roza. Many say that she does not do this sincerely, that she does everything for Muslim votes, but even then, I don’t believe anyone should attempt to stop her from doing these things. She has the right to practice any religion she wants to. Just like we have the right to forsake religion if we wish to, we also have the right to practice more than one if we want.
The ones who fast expect to be in Allah’s good graces at the time of ‘Judgement’. Is it not enough? Why do fasting Muslims demand respect from the ones who do not fast? Isn’t respect supposed to be mutual? Respect can be accorded only if it is reciprocated.
In Bangladesh, people start shouting when they wake up for sehri, creating quite a fuss. The chaos usually wakes everyone up, even the ones who are not interested in sehri. The same can be said about the azaan as well. Back in the day, when there were no alarm clocks or mobile phones, perhaps the shouts and cries of the local boys used to be pretty useful to those who needed some help to wake up for sehri. In this age of technological advancement, such excesses are completely unnecessary. I’m sure everyone knows how to set an alarm on their mobile phones.
In my childhood, there was never any compulsion at home about praying, roza or fasting during Ramazan. Before going to bed at night, Ma used to ask which one of us wanted to fast the day after. Those who wished to would tell her. Anyone who woke up for the pre-dawn meal had to be careful not to disturb the ones who were asleep. It was the same with namaz as well. Those who wished to pray, did, and those who did not want to, did not have to.
The ones who wish to fast have the right to do so; the ones who don’t should have the right to choose not to. Every human being has the right to be a believer or a non-believer. Not just that, the religious also have the right to be critical of those who do not believe in religion. But non-believers apparently don’t have the right to say anything critical of believers – if they do so, it results in harassment, legal trouble, jail time, exile or even murder. Religion is a personal matter. Anyone who wishes to practise a particular religion should be allowed to do so just as anyone who does not wish to should also be allowed to do as they please.
How can any nation, state or society force someone to practice a religion? The nation is for everyone, believers and non-believers. It is the duty of the government to treat everyone as equal. We must be careful to remember one thing – in the eyes of the state, a person who believes in a particular religion and a person who does not believe in any are both equally important, they are entitled to the same rights.
On the other hand, the government of China has forbidden the observance of roza in the Muslim neighbourhoods of the country. This prohibition, however, applies only to government officers and workers, leaders and workers of the Communist Party and students. I understand that students should not fast, or be made to, for the safety of their health. But not all government officers and workers are atheists. If they wish to fast, why should they not be allowed to do so? Perhaps the government wishes to convey that fasting results in fatigue and can disrupt office work. I strongly condemn this move by the Chinese government.
China has also decreed that no cafes and restaurants will be shut during Ramazan. That, at least, is the right decision I believe. On the other hand, the Muslim nations have gone the opposite route of China when it comes to Ramazan and banned the consumption of food or drink, even if someone is not fasting.
If Islam does not become more liberal, then it is the Muslims who stand to lose the most. Numerous people around the world today are against Muslims. Muslims are no longer trusted – most fear them or recoil at the mention of their name. Because of a handful of terrorist organisations, Muslims in general are coming to be identified as an intolerant and orthodox group. It’s Muslims themselves who must take up the onus of ensuring Islam becomes more liberal.
The author is a celebrated writer and commentator. Views are personal.