A month of socio-historical community 


Prof. M. Rashid Begg writes 

The holy month of Ramadan: the month of abstinence, religious focus, endurance, joy, commitment, celebration, and promise has dawned. The mixed emotions alluded to, fall on a spectrum of experiences that Muslim laity across the world conjure up as Ramadan approaches. But how about the social realities of this sacred pillar of Islam? 

In South African – Cape – history of Ramadan, we interpret a rather unique sacrality to Pwasa (fasting) that gives the ritual heightened status among the five pillars of Islam. The slaves, bonded and vryeswart (free blacks), had to pray outside the purview of Dutch settler communities. Place of prayer was not the only obstacle; they were also not allowed to lead the Salah (prayer), as a slave was deemed onvolkoem (incomplete) in Islamic law. They had no opportunity to perform Hajj (journey to Mecca) and could not perform Zakah (obligatory charity). Hence, the belief in the dogma of the Oneness of Allah, as the first pillar of Islam and the Pwasa had to be the cornerstones of early Cape Islamic orthopraxy (right practice). 

This historical backdrop speaks to the importance of Ramadan’s Cape history. It also connects early Islam to the rest of South African Muslims and the ummah (community) on a global level. Research on religion and identity formation in South Africa shows that Islam is the primary marker of identity for its adherents and remains so for most of the Muslim geo-political states.  

But how did it all start? During the 6/7th century of the common era in the Hijaz region, the bedouin tribes agreed that during this month there would exist a period of truce. In other words, no fighting or raiding of neighbours. A month spent in contemplative meditation. A month spent with family in isolation and peace.  

This social context gives a better understanding of the ritual practice of fasting adopted by the Prophet of Islam (SAW). Like so many other rituals, this ritual finds its origins in a completely different social world where the geography, existing institutions, modes of production and resultant social constructs of reality give rise to a milieu of peace, albeit through social necessity. 

COVID-19, the Russian-Ukraine war, and the kidnapping of citizens, force us closer to the contemplative mindset of the bedouin Arabs. We are forced to stay with our families, many are forced to contemplate and meditate – we are more inclined to share with our neighbour – more inclined to peace.  

This year, in many ways, spirituality permeates the mind with slightly more urgency. The gift of giving, more than ever, needs to return. The certainty of an inevitable end lurks large. The value of material finds its rightful place in the hierarchy of worth. Meals are appreciated with the constant gnawing question: does my neighbour have something to eat? A renewed marvel of the endless creations of Allah and the universe is kick-started. In a strange way the social climate reminds one of power that lies beyond the human race. It reminds one that the stewardship of earth comes at a price. The abuse of which invites power and authority that we are incapable of handling. Ramadan says, stop for a moment, reflect, and take responsibility for the world Allah (SWT) has temporarily given you.



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