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A season of compassion

July 05, 2013

THE Holy Prophet’s (PBUH) sermon of Sha’aban, in which he outlines the goals and spiritual merits of the month of Ramazan, should be required reading, especially for those intending to observe the obligations of the holy month.

In this sermon the blessed Messenger lays out a spiritual road map for believers through which they can attain the maximum benefits of the month and hopefully use the period of fasting to build and improve character and become better human beings.

The Prophet offers a very different take on what the month of fasting means and how one can benefit from it compared to the colloquial interpretation of Ramazan currently in vogue. Instead of being a time for self-indulgence and sanctimonious behaviour, in the sermon of Sha’aban the Holy Prophet describes Ramazan as a period of contemplation, compassion and self-discovery.

In the sermon, along with highlighting the importance of obligatory religious duties such as prayer and the virtues of recitation of the Holy Quran, the Prophet also points towards other acts that should be performed in Ramazan, acts which are essential for character building.

The sermon carries layers of meaning for those seeking to extract the spiritual benefits of the month, by comparing Ramazan to a banquet where man is “the guest of Allah”. But before attending such a banquet man is given a few tips about the dos and don’ts, the etiquette one should be aware of to gain maximum benefit from such an invitation. Included among the highly recommended acts is giving charity, as well as showing respect to elders and tenderness towards children. If we look at our own society, concentrating on these areas can bring immense positive changes.

While the spirit of philanthropy is alive in Pakistan, perhaps society needs to re-examine the concept of religious alms through a more progressive prism.

Come Ramazan, and many individuals and institutions distribute zakat and sadaqa. But the manner in which this is done can be improved. For example, at times serpentine queues of men, women and children from the lower-income bracket can be seen outside homes and institutions waiting for donations in cash or kind. Such a sight is depressing, mainly because it is against human dignity — which Islam puts a premium on.

Perhaps a better way to distribute religious dues would be to find out which members of the community genuinely need a helping hand and to deliver to them the cash or goods at their homes in a dignified manner. Alternatively, religious dues can be channelled towards teaching the needy job skills or providing the means to generate self-employment. Islam seeks to end poverty through charity, not to perpetuate it.

Coming to the elderly and the young, both these vulnerable groups are neglected in our society. Ramazan can be a time for us to reassess our ways where these two major segments of society are concerned.

Given the dog-eat-dog nature of modern life, some hardly have time for seniors and unfortunately consider them a financial burden. While the state has its own responsibilities, we as citizens and believers have to play our part too. Senior citizens must be given the respect, time and compassion they deserve in their golden years. As the traditions emphasise, how we are treated in our twilight years will depend on our behaviour towards senior citizens today.

As for children, society treats youngsters in a totally brutal manner. Exposure to violence, abuse and neglect — all unfortunately rampant in our society — robs children of their innocence. However the Prophet’s love and concern for children is well-documented in the traditions. His attachment to his daughter Fatima Zehra and his grandchildren is clearly mentioned in the traditions, as is his benevolence towards youngsters in general. In one tradition it is mentioned that if one brings gifts home, the daughter should be presented the gift first.

Yet Muslim societies today, including Pakistan, treat youngsters in the most callous manner. For example, just look at the number of children on our streets as well as those out of school. As we seek to reform ourselves and our society this Ramazan, let us try and address the chronic issues that affect our children.

These are just some of the ethical issues the sermon of Sha’aban touches on. In summary, the sermon provides the raw material for character building, for the Prophet mentions that whoever develops good akhlaq (morals) during Ramazan will be able to pass the bridge of Siraat.

Indeed Ramazan is an opportune time to develop morals. Due to the abstention from material needs during the day and focus on prayer and contemplation, the spiritual conditions are created to reform the self.

Perfecting akhlaq does not mean only carrying out the required rituals; rather, perhaps the deeper meaning of living an ethical life as enunciated in the Quran and Sunnah is working to create a better society and creating opportunities for the dispossessed and the underprivileged.

The fast, prayers and night vigils will be of use when one begins to realise the esoteric meanings of these forms of worship and begins to feel what others in society are going through. For example acting dishonestly, not controlling one’s anger and trampling on the rights of others while fasting is actually making a mockery of the whole concept.

Hence, perhaps reading — and acting upon — the sermon of Sha’aban will be beneficial in rendering the fast into a spiritually uplifting, transformational experience, for the individual and for society.

The writer is a member of staff.