Ramzan Mubarak

9 May

…a little late — it’s a full moon already — but this is a letter my friend, Zain Alam shared with all of us at the beginning of the month. I found it really moving.


Dear friends, family, & listeners,

Salaam, and Ramzan Mubarak. Jumma Mubarak to you, too — I hope you’ve had a wonderful end to the week and start of the holy month, however you observe. I’ve been grateful for the twofold opportunity this week to mark the passage of time, as the days start to blend with fewer variations, inside confined spaces that soon become second nature.

Every rise and fall of the sun this Ramzan has taken on new meaning now in the age of social distancing, even though the month has always had its own significance to me over the years: more evenings than usual spent at the mosque, a deeper engagement with the religious and philosophical texts I devoured in grad school, a weekend spent back at home in Kennesaw to childhood iftaars of Mum’s chilled choley and French pastry-like samosey.

But the Ramzan of 2020 will stand out from all Ramzans in memory. It’s not only in this month but in every week that we’ve lost a central part of our practice: to gather with people — ijta’ama, the Arabic root of jumma. Still, I’m grateful that people across the world and Muslims in particular (with some notable exceptions — looking at you, my native Georgia and Pakistan) have given up the privilege of gathering. Together we all strive in the hope that the sacrifice of sharing space may usher in a greater good, a cleansing from what we cannot see that ails the world, unevenly but all over. This will be a long month of fasting for many, and for some it may be a long year to come.

I’m grateful for how this month’s call to focus through fast anchored my ideas of freedom growing up, particularly as we watch some societies with a strong sense of social obligation redefine what it means to be “open,” in comparison with others (like our own) increasingly bound to no ideal other than their own individual liberty. I’m grateful for the attention to presence that Islam instills in the spirit through discipline of the body, especially considering the treasured moments still available to us — breaking bread only with whom we share home, catching up with friends, faces floating and disembodied on our devices.

I’m writing in hopes that there’s some alternative mode of congregation, of conversation that can go beyond likes and forwards, of gathering an archive from texts and prayers and the conversations they birth. While despondent the other night thinking of the now-empty mosques I’ve meditated in across India, Pakistan, and at home in Brooklyn, I remembered the writing of Muhammad Iqbal, the beloved poet-philosopher of the subcontinent.

“Islam is non-territorial in its character, and its aim is to furnish a model for the final combination of humanity by drawing its adherents from a variety of mutually repellent races, and then transforming this atomic aggregate into a people possessing a self-consciousness of their own.”

This passage resonates now even more than it did back in 2013 when I took issue with nationalist, territorial conceptions of “Islamic community” in an undergraduate thesis on the Partition of 1947. Iqbal goes on to quote hadith, a saying of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him): This whole world is a mosque. My hopes are that this Ramzan I can make my home like a mosque, my mind closer to the self-consciousness of an ummah we all dream of, even when we cannot be with one another in person.

I’m including an essay, song, film, and reporting that I’ve found uplifting in this time of sociopolitical upheaval and spiritual unrest. Some, like the Jean-Louis Michon essay from the Study Quran, I’ve come back to time and time again through the years. Perhaps later on this month I’ll send more selections from the Study Quran, one of my favorite collections of translation, scholarly essays, and commentary on the holy book — the kind of comprehensive treatment needed to grasp the wide breadth of how Muslims experience the Divine, inclusive of its many ethnic, linguistic, sectarian, and gender perspectives.

  • “The Quran and Islamic Art” — an essay by French Muslim and art historian Jean-Louis Michon, accessible but broad in scope on the enduring Muslim quest for beauty, an endeavor all too often missed in discussions of (and sometimes by) us.
  • “Khird Ke Pass” — a sonorous rendition of Iqbal by Sanam Marvi with tasteful, modern production that thankfully stays close to the spirit of the words.
  • Taste of Cherry — a favorite by Abbas Kiarostami that I was surprised to find in full on Youtube which, perhaps not necessarily “Islamic,” is the kind of meditation on storytelling and identity I find useful in this month, especially in a distinctly Persian voice that our government seems hellbent on breaking.
  • “American Muslims face a lonely Ramadan during lockdown” — a wonderful piece of reporting on our predicament here in the US by my cousin Hibah Ansari in the Guardian.

I’d love to hear what you think of these, or better yet, about anything that has moved you in spirit recently, regardless of how you may (or may not) be observing the month.

Longer summer fasts are approaching, and sacrificing time spent with one another will only grow more painful. Replenishing our spiritual reserves — as well as giving all that we can of what we have in time and money — will be paramount. I’ve been giving to Bed-Stuy Strong for their work in my part of Brooklyn, and volunteering my time translating Urdu/Hindi with Mutual Aid NYC, if you’d like to join the efforts of either.

The empty Juma Masjid in Delhi

I hope we soon get to congregate in person, but in the meantime look forward to gathering with you these Ramzan jummeh, even if alone, by sharing what moves us.

Love (& khuda hafiz),

Zain A. —

All creation emanates from Him, its beginning represented by a bulb or seed and its end by a shoot, a flower, or a bud. The occupant of the house is therefore constantly reminded of the omnipresence of God and of the inevitable destiny of mankind.
(– Michon, “The Quran and Islamic Art”)

Zain Alam / Humeysha

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