By Zeyad Masroor Khan May. 23, 2020
This Ramzan has been most unusual – but also familiar. Since staying away from temptation is an idea so central to the holy month, most Muslim millennials stop sexting and watching TV shows, and unfollow the Kardashian sisters on Instagram. It is only around Eid that things are restored to normalcy.
This Ramzan has been most unusual. A deadly virus has limited human interaction. Mosques are empty, shops are closed and there is more fear in the air than festivity. The sound of azaan that used to mark our mornings and evenings has been banned in my town and the entire state of Uttar Pradesh. The streets are not as deserted as they should be, but the usual banter about who fasts or not has been replaced by who will be able to outlast this lockdown.
This year too, elite Muslims began the holy month with intense social media debates on whether it should be spelled “Ramzan” or “Ramadan”. Most of us are likely to spend our Eid charting out polite techniques to avoid hugs from over-affectionate relatives, not fantasising about the food that we’re about to eat. The meat ban has sunk the spirits of rozedars. Qorma, daalgosht, paya, and keema have been replaced with bhindi, turai, and a variety of khichdis. No one could have imagined a Ramzan where dahi bhalle would be the star dish on the dinner table. Qayamat is indeed near.
Still, we soldier on, being our pious best. For the uninitiated, the stakes are super high during Ramzan: If you do a good deed, your reward in the afterlife will be 70 times (and vice versa for your terrible behaviour).
And so, we find our ways to be pious. When I was younger, my elders would often ask me not to watch cartoon programmes or even read comic books during the holy month. My parents weren’t too conservative, but there would always be a phuphi or some distant aunt objecting to the fact that they allowed us to watch TV. As I grew up and became a music fan with a large collection of cassettes, playing it on my tape recorder earned nods of disapprovals from close neighbours. Along with those severe rebukes, came the eternal teachings not to lie, cheat, hurt anyone or even saying anything bad about anyone behind their back.
Mosques are empty, shops are closed and there is more fear in the air than festivity.
Which is why so many of us are extra nice during Ramzan – no seriously, it’s a moral duty to be courteous and all kinds of helpful, if only for the month. And then there are the personal sacrifices. “Bad intentions” are considered a sin, so you might see even the most lecherous of men lowering their gaze if a woman walks past. Some stop watching porn or masturbating, others stop sexting on dating apps and having phone sex. For many millennials, Ramzan is also the time to avoid “vulgar” humour. Meme pages like 9gag, jokes about sex, erotic songs, shows like Sex Education – which make the cut during normal days – become vulgar during Ramzan.
There are some who unfollow Instagram pages of hot celebrities to keep away “impure” thoughts. Sahiba Khan, a journalist, says she unfollowed all the Kardashian sisters and Bella Hadid. “I unfollow anything which might turn me on,” says Khan, 27. It includes NSFW pages like Markus Prime and Watts Hot. For children, animated nursery rhymes on YouTube are replaced by Islamic cartoons like Omar and Hana.
Not much changes for me during Ramzan. At home, my mother digs up decades-old prayer books and asks me to recite those duas – something I politely avoid. But on a fellowship in Turkey, I fasted and prayed with my friends and roommates, because I felt bad eating when they weren’t. For me, people changing these little things in their lives was a sign that even though it’s hard to blend faith with real life, they were working hard toward something they believed in. If this brought them happiness and contentment, it would only make me happy.
It’s a moral duty to be courteous and all kinds of helpful, if only for the month.
My friend, Owais Jafri, 31, a government employee, decides to refrain from invective as he believes it reduces the purity of the fast. “Some friends are so evil that abuses come naturally from the heart. But in Ramzan, I choose to convey my displeasure through the tone of my office.” In his mohalla, some of the younger Muslim boys heavily into TikTok, have suddenly started posting religious videos. “The ones who’d generally post TikTok videos featuring songs by Honey Singh are now spreading the message of Ramzan to their followers in a bid to stay relevant,” he adds.
Though there are some who give up on entertainment altogether, there are others who adjust it to something more Islamic. Tea-shop owners who generally blast Bollywood item songs or classics of Mohd Rafi will begin to play “Mohammad Ke Shahar Mein”. Fans of Kanye West start listening to Coke Studio’s “Tajdar-e-Haram”. Some of my uncles who are addicted to South Indian action films on Zee Cinema now start watching “Made For Ramadan” films like The Message, The Lion of the Desert and Journey to Mecca – outings that document the valiance and hardships faced by Muslims for their faith.
This Ramzan, binge-watchers ditched eternal favourites like Stranger Things and Black Mirror; social media was full of plot twists from the Turkish historical war drama, Diriliş: Ertuğrul. The Kashmiris even found ways to circumvent an internet shutdown to watch the popular series – some used VPNs while others simply received downloaded versions from friends.
I watched some of those movies, but mostly to join in the conversation about them. I find my solace in Sufi music, in the qawwalis of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Abida Parveen, in some nearly magical Coke Studio renditions that have made me familiar with aspects of faith as an instrument of self-healing.
“Bad intentions” are considered a sin, so you might see even the most lecherous of men lowering their gaze if a woman walks past.
For Trafdar Zaman, a Delhi-based social activist, the biggest sacrifice is not that he can’t listen to Nusrat, but that he has to give up video-chatting with his girlfriend, with whom he follows a “halal relationship”. The idea of halal relationships is borne out of Muslim millennials’ need to accommodate a contemporary lifestyle with religious ideals (there are dating apps dedicated to this). Though premarital sex is prohibited in Islam, love is not. If done within religious boundaries and with the expectation of marriage, there is a growing acceptance of the western concept of dating. Yet there are constraints: “She comes from a more conservative family. I think calling her from my bedroom is something more intimate than even meeting her, so I avoid it. I don’t want to make her uncomfortable,” says Zaman. Besides, Zaman considers ibadat (worship) a whole-day affair, so taking time off to flirt brings with it the chances of making their roza makrooh (detestable).
But after a month of piety, most of us will unleash all our sins on Eid: the day when some believe Satan is let loose on the world after a month of captivity. Many will celebrate by going back to the good old days – watching a Salman Khan film in cinemas, smoking up, meeting those they are sexually interested in, and following the Kardashian sisters again on Instagram.
The material world starts dominating again as the spiritual selves recede. I believe most are happy with this dichotomy. After all, this is the charm of Ramzan – the month when the faithful are exhorted to give up their pleasures to understand the value of little things and comprehend the pain of the less fortunate. It is meant to make us understand what sacrifice is. With a global pandemic projected to lead to a cycle of hunger and starvation, these lessons might come in handy.