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Tuesday, October 27, 2020

My Ramadan Diary: Where godliness and humanity meet

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With Rohey Samba

Times change. It would be one of life’s major bores if it didn’t. That’s why we have different seasons; namely, the dry and the wet seasons. At least in our parts of the world.
On a more lighter note, I may sound unduly gracious, still I will register in this SisterSpeak medium from a stifling naming ceremony held at the fringes of Pipeline, in late dry season, that the recent upheavals in Gambian politics will go nowhere…

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Getting into it, it was a well-fought mayoral contest. And then, the winners take it all! What can be evinced yet from all of the noise it created, however, is that the United Democratic Party has shown its unequivocal political might. The remnant fights of principle will have no effect. It is the ruling party in power after all, whatever you make of it. Thanks to social media, and despite its froufrou effect, the past will remain an annex of the present. And rightly so! In the field of our experience though, we will move on to the next chapter of today, which is here and now: Ramadan.

It is almost blasphemous to say, but Gambians are so good during the Holy month of Ramadan, it is as if God only attends the country within this period in time. Relatively, it seems no month is quite as vital and will engender so much fuss as Ramadan does. And in spite of everything, one thing remains constant for everyone fasting during Ramadan: the search for God and the ardent desire to worship Him as He should be worshipped according to the holy scriptures and the ahadeeth of the Prophet.

Personally, I have been searching for God my entire life. My Hindu friend, Venkatswaran, Venkat for short, told me that, God is humanity. Essentially, it is in fostering good human relations through good works and mutual respect. He encapsulated this belief by being the most generous, magnanimous family friend I have ever encountered. Both he and his wife, Lakshmi taught me godliness by their open-mindedness of spirit and empathy.

When I had my first child, he raised my husband’s pay and made him his Gambian partner in his budding import/export business. Through their sheer hard work, the two of them created a successful company, which shaped the succeeding establishment my genius husband was able to maintain. His belief, not in Hinduism, or perhaps through it, characterised his ideals in dealing with humanity, which idealism remains his enduring legacy.

By the blur of sifted inessentials over a period of time, he and my hubby parted ways. In retrospect, it was an unfortunate clash of contesting egos, the spoiler of all human relationships, which precipitated their fallout. I last met with Venkat in an Indian restaurant at Osu in Accra. We ate a curry dish with gee and finished off our meal with brewed coffee in which was stirred coconut milk and crushed ginger, just as Lakshmi used to prepare it in old times. Venkatswaran died of a congenital heart disease about three years ago. I heard the news about his death from a close associate of his.

Before I knew him, humanity was just another word for being considerate to your fellow human being. Venkat practiced humanity as a religion, treating everyone he met with due consideration, greeting with whooping delight and departing with an expression of beatific joy. He once told me during the course of a heated debate we had about religion that, “Religion is a divider of our peoples. It is the worst creation of our imagination. I believe in humanity.” It never dawned on me what he truly meant until I got a bit older and wiser.

Huixia Zhang, a colleague of mine at uni found God in Nature. I think he was a Buddhist. I never asked. The beauty of nature and how nature provides us with all we need was God enough for him. Extremely quiet and pensive, he would not harm a fly. Literally. Talking with Zhang about his concept of God while sipping some Chinese tea, I adamantly refuse to drink without sugar, he expanded on his theories including Darwin’s on evolution to bring home the point that God is a figment of our imagination, borne out of the human need to worship a deity in order to feel complete.

At his dormitory, complete silence interspersed with deep thinking during meditation helped him to be one with nature. The ease with which he spoke about the poignancy of life and his mastery of self, made me envy him a great deal. Zhang by this feat taught me that God is in everything, everywhere…

And then there is Michael Yaw Manuel, the most intelligent man I have ever encountered. An ardent Christian, who has read the Qur’an a couple of times, Captain Manuel was my lecturer at the Regional Maritime Academy. He later became Associate Professor at the World Maritime University by virtue of his outstanding performance while pursuing his master’s degree at the WMU. His cumulative grade point of 3.99 out of 4.00 earned him a scholarship to pursue a PhD, which he passed with A plus. He became the first black professor to be employed by the WMU after being the youngest captain RMU had ever produced.

Captain Manuel encapsulated the spirit of Christianity by his character, the caring, giving spirit that illuminated the world through its sheer eclipse. He was my best lecturer but also someone I went to when I needed to talk about important things that matter to me. Generous, knowledgeable and honest, he assisted all those who sought his guidance.

I chewed our astronomy, celestial and terrestrial navigation lessons and poured them when exams came, but I was hungry for more, demurring in that characteristic bout of religiosity when he spoke about his saviour Jesus Christ, and how the Bible is the word of God. In a few sentences, Captain Manuel helped me find God by reminding me about Aunty May’s, my own mother’s adoptive mum’s favourite hymn: What a friend we have in Jesus. For indeed, he carried everything to God in prayer.

To begin the series of My Ramadan Diary, I remember these influential people in my path towards finding God and luxuriate in the awakening they gave to my consciousness about other religions and faiths. Yet of all the faiths in the world, I have come to know, none resonates with me as does Islam.
No doubt about it, I feel exceptionally privileged I was born in the fold of Islam. As are many Gambians. In The Gambia, eighty five per cent or so of the population are Muslims. Yet it is one thing to be born Muslim and another to know and practice Islam.

Premised on five pillars, namely the profession of faith by reciting the Shahadah, praying five daily prayers, giving of alms to the poor and needy, fasting during the month of Ramadan and performing pilgrimage to the Holy city of Mecca at least once in a lifetime if one can afford it; Islam is more than a religion. It is a complete way of life that guides Muslims in every aspect of their lives.

In Ramadan, more than any other month, adherents of the faith do their utmost to follow the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him). Excess therefore is the mantra for worship and doing good. But should this be the case?
In effect, to date Islam is the religion of peace that is the most misunderstood, maligned and misrepresented religion on this earth. In fact, in certain parts of the world, proclaiming to be a Muslim means exposing yourself to an endless butt of crude wit. I have experienced it. I would however defer from going into details, for the purpose of this write-up is not divide but rather to unite our different faiths and bring us together under the umbrella of our shared humanity.

As cheap propaganda by so-called Islamist jihadists flood the airwaves every passing day spreading hate, the reality that religion is merely a matter of conviction is increasingly being challenged. Yet no religion features God, as Islam does. The perpetual ‘need to know’, which forms the core of our existence as human beings chimes with the sonorous, unequaled voice of reason, of knowledge and of truth, that is the Holy Qur’an. This is the book which began with the word, “Read” and continues to marvel, amaze and inspire mankind, by its unmatched veracity.

This holy book, which is unrivaled in its rhyme, rhythm and content, is the religion’s largest bequest to humanity. Since I am not an Islamic scholar, I will acknowledge my limitations and rescind from delving into knowledgeable arguments I am not au fait with. These frank admissions aside, I refer any jihadist to the 109th Surah of the Qur’an, Al-Kaafiruun, which not unsurprisingly among other things ends with the words, ‘…to you be your religion, and to me, be mine,’ thereby affirming the truth that conviction and not compulsion is the foundation of the Islamic faith.

For me, being a Muslim answers to this unending question of ‘who am I?’ ‘what am I?’ and so on and so forth. But above all else, it reminds me that it is by the mercy of God, Allah, I am favoured to be human. For indeed, He who made the trees, the birds, the firmament above, and so forth, could have equally made me to be anything else but human. Equally, I acknowledge that it is He who has favoured me with the ability to write since I was barely ten years old…

Finding God in nature, in humanity and everything there is, fortifies my belief in Islam. Adversities, trials and tribulations teach me perseverance for I know that He that allowed it, will remove it. For this reason among others, Islam teaches me not to precipitate things. Islam teaches me to be complete, removing the cyclones of desperation to calm the seasons of my questioning soul.
I herein profess that, across the seasons that herald the changing times, I believe. I believe. I believe

Happy Ramadan to y’all!

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