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Observing Ramadan in Christian Manila

I am a Muslim who has lived the most part of his life in a Christian environment. Far from dreaming to be canonized as the next Mahdi (redeemer), I have tried my human best to observe the tenets and proscriptions of the Holy Koran, including its arcane rituals and prayers. And this tenacity to practice my religion in a Christian setting has caused me untold inconveniences. I am not complaining, but it is a tribulation hardly known to many non-Muslims.

The fasting month of Ramadan has begun. The first and last days of fasting (The feast of Eidel Fitre) are most-awaited and well-celebrated days, much like Christmas Eve when family members gather together to share a meal and stories. But the exact start of Ramadan is a source of controversy that divides the Muslim world and remains unresolved to this day. The Holy Koran says we should begin fasting upon the sighting of the new moon, with two witnesses testifying to it. But which moon should be sighted? The one in Marawi or in Manila? What if the new moon cannot be seen because of inclement weather? What about the time difference between Saudi Arabia and Marawi when the moon rises? Even the declaration by the National Commission for Filipino Muslims, a government agency, does not resolve the conundrum.

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During Ramadan, we are forbidden from taking food and drink in any form and engaging in sex and worldly desires from sunrise to sunset. (Ramadan during long and humid days gets to be tormenting to the frail.) Except for the feeble and sick, those on travel and women in their menstrual period, all are enjoined to practice “I’tikaaf” (seclusion) to repent, meditate and devote time for “Zikrullah” (remembrance of Almighty Allah) and struggle to free themselves of hate, bias, bigotry, contempt, etc. The lesson, we are told, is for all Muslims regardless of station in life, whether one is the king of Saudi Arabia or a DVD vendor in Greenhills, to feel equally the pain of hunger and abstinence that will make them spiritually strong. (Doctors’ testimonies also attest to the health benefits of fasting.)

In my place in Marawi it is easy to observe Ramadan because food stalls are closed during the day. But in Manila, where restaurants, ambulant vendors, and street food stalls abound, and where people are constantly seen eating and drinking, the temptation to also do so becomes almost unbearable. And while one may survive the day in Manila and want to break the fast at sunset in a restaurant, one is still fearful that the food served may have been surreptitiously sprinkled with pork ingredients or are not  halal, meaning not prepared in accordance with Islamic rituals.

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In Marawi you don’t see women flaunting their curves or exposing sensitive body parts that may arouse carnal desire in men, which is taboo during Ramadan. They wrap their bodies and their hair with bandana-like  kombong, and some even wear the  chador  or  burka  of the extremist Afghan women in which even the eyes are covered with a thin cloth. But in Manila you see beautiful women parading in provocative outfits that can enchant and tempt even the most docile of men.

While we are obliged to pray five times a day (dawn, noon, afternoon, sunset and nighttime) during Ramadan, we have to perform at night the  taraweh  and  tahajud, a special, though nonobligatory, set of prayers. The ritual is so long and backbreaking that less healthy devotees sometimes suffer episodes of dizziness while performing it.

One cannot say these prayers without following the necessary ritual of ablution. It can get messy if one is in Manila and outside of one’s house because one has to remove one’s shoes to wash one’s feet, roll up the sleeves of one’s barong to wash the arm up to the elbow, etc. Women have to wash their face and therefore remove their mascara. If one has to go to the toilet, one has to wash with water afterward because tissue paper is not acceptable.

And the  azan  (call to prayer) by the muezzin in the mosque, blared out through a microphone at 4 a.m. will surely annoy one’s Christian neighbors.

A friendly piece of advice to those planning to shop during Ramadan in Quiapo or Greenhills, where Muslims sell their wares: Be patient with those who may look gloomy and irritable. Why? They are sure to be hungry.

We Filipino Muslims claim that we are “more Muslim” than others. When I was pursuing my doctoral studies at New York University and observing Ramadan, I noticed my Middle Eastern classmates sipping the coffee that they had brought inside the classroom. And there I was, agonizing over New York’s chilly temperature and the pangs of hunger and thirst. I was so naive to think that because the Arab missionary, Sheik Makdum, and Muslim traders were the ones who planted the seed of Islam in our shores, I could look upon my Arab colleagues as role models.

But I have to observe Ramadan even in Manila because this is where my bread and butter is. I just have to endure the ordeal. After all, I have set my eyes on  Jannah  (Paradise).

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Macabangkit B. Lanto is a lawyer and a former assemblyman and Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Autonomous Region 12. He is also a former congressman, ambassador, tourism undersecretary, and justice undersecretary.

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TAGS: Christian, column, Islam, macabangkit b. lanto, Ramadan
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