I wrote this just a couple of weeks before the October 8th earthquake, as it was to be included in the Ramadhan issue of Muslim Link. I was fortunate to get in touch with one sister from New Orleans to provide an Islamic perspective to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, and referred to Baghdad Burning for the Iraqi perspective on Ramadhan. As I wrote this over a month ago, it might appear slightly outdated with emphasis put on Hurricane Katrina and not on the greater tragedies that have occurred since then, but this blog is called Irrelevant Opinions, so I suppose that's okay. The themes I touched upon for this article are better illustrated by the efforts of the Pakistani relief workers and the resilience of the victims, but here's my essay anyway (slightly edited from the published version.)
At first, it seemed like nothing. Ramadhan 1418 had just begun, and with it, the January temperature was unseasonably warm in Montreal. The winter break was coming to an end, so the students began preparing for school while others prepared themselves for returning to their various responsibilities. It was wonderful to begin the holy month of Ramadhan during the holiday season, since families could be together and share in the blessings that only that month could bring. The end of the holidays meant that most of the Ramadhan days would have to be spent in offices or classrooms, and perhaps the spirit of Ramadhan would be lost amid the hectic schedules.
No one expected the mild weather to cause as much havoc as it did. The rain came down innocently atop the trees and houses, but congregated there as ice; indeed, there were few sights more beautiful than those trees which appeared to be encased in glass, shining under the moonlight. Before long, branches of every tree became crystallized in a thick layer of frozen rainwater. Roofs of houses and cars collapsed under the weight of the ice, with the raindrops accumulating to become several inches thick. Trees that stood for hundreds of years succumbed to the ice, and came crashing down to the ground. And as trees all around the city fell victim to the drops of water, they took down large sections of the electrical infrastructure connecting the city. As each power line came down under the weight of nearby trees, another neighbourhood would fall into darkness.
Nearly the entire city was without power, and then a deep freeze fell upon the dimmed city. Temperatures dropped to twenty degrees below zero, and for the hundreds of thousands of residents accustomed to electrical heating, it became nearly impossible to live at home.
For Muslims, that Ramadhan quickly became unforgettable. Already accustomed to going without food and water for entire days, the experience became even more meaningful when other basic necessities were unavailable. Without light, heat, and electricity, families were forced to go about without the lavish meals and elaborate gatherings that generally accompany the breaking of the fast. In everything, simplicity and efficiency were the order of the day, and some of the deeper meanings of Ramadhan became apparent.
We prayed Tarawih prayer by candle light. Every worshipper stood listening to the words of the Quran wrapped in heavy ski jackets, multiple pairs of gloves and socks, toques, and even snowpants. Inside the prayer hall, temperatures were well below zero degrees, but somehow the beauty of the Quran transcended the extreme conditions, and the masjid remained full in spite of the extreme cold and darkness.
In the trying conditions, families came together, sharing whatever provisions they had. With schools and offices closed, it was perhaps the first time that entire families were able to break their fasts together. In the desperate circumstances, the beauty of Ramadhan was experienced fully.
In Ramadhan 1425, in the city of Baghdad, the circumstances were far worse. There was no end in sight to a war that had claimed the lives of thousands of Iraqis. Widespread chaos reigned throughout the country, and there no reason to believe that things would improve anytime soon.
One sister took her family to visit an aunt who had been stricken with depression due to the continuing occupation. At the time, the city of Fallujah was under heavy attack by occupation forces, thus many Fallujah residents fled to Baghdad. It was then that the sister met some relatives among the refugees. She had never met them before, but the war had brought them together in the home of her aunt. They broke their fast together solemnly, discussing the desperate situation. Among the refugees was a mother and some of her children; the father and one son did not make the trip. They stayed back in Fallujah to assist others in escaping the war-torn city, and had not been heard from in days.
It was Ramadhan, however, and the family from Fallujah vowed to remain patient. Abstaining from food and water was the least of their struggles; living under an occupation, with their family divided and without the means to communicate with them were much greater struggles than the traditional hardships associated with fasting. The families ate together and they cried together, while Muslims around the world prayed that their hardships come to an end.
For thousands of Muslims, this will be the first Ramadhan after being afflicted with the most devastating natural disaster in recent history. Countless Muslims died during the Tsunami crisis at the end of 2004, and over a million lost their homes and belongings. Many will never be able to rebuild their lives. For those who had lost homes and families, the hardships of Ramadhan would be insignificant in comparison. However, the qualities of patience, restraint and steadfastness that Ramadhan teaches are that much more important to those who have undergone such hardships. And in the midst of such overwhelming catastrophe, the most dedicated believers will always find courage in their losses and find strength in their weakness.
Today, the focus falls upon the southern United States, in the midst of the most destructive natural disaster in the nations history. Thousands of residents have been forced to evacuate their cities, and thousands more have lost homes and loved ones. In a nation known for its economic and military power and in a city known for its hedonism, the lessons to be learned are multiplied. Accustomed to its apparent invincibility, the devastation caused by the hurricanes will forever leave a stain on the nations pride.
For the sizable Muslim population living in New Orleans, the catastrophe and the consequent relief efforts have made the coming Ramadhan that much more meaningful. One sister, Kelly Izdihar Crosby of New Orleans, found renewed faith through her ordeal, summing up her feelings as follows.
“After facing the wrath of Hurricane Katrina and the ultimate failure of the relief efforts, I feel incredibly blessed that I am alive, happy and healthy. My faith in Allah Ta'ala has been strengthened, and since we had escaped from New Orleans to Atlanta, we have witnessed the sweetness and generousity of those who are sympathetic to our situation. I have seen an outpouring of generousity and sadaqa which reminds me of why Ramadan is so important.
“This year, when you fast, think about the people stranded behind in New Orleans, who were too poor to evacuate, and had nothing to eat for days. Praise Allah Ta'ala that you will probably break your fast with your loved ones, while many do not know where their next meal is coming. And give with a happy heart, as much as you can, for the pleasure of Allah. Allah will return it to you and reward you for your charity. Loan to Allah a beautiful loan. Thank Allah in your prayers this Ramadhan that you are in a clean home, in a dry land, with people who love you and all your possessions at your disposal. I am sad for my city, but thankful that we are safe in Allah's care.”
And we all must be thankful. We must always remind one another of the blessings bestowed upon us by Allah, lest the reminder come crashing down upon us again.
(Irrelevant Note: It would have really been nice if digital cameras were common back during the Ice Storm, because it was so incredibly beautiful and I'd have ice storm pics all over my desktop.)