• Anticipating the first coffee of Eid, and the pleasure and sadness it brings

    This is my weekly newspaper column at The National, in anticipation of Eid this week.

    Eid celebrations will be taking place around the Muslim world this week. It’s a time, rightly or wrongly, of indulgence and pleasure: fine clothes, good food, high-fat, high-carbohydrate sweets. It’s a day when the spiritual focus of the previous 30 days is mostly forgotten, even though Eid is supposed to be a celebration of spiritual renewal, a cleansing of sins and of a fresh start.

    Dear cappuccino, let me count the ways I love you

    I confess that although I aim to uphold this sacred meaning of Eid, I’m not immune to engaging once more in the pursuit of pleasure in the daytime. The first exciting thing about the day of Eid for me is my morning cup of coffee. Its consumption is a celebratory ritual. My husband and I will usually go to our favourite cafe and breathlessly order a cappuccino, excited at its return to us after 30 days of daytime exile.

    The cappuccino – above other kinds of coffee – offers us the opportunity for a beautifully decorated reintroduction to the flavourful morning shot of caffeine. The froth is elegantly smoothed over, like the icing on a birthday cake, and freshly ground cocoa is sprinkled on it in the shape of a pretty heart or coffee bean.

    We normally stare at the coffee, then at each other, then back at the coffee. After a month of absence, our hearts have grown fonder, and we are enraptured by the return of the beloved. Lifting the coffee cup to my lips after a month of daytime separation, I experience the reunion of lost lovers.

    Even now as I write this in anticipation of Eid morning, I feel mixed emotions about my longing for that first sip of coffee. The shiver of delight as the first warm drops slide down my throat. The disappointment in myself that, having given up coffee for a month, I should so easily return to my (mild) addiction. The sadness at the loss of Ramadan’s intense spirituality.

    What my cappuccino also reminds me of is the distinction that each human being faces between the pursuit of contentment and the pursuit of pleasure. These are clearly different things, although at times we may confuse them. Pleasures need not be shameful or sinful. My coffee is neither, and gives me intense pleasure, and pleasure is rightly a part of the human experience. But as the coffee warms my mouth, I can’t help but recall the preceding month of Ramadan where it was the pursuit of contentment that was paramount.

    Contentment is a funny beast. Talking of its pursuit is perverse – you cannot chase it, rather it must come to you. Sometimes you don’t know you were contented till the moment has passed. That is the essence of Ramadan. The emptiness of the belly, the lightheadedness of the body, when first experienced, feel like physical torture. But slowly – and often in hindsight – we learn to identify that the absence of pleasure has created a space and a stillness that allows contentment to settle, despite its elusiveness.

    Rumi says: “There is an unseen sweetness in the stomach’s emptiness. We are lutes. When the soundbox is filled, no music can come forth. When the brain and the belly burn from fasting, every moment a new song rises out of the fire.”

    Eid is a day of transition where we learn to reintroduce the pursuit of pleasure into our daylight hours. Will I still be able to hold on to the slippery creature that is contentment? I’ll let you know after I’ve enjoyed my first cup of coffee.

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  • Eid, a time for self-improvement and spiritual renewal

    This article was published in The Times yesterday. Although I celebrated Eid on Friday, some Muslims will have done so on Thursday or today, Saturday. I think of it as a super-sized 3 day celebration.

    Today, millions of Muslims around the world will be rejoicing in the celebration of Eid al-Fitr, which comes after the month of Ramadan. For the past 30 days, Muslims have been fasting from sunrise to sunset, abstaining from food, drink, and all other physical intake, including smoking and sex.

    So it should come as no surprise that the day which immediately follows the end of Ramadan is one of great joy and festivity. There is a simple but intense pleasure in the first breakfast, the fragrance of the first morning cup of coffee after a month of abstention, the sheer delight of taste, texture and liquid on the tongue, the feeling of a filled belly during daylight hours. It is understandably human to delight in these pleasures after the immense control that has been exercised for 30 days.

    The pleasure is intertwined with sadness. Ramadan has past. Gone for another year is a special month that combines an intensity of divine connection with a passionate communal spirit. Hundreds or even thousands of people will have gathered each evening to break their fasts together, to pray together, or simply enjoy a rich and supportive sense of togetherness which we in modern times in particular have lost.

    For 30 days, the pull of the worldly, the carnal and even the mundane was severed, and the lightening of the consumerist load has created a sense of liberation. In this paradigm of Ramadan and the Eid that follows it, it should be noted that Eid is not the last day of the sacred month, but the first day of life after it.

    At first glance Eid is a celebration because of the return to normality and the simple pleasures that have been denied. However, its true worth and festivity is rooted in the fact that those who have risen to the spiritual challenge of Ramadan — to become better people, better connected to the divine — begin their lives cleansed and anew. It might sound paradoxical to one who has not experienced fasting during Ramadan, but although the body feels tired by the end, the spirit feels renewed and invigorated. Islamic tradition indicates that the one who has successfully fasted begins a new and purified life on Eid.

    That is why Eid is marked with the morning prayer, and the mandatory giving of charity, known as ‘zakat ul fitr’. This year, the thoughts of many Muslims will turn to the victims of the floods in Pakistan, no doubt. I suppose “begin as you mean to go on” is an apt description of these rituals.

    In fact, this idea of self-improvement is embedded in the ethos of Eid. Although Eid al-Fitr is one of the two officially marked festival days in the Islamic calendar — the other being the Eid of Hajj — the notion of Eid as a day of celebration has a wider meaning. The Prophet Muhammad talks of Eid as any day on which a human being has been a better person than the day before.

    This year, Eid al-Fitr falls close to Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, as well as during the season of “back to school”. All of them celebrate rebirth, renewal and new beginnings. Despite school terms being something of the misty past for me, September still brings a sense of excitement and trepidation of what the future holds. Eid al-Fitr ushers in a similar feeling of anticipation, delight and hope.

    The chance to start again, brand new, with no physical or spiritual burdens, now that is the real celebration of Eid.

    To all readers, Muslim, Jewish, back-to-schoolers or otherwise, joy and blessings to you, or as Muslims will say over the next few days: Eid Mubarak.

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  • Make Eid, Not War

    Ramadan is a celebration of togetherness and tolerance, so let’s break out the Eid sweets and put away the bitterness for good

    The best Eids are those you experience as a child. You are elated with tingles of excitement which send shivers of pleasure and anticipation through you. That inner excitement as Eid approaches never disappears because in its essence Eid is a very simple matter. You have fasted all month, suffered headaches and growling stomachs, re-arranged the routine of daily life, read more Qur’an than in the whole year most probably, tried your best to be nice to friends and family, and reflected on your own life and where it is going. You have been working hard, physically and spiritually and so the joy of Eid is simple because it is a celebration of an achievement that looks daunting and unachievable. The joy is pure because the task was undertaken in order to get closer to the Divine. Eid is exciting because it celebrates renewal, refreshment and rejuvenation.

    The physical and spiritual stretch has been enormous and as the month draws to its finale, you feel both exhausted and elated. It is the triumph of the achievement of spirit over body that makes Eid such an amazing event. As a community we experience more togetherness and unity than at any other time during Ramadan: we’ve all been in it together. Suddenly there is an explosion of love and trust. Until night before Eid. And then our spiritual and community synchronicity fizzles away under the weight of disagreement about the moonsighting.

    After a month of tolerance and understanding our togetherness vanishes oh-so-suddenly. Is it sapped by the multitude of phone calls round the world to establish if a sliver of crescent has been spotted? Is it the plethora of text messages that ratchet up our bills to the mobile network companies? Is it the uncertainty of whether to cook Eid breakfast or not?

    Ramadan is about unity of spirit. We reject the physical so we can concentrate on our connections as souls. As with hajj, when we fast, the outer is irrelevant. Each human being we come across who is in this state of worship is a beautiful thing for us to appreciate. Ramadan is the epitome of love, peace and goodwill to humanity. We know that “Allah cannot be contained anywhere in the universe except in the heart of the believer”, and “there are as many ways to know Allah as there are human beings”. Yet we insist on squabbling over our differences whether they be about Eid, the specifics of how to pray or do wudhu, what time the fast breaks, or how long or short out trousers, beards or headscarves should be.

    We then approach the final days when Eid is almost upon us, and as soon as we see the exit gates back into the dunya, the spirit of unity that we worked so hard to cultivate is lost. Worse still, we we take pleasure in returning to the intolerant bickering like an ex-smoker returning to his beloved cigarettes. Was the peace, harmony and unity of Ramadan so transient and painful that we longed to return to the disagreements and divisive behaviours that we experience all year round?

    If so, then it reveals more about us as a Muslim community than we might like to admit. If we had truly learnt to be as happy for our brothers and sisters as we are for ourselves, and if we had internalised the notion that we must celebrate difference, then we would not fall out over Eid the very second – and yes, it is the very single second – that Ramadan ends.

    If others are celebrating Eid before us, we should be joyful for them. They have reached their triumphant end. But we too have joy, for we are blessed enough to have an additional day of Ramadan. Who would wish to pass up even a single minute of this month? If we are celebrating Eid before others, then what better blessing than to prepare the way for those who are still to come and join us to start our fresh journey into the year? It’s Eid, let’s relax and chill out. We managed to keep it together under the physical duress of Ramadan, let’s not lose it over deciding which day is Eid, and then return to the mire of un-ending disputes the year-round. The Prophet says that any day that is better than the previous one is a day of Eid for the believer, so why not make it Eid every day?

    On a more practical note, if we celebrate all of our Eids together, then we can have up to three days of festivities, joy and of course highly delicious and calorific sweets. Instead of being stingy and tightening our belts towards Eid, let us be joyful, generous and above all happy enough spend a trio of exuberant days celebrating not only the completion of Ramadan, but also the immense achievement of learning to accept, support and celebrate our differences.

    This article was published in The Muslim News

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  • We wish you a merry Christmas, We wish you an Eid Mubarak… Christmas carols like never before

    With the Muslim festival of Eid celebrating the hajj last week, and the celebration of Christmas this week, I couldn’t help myself but to indulge everyone in a little festive humour.

    I have taken some beloved Christmas songs, and re-written the lyrics with a twist, and then had the carols performed by traditional carol singers. The result is an acoustic treat.

    Enjoy the songs, and the festive season. And if you love them as much as I do, leave your comments and encouragement. Please make sure you credit Spirit21 correctly.

    There are two songs, which have been recorded with a live audience:

    We wish you an Eid Mubarak
    A timeless classic, with a bit of modern day multiculturalism

    I’m dreaming of a moonsighting –
    The new moon tells us when Eid is, but when is the new moon?
    (c) All rights reserved

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