Diary: Eid al-Fitr–30 Ramadan 1441 AH- 23 May 2020 -South Bend, Indiana, USA
Wishing you a contemplative ʿĪd Mubārak/Eid Mubarak, a blessed opportunity to celebrate the conclusion to the month of prayer, fasting and sexual abstinence during daylight hours. But I am in no joyous mood for celebration but relieved at the satisfactory completion of the ritual with the safety and health, especially of those of my family and friends intact. But there are also people in my group of acquaintances who died of Covid and a cousin survived a severe attack of Covid-19.
Just thinking of Sunday’s planned lunch with a limited number of close family members already causes me discomfort. The ʿĪd greeting in many parts of the Arabic-speaking world goes like this: kulla ʿām wa anta bi khayr كل عام و أنت بخير–people hug each other on this joyous occasion. This year unfortunately, we won’t be able to hug family members who are not in our herd, close friends and acquaintances because of the Coronavirus. You can only hug those in your herd. But in an additional greeting, you pray for the blessing of good health and safety for the year for your fellow human by saying–bis ṣiḥḥa-t was salāma— بالصحة و السلامة. In different cultures and traditions this prayer of well-being is frequently shared. I always found it a beautiful gesture that we wish each other goodness, safety and health: but this year the prayer for the health of others is most poignant and moving.
On this last day of Ramadan 2020 a multitude of thoughts are swirling in my head. Two thoughts are foremost: hunger and insecurity. Hunger is something that many people who observe the fast experience in Ramadan. Graciously, a fasting person ends her fast at the end of the day. But I wonder how many people just could not fast this year because of acute hunger and illness. For millions hunger will continue for the foreseeable future. One desperate image of suffering got to me. Someone shared a link to a website with an image of a man in India on the Jaipur-Shahpur highway eating a dead dog. Revolting as it might be, it was a scene of suffering not satiating: a sign of the desperation of millions. Luckily a good samaritan passing by gave the man food and water. Yet, millions of people around the world are in a state of involuntary hunger because of the devastating impact of the Coronavirus on their livelihood and income.
Insecurity about our collective future preoccupies all of us. Questions such as: what will the new normal be? Will we be able to exchange hugs and embraces the way we did before? Will we be able to travel? Zoom and other virtual forms of communication technologies might prevent us from leaving a carbon footprint, but there is nothing like meeting, socializing and spending quality time with humans in the flesh-yes, their bodies: I mean with their embodied selves face-to-face without a screen and a mask.
Dignity is in the face. The Prophet of Islam (on whom be peace and blessings) taught that the dignity of a human being is in the well-being of one’s entire body, beginning with the face. The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas explained that the face makes each one of us distinct and hence we cannot be reduced to sameness. Our uniqueness begins with our faces. The Qurʾān teaches that we come face-to-face with God. Our relationship with God-to put it differently the identity or nature of God–as explained in the Qurʾān and in Muslim theology is expressed as, the “face of God– وجه الله–wajh-u Allāh-” (Rūm/Byzantium 30:37), “All things perish, but the face of God” (Qaṣaṣ/Story 28:88) which Thomas Cleary translates as the “purpose of God,” but I prefer “face of God” because it signifies God’s person, a scripted promise that our personal encounter with the Divine is an unending one. The face of God signifies, to do something in order to earn the satisfaction and pleasure of God. The intentions of those who earnestly give charity, is captured in the Qurʾan as if they are saying: “We are feeding you solely to earn God’s pleasure” (Insān/Dahr-The Human Being/Time 76:9). Why the face of God? For a believer relishes in living under God’s sign or being directed by God’s commandment. Most significantly for me is that the face is the site of attention. God’s attention on us through the Divine face. Our relationship and attention (tawajjuh) to God is through the face and an encounter with the Divine.
What the rest of the years hold for us is unclear. But let me end on a hopeful note with the eternal face of God shadowing us with divine presence for the rest of our lives. With the Covid-19 virus haunting us all the time, it is comforting to divert our attention from that threat and take refuge in the face of God for light, guidance and grace. In short, the face is about attention: attention to God, to ourselves and our fellow humans. Let me close with an insight, or rather, a sliver of an insight, from the philosopher Iris Murdoch who made the concept of attention the centerpiece of her work. For Murdoch attention is a just and loving vision that is coupled to a greater receptiveness to reality and a sense of reality surrounding us. Nothing made me feel this sense of our changed reality as much as the pandemic and Ramadan brought home to me in 2020.