Colombo Telegraph

Ostentatious Iftars & Obnoxious Poverty: Changing Religious Topography Of Sri Lankan Muslims

By Ameer Ali

Dr. Ameer Ali

Islam, like Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism advocates simplicity in life and abhors ostentation and arrogant display of personal wealth. Among Islam’s celebrated five pillars namely, the confession of faith, daily prayers, fasting, obligatory charity and pilgrimage to Mecca, fasting from pre-dawn to dusk for thirty days during the month of Ramadhan represents material sacrifice for the sake of the Divine. By avoiding food, drink and physical and sensual pleasures during the day while performing extra prayers at night a devout Muslim approaches the Creator and pleads for forgiveness of his/her sins. The month of Ramadhan also carries extra significance to Muslims because it is believed that the first revelation of the Holy Quran to Prophet Muhammad occurred during one of the nights in that month. Finally, it is also a month when the poorer sections of the community expects to receive by way of charity any financial or material help from the more affluent so that poverty does not become an obstacle for some to participate in the festivities of the month.

After fasting the whole day a Muslim traditionally breaks the fast (iftar) by consuming one or two date fruits and a cup of cool or hot drink, even though it is not obligated that one should break the fast with dates. At the end of the month is the Eid or festival which starts with morning prayers and proceeds with modest enjoyment. Specially prepared food shared with members of one’s family and friends is an essential part of this festivity. Wearing a new piece of dress is also recommended.

In all this however, simplicity and modesty is the recommended norm of Islamic behaviour. It is said that in fulfilling religious obligations the right hand should not know what the left does. What is happening in Muslim societies today and particularly in Sri Lanka is the opposite. Iftar has turned out to be a public exhibition to display the power of politicians and opulence of the rich. Iftars are held in Five Star Hotels with maximum publicity where the nouveau rich hobnobs with the politically powerful to make mutually beneficial deals, while the poor and the down-trodden are condemned to break their fast either in the corner mosque or in their own hovels. Breaking fast with humble dates and rice porridge in one’s home or mosque has become an occasion for haute cuisine amidst great publicity. A religious occasion has become an emblem of economic and social cleavage.

The same phenomenon is observable in the practice of obligatory charity or zakath. What one sees here is not the wealthy going in search of the poor to distribute in secret their surplus as recommended by tradition but an army of poverty-stricken men, women and children roaming the streets and openly knocking at the doors of the rich to beg for a few rupees or cents. It is an obscene scene which the religious leaders in Islam are avoiding to tackle. In plural societies like Sri Lanka where believers of other religions and non-believers are watching the behaviour of Muslims this religious pomposity earns a negative image for Islam. The religious topography of Islam that historically exhibited modesty and simplicity, and which earned the respect of many has been radically transformed into an exhibit of haughtiness and obscene opulence which is attracting the hatred of several.

Why did this transformation take place especially during the last few decades? The ruling political and economic environment in most part of the Muslim world including Sri Lanka has an obvious link that cannot be ignored. The ruling economic paradigm of open markets and untrammelled competition has created an enormous economic disparity. For the first time world public opinion is talking about the one versus ninety-nine per cent. Muslim societies are part of this equation. The discontent against this paradigm is on the increase and the Brexit verdict is the latest expression of this discontentment. Islam’s original message is to halt this disparity, but that message has been corrupted by the haute bourgeoisie, the children and vanguard of this paradigm. Ostentatious iftars at Five Star hotels are symbols of this haughtiness.

Religious leaders should try to stop this obnoxious iftar displays and religious pomposity. They should bring back the simplicity embedded in Islam’s religious obligations.

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