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Chapter 3

A Total Way of Being: 

Islam in Afghan History, Life and Culture


By Dr Magsie Hamilton Little


The origins of Islam in the region we now know as Afghanistan date back as far as the 7th century, when in ad 652 Abdullah Ibn Amir, then governor of Basra, ordered an advance under the leadership of his general, Abd-ul Rahman. Embarking from what is today north-eastern Iran, the invading Ummayad Muslim armies of Arabia subsequently marched towards Herat in the west, and from there, northwards towards Nishapur. Progress was swift.

As they went, the conquering Arabs converted the local inhabitants to their new religion, encouraging attendance at Muslim prayer gatherings, preaching the message of Muhammad, and levying taxes against those who chose not to convert. By the reign of Al Mu’tasim (842–84), it is written that Islam had become the preferred faith of most people in the western and northern parts of what we now call Afghanistan, although it was not until the reign of Ya’qub-i Laith Saffari (840–79) that Islam became firmly established in Kabul and the surrounding region.

Only in the north-east territories did the pagan inhabitants doggedly refuse to accept the new religion, drinking wine and dancing, worshipping idols and insisting on their belief in one God, Imra. Instantly they become known as the kafirs, or infidels, and their land hitherto known as Kafiristan. They were to remain autonomous until as late as 1895, when the province finally became known as Nuristan, its inhabitants only then compelled to accept the “one true faith” of Islam at the command of the Emir of Afghanistan, Abdul Rahman.

Elsewhere in the region, Islam became absorbed over time into the hearts and minds of the majority, whatever their ethnic background – informed and moulded by ancient tribal customs that had existed for millennia, by the harsh environment of the region and by the legacies of a raft of foreign invaders – from Persians, Romans and Greeks, to Buddhists, Moghuls and Huns. The first complete translation of the Qur’an from Arabic into Persian appeared in the 9th century, and from then on the momentum of Islam became unstoppable.

Not only mainstream Islam garnered support. Sufi holy men and scholars impressed the locals with their own mystical interpretation of the faith and example of piety. Orders such as the Naqshbandiya, the Chisti and the Qadirya were established, and still exist today. As the Islamic Empire expanded further under the great Ghaznavid and Ghurid dynasties of the 11th and 12th centuries, its influence dominated not just the religious life of the area, but every aspect of society, from the arts to science and culture.

The new faith flourished, all the while allying itself with the governing code in society, pashtunwali, the code of honour held by the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan – the Pashtun. Pashtunwali predated Islam. Then, as now, pashtunwali was so essential to the identity of a Pashtun that there was no difference between practicing its concepts and being Pashtun.

Pashtunwali was governed by key concepts of chivalry or courage (ghayrat or nang) hospitality (melmastia), gender boundaries (purdah or namus) and council (jirga), the main legislative body, presided over by the men folk. By adhering to its rules, a Pashtun possessed honour, or izzat, which was so fundamental that without it people renounced their status as Pashtuns, and were cast out from the protection of the community.

The core values of pashtunwali in the eyes of the Pashtun were soon affiliated to those of Islam, through the most ancient of links. Pashtun legend held that a Pashtun who went by the name of Qais Abdur Rashid had once travelled to Mecca, and had converted to Islam under the direct instruction of the Prophet Muhammad. Henceforth, all Pashtuns regarded the Muslim and Pashtun codes of living as one and the same. Although tribal variances remained among Pashtuns, belonging to the umma, or Muslim brotherhood, was equivalent to belonging to a clan. Still today, being Pashtun and being Muslim are synonymous in the hearts and minds of all Pashtuns.

In the 21st century Islam provides a common denominator for all Afghans in the country’s fragmented modern society, whether Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek, Turkmen, Baluchi or Nuristani. For all Afghans, whether Sunni or Shi’ite, Islam is the central, uniting influence. It offsets the divisiveness caused by conflicting tribal and ethnic loyalties. It is estimated that some 99.7 percent of the total Afghan population is Muslim. Of these, 80 to 89 percent practice Sunni Islam.

A much smaller number, 10 to 19 percent, are Shi’ite, mostly belonging to the Hazara tribe, who follow the Twelvers branch of Shi’ite Islam. There are also Shi’ites living in the Kayan valley of Baghlan, and the remote valleys of Badakhshan, although they are from another branch of Shi’ite Islam known as the Seveners.

Islam became the dominant religion in Afghanistan many centuries ago, but shari’a, the Islamic religious law, was only formally introduced into the state system of the country relatively recently. Since the earliest times, all aspects of state and justice were based on the pashtunwali. When Ahmad Shah Durrani first established an independent state of Afghanistan in the year 1747, only a few shari’a courts had previously existed in the cities and towns.

Durrani did not claim legitimacy for his leadership through Islam, but through his tribal genealogical heritage, as well as having the nomination and guarantee of Sabir Shah, a Sufi leader. Although all Pashtuns were Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi school, it was the Pashtun tribal code that governed them first, their second allegiance being to the shari’a, according to Hanafi. Hence, pashtunwali rather than Islam became the driving force behind the early Afghan state.

It was not until Emir Abdur Rahman (1880–1901) came to power in the 19th century that the religion of Islam was used to establish a centralised state. Only then did the law of Islam officially take precedence over the Pashtun tribal code. Islamic legal scholars were recruited into bureaucratic and religious roles, and institutions absorbed into state affairs.

In rural areas, however, governance remained the domain of tribal elders. Layers of authority that had existed in Afghan society for centuries continued to function as they had always done, within community networks that differed slightly from region to region, and according to social class and group. Communal leaders reached a decision that drew from tribal law, Islamic law, and was in the best interests of the community; but first and foremost an order was maintained that accorded with the tribal values of honour, hospitality and gender boundaries.

Under Rahman’s successors, religious leaders exerted a mainly moral influence in state affairs, intervening in politics solely in times of crisis, such as in the uprising against Amanullah Shah in the early 20th century during protests against reform that were considered to be against the tenets of Islam. Successive leaders stressed the compatibility of Islam with modernisation; although in Afghan society little if any distinction was drawn between religion and matters of state, scholars maintain that the position of religion in government gradually diminished. It was as recently as 1977 that, in the state constitution, Islam was officially declared the religion of Afghanistan.

Today the ancient tribal code of the Pashtun still finds a religious identity in Islam; but it is not the country’s tribal heritage that the West immediately associates with Islam in Afghanistan. In the eyes of the world, modern Afghanistan is directly linked to an extreme brand of politicised Islam that has given rise to violence and bloodshed in the name of the faith. Radical political Islam is, however, a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of Afghanistan. In 1958 an Islamist movement was born at Kabul University, influenced by the political ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood founded in Egypt in the 1930s, and politicised Islam took off.

This politicisation grew, becoming further established in Afghanistan throughout the 1960s and 1970s. A key factor in its spread was the Soviet invasion of 1979, when the common religion of Islam helped to unite all opponents of the Communist invaders, whatever their tribe or ethnicity, in the form of the mujahedin – military, political and religious defenders

of the state, who interpreted the Islamic concept of Jihad as a purely military struggle, and launched a holy war in the name of the faith to defend their people and their country and to drive out the invading foreign forces.

When the mujahedin-based government failed in 1994, a group calling themselves the Taliban promised a return to the pure values of Islam. They vowed to rid the country of tribal warlords, and restore a system of order to Afghanistan based on their strict interpretation of Islamic law. Based in Kandahar, most Taliban were Pashtun Muslims from the rural areas. Many had been educated in the madrassas (religious schools) of Pakistan, especially those run by the Jamiat-e Ulema-e Islam Pakistan. In September 1996 they captured Kabul, from which they ruled unchallenged, enforcing an extreme interpretation of Islam’s crime-and-punishment

system.

During the period that followed, bans were enforced on all types of gambling from cockfights to kite flying, as well as on music and videos. Women were to remain unseen, under the burka and in purdah in their homes, denied education and work. Public executions became a regular occurrence at Kabul’s Ghazni stadium, as they were throughout the country. People were stoned for adultery, shot for murder and had limbs amputated for theft.

The Taliban no longer control central government, but they continue to have a firm stronghold in many rural areas of the country where support for their extreme interpretation of Islam and their severe system of punishment continues. Elsewhere, in non-Taliban-controlled areas, Islamic justice prevails.

Many Afghans regard Taliban justice as being contrary to that of the Prophet Muhammad and the spirit of the Qur’an, but generally Afghans defending the Islamic system of justice in their country argue that non-Muslims will condemn it without having understood life in the society that it governs. They say that the difference between the systems of punishment in East and West is one of evolution and culture, and that Islamic justice is not an example of an inherent brutality. The common law seen in the West not only fails to ensure that God’s will is respected, but it also leaves people vulnerable in this world. They maintain that shari’a law provides a proper, structured and fair system, before any extreme verdict is given.

Shari’a urges caution and avoidance of such sentences wherever possible, and the Qur’an advocates that they should be issued as a last resort. Ultimately, the Qur’an states, “the reward for an injury is an equal injury back; but if someone forgives instead and is reconciled, that will earn reward from Allah.”

Just as extreme Islam has exerted its influence over Afghanistan’s crime-and-punishment system, so too has the interpretation of the key Islamic concept of Jihad. In the light of recent political and military conflict, Jihad has become so fundamental to Afghan radicals that they have named it the sixth pillar of Islam. Groups led by those such as Mohammad Omar, Jalaluddin Haqqani, the Hezb-e Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Lashkar-e Taiba translate the term “Jihad” as holy war, although in the Qur’an no such term translates thus. The phrase used is “Jihad fi sabil Allah”, literally meaning, “struggle in the way of Allah”.

Extremist Muslims, such as those teaching at radical Deobandi schools of Islam in the Pashtun areas of the North-West Frontier and Baluchistan, where many Afghan extremists were trained, regard Jihad solely in terms of a military struggle against unbelievers. In this way they justify the insurgency in Afghanistan against both foreign troops and Shi’ite Muslims,

whom they regard as non-believers. They also draw on the principle to attack Sunni Muslims who agree with the government leaders in Kabul who are cooperating with coalition forces. In fact, most Muslims define Jihad as the struggle of humanity to master its baser instincts.

Despite the difficulties caused by an extremist interpretation of the faith, in Afghanistan today Islam remains not just a religion but a way of life for both Sunni and Shi’ite. Religion permeates everything – it guides the way a person acts towards others, influences their deepest values and determines their daily rituals. At the heart of this is the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam.

The Qur’an, as originally received by the Prophet Muhammad in his revelations, is the divine text whose power and influence is so immense that it has affected not only society but language itself. It is a metaphysical guide, the authority that determines Islamic law and the fundamentals that determine theological teaching. Its rules and prescriptions provide the pivotal moral compass, and the blueprint for living, for every Muslim. Although 80 percent of adults in Afghanistan are illiterate, the holy text is so fundamental to daily life that all aspects of living stem from its teachings. The opening words of the Qur’an, the Fatiha (literally meaning “opening”), are the first that a father will whisper into the ear of his newborn child. From the moment it ushers the newborn Afghan into this world, the holy Qur’an will serve as a guide to the child for the rest of his or her life.

The burnings of the Qur’an that took place in 2012 sparked violent reprisals and protests throughout the country, and such reactions caused consternation in the eyes of many Western non-Muslims. In order to understand why the people reacted the way they did in Afghanistan, it is necessary to appreciate the depth of respect that is awarded the Qur’an. No matter how deprived or impoverished an Afghan family, copies of the holy book must always be kept clean and in good condition, and wrapped in a cloth to protect them from dirt.

Nothing may be placed on top of a Qur’an, and it should lie facing Mecca. Before opening it, Muslims should be ritually clean, or should at least have washed their hands. They will often have prepared themselves mentally and spiritually by contemplating Allah. They will normally sit on the floor in front of the Qur’an, which is often placed on a stand known as a kursi. It is considered disrespectful to let the book sit on the floor. If possible it will be kept in a separate room, or in a high place so that nothing in the room is located above it. Even the room containing a copy of the Qur’an will often be treated with reverence – a Muslim will show respect in its presence, refraining from swearing or acting indecently.

The reason for such reverence towards the book itself is simple; because the Qur’an is regarded as the word of God, it is a divine object, and to defile it is to defile God himself. From the teachings of the Qur’an stem the five pillars of Islam, the essential principles of the faith to which all Afghans adhere. The first and most important of these is the assertion of the oneness of God: “There is no God but Allah, and the Prophet Muhammad is his messenger.” This creed of Islam, known as the shahada, which means “I bear witness”, is derived from the Arabic for “testimony” or “evidence”. It acknowledges God’s oneness and that Muhammad is his messenger. It states that there is no God other than Allah, and is so important that it is inscribed on talismans that many Afghans carry on journeys to protect them from the hazards of the trip. The verse is also frequently inscribed on tombstones, so that the dead may have support and protection on their final journey to the afterlife.

Worship for all Afghan Muslims is all-embracing. It is more than simply attending prayers once a week. Ibadah, as it is commonly known,  is derived from the Arabic abad, literally meaning “servant”, a word that sums up the way in which honouring and communicating with God is a constant state that involves all aspects of a Muslim’s life.

Worshipping God is a concept often referred to by Muslims in terms of its different component parts – ihsan, iman, amal and jihad. Ihsan, meaning “realisation”, relates to a conscious awareness of the divine presence, in conjunction with striving to connect with that being. Iman, or “faith” is a Muslim’s trust in him. Amal, “action”, concerns obedience to the five pillars of faith, and focuses on the practicalities of everyday living.

Jihad, a term that has become synonymous with terrorism, in this instance relates to the conquest of sin and imperfections in one’s own nature. It is about mastering everything, from greed or selfishness to smoking. Only through respectful obedience to all five characteristics of

worship can a Muslim truly put his or her faith into practice. For some Westerners this can seem hard to understand. Some people might argue that in the West nowadays it is difficult to find examples of true piety at all. We live in a secular society, in which there is little public worship. Charities are run like businesses, and the cynic can easily find psychological motives for altruism. But for Afghans, piety – if not abnegation – must be a consideration in all their daily life, not just in the act of worship.

A person must make every effort to be in tune with God, and aware of him. This awareness of God, known as ihsan, or taqwa, is at the heart of the Islamic faith. The Prophet Muhammad is said to have defined it as “worshipping God as if you can see Him, as He sees you even though you do not see Him”. This concept of ibadah, “servant”, is not unlike the concept of service to God taught by other world religions. And “Islam”, of course, means “submission to the will of Allah”. Whereas in other faiths, individual prayers, whether spontaneous or repeated, are encouraged, and are probably the rule rather than the exception, in Islam ritual communal prayers are standard – required, in fact. These ritual prayers, and the ceremony that goes with them, are known as salat. Adherence to salat, repeated five times daily, is so central to Islam

in Afghanistan that it is regarded as being synonymous with the Muslim faith. Observance of the custom of prayer serves to remind Muslims of the importance of Allah in their lives. God comes first, and service to God is put above all other concerns. Prayer is not simply an expression of faith, but the means by which personal faith is explored and enriched.

Many Afghans will stop to pray at the five pre-ordained times of the day. Salat can be performed anywhere. It is better to pray in some unsuitable spot than not to pray at all. In the rural areas, farmers will put down their ploughs in the fields they are tilling, shepherds surrounded by their flocks will stop what they are doing. They will perform their ablutions, spread out their prayer mats if they are to hand and begin their prayers.

Just as all Muslims do today, they pray facing towards Mecca, as was taught them by Muhammad 1,400 years ago, when he received an instruction from God telling him to change the direction of prayer from Jerusalem to Mecca. This is known in Arabic as qiblah, which means literally “to turn one’s heart in the direction of God”. Later in Muhammad’s life, when he was based in Medina, he was instructed by Allah to pray towards the Ka’ba, and that it would be cleansed of its idols. 

Men normally opt to pray together at one of the hundreds of mosques throughout the country, but many women pray together at home. Mosques in Afghanistan are known as masjid, a word that simply means “a place of lying down” in Arabic – what in English might be described as a place of prostration, the Muslim prayer position. The building itself is not seen as important. Muhammad’s original mosque was not a grand place of worship, but a humble building at Medina built with palm trunks, where the Prophet Muhammad’s camel came to rest.

The first prayer meeting is early in the morning, before dawn, and is known as fajr; the second at noon (zohr); the third during the afternoon (asr); then at sunset (maghrib); and finally at night (isha). The exact time varies from country to country. The timings, although they reflect the progress of the sun, change according to place and season, and precise timetables are normally provided by the mosque to tell people when prayer times begin and end. In Afghanistan’s urban areas, shops and businesses close daily at these five times for prayers.

People have about 15 minutes notice before the prayers begin. The same adhan or call to prayer echoes across rooftops in Kabul as in Whitechapel, paying homage to the greatness of Allah – unlike, for example, the trumpet calls in a cavalry barracks, the adhan doesn’t vary according to the time of the day (except the fajr prayer, which contains the additional line: “Prayer is better than sleep”). But the number of times the prayers are repeated may vary, depending on the time of day.

The first adhan is usually followed by a reminder call just before the commencement of proceedings known as the iqamah. Just as Sunday mornings provide an opportunity for worshippers to congregate in a Western church, Friday prayers at midday, known as salat al-Juma, are the focus of the week, as laid down in the Qur’an: “O believers, when proclamation is made for prayer on the Day of Congregation, hasten to God’s remembrance and leave business aside.” On a Friday in Kabul, the pious gather in one of the main mosques for noon salat, rather than attending the smaller neighbourhood mosques used during the rest of the week for their prayers.

The initial stage of prayer, before the act of praying even begins, is known as niyah, which means the “intention to pray” – a mental, spiritual and physical preparation and a declaration of honourable intentions for prayer. The purification or taharah is on all levels, and is a process of cleansing that rids a Muslim of sin and impurity. A man or woman who is impure in body or mind, or who has simply had contact with that which is impure, is in danger of distancing himself or herself from God. If impure, a person is no longer allowed to pray, to recite the Qur’an, to touch the sacred book or even to enter a mosque.

Washing, so as to restore purity, is essential to continuing acceptance by God; and this is especially important in a land where dust and dirt are ubiquitous. It has also played an important part in protecting people’s health and bodies against the diseases that may easily establish themselves and spread in the prevailing climate if there is a lack of hygiene. Restoring purity as soon as possible after contamination by contact with impurities, whether major or minor, is always essential to being in a fit condition to face God.

Islam teaches ways of remaining pure for as long as possible, and of expunging any impurity as soon as someone becomes aware of it. Purifying rituals are designed to remove anything that may pollute, whether the pollutant be physical, psychological or spiritual. The person who seeks purity in every aspect of life is as zealous, even perhaps to the point of obsession, as the proud housewife who strives – but fails – to prevent the dust blowing through the window and settling around the home.

The act of purification is known as wudu or wuzu. Wudu is a complex procedure that does not wash away only dirt. Muslims feel that, when they pray, they have to face God and so their washing ritual has to ensure that the purification cleanses mind as well as body. Muhammad taught specific and detailed rules about the act of cleansing – when washing, you should “wash your hands up to the wrists three times; rinse your mouth with water thrown into your mouth with the right hand; sniff the water into the nostrils and blow it out three times; wash the entire face, including the forehead, three times; wipe the top of the head once with the inner surface of both hands held together; wash your ears with your forefingers and wipe the back of the ears with your thumbs and wipe the back of your neck once; wash the right foot and then the left foot up to the ankles three times; let the water run from your hands up to your elbows three times.”

People are always expected to approach wudu as if it was part of the prayer, and to adopt an appropriately quiet and respectful demeanour. Even as they wash, they will often recite a prayer known as the kalma. When, for whatever reason, wudu is needed before prayers, it can be performed in a courtyard, inside a house or even in the open desert – as may happen during the pilgrimage to Mecca. Upon entering the mosque, believers remove their shoes as a mark of piety and respect, and perform two sequences of prayers and bowings known as rak’as. Where possible they wear clean clothes, although in poor rural areas this requirement is not a strict one. All, however, must be modestly covered. This sometimes includes covering the head, for which many men sport skullcaps.

For women, wudu means the whole body, except for face, hands and feet. No make-up, nail varnish or perfume should be worn, although henna is permitted. Tasbih are beads that signify the 99 known names of Allah, divided into three sections with larger beads. They are passed through the hands, during which action a Muslim prays with the words subhan Allah (“Glory to God”), alhamdu l’Illah (“Thanks be to Allah”), or allahu akbar (“God is Most Great”).

In Afghanistan, as everywhere in the Islamic world, the relationship between man and God is one-to-one, needing no involvement from another human being as intermediary. Muslims therefore make a distinction between a priest and an imam, or prayer leader, who both leads the prayer and in many instances acts as the spiritual leader for the community. They hold that an imam is a person who has volunteered to lead, who is attuned to Islam, and knows the Qur’an well enough to recite it during the prayers. Although most mosques have an imam, it is not compulsory, and any Muslim can lead prayers. When the congregation is mixed, this person will be a man or a boy, and he stands in front of the lines of Muslim worshippers.

If only women are present, a woman can lead from the middle of the row. Before the prayer meeting starts, it is usual for the imam or another learned individual to climb into the pulpit and deliver a sermon. The sermon is based upon a text drawn from the Qur’an, and is preceded by a set form of words: “O you who believe, when the call is proclaimed to prayer on the day of assembly, hasten to remember God, and cease your business. This is best for you if you understand. And when the prayer service is finished, scatter over the land and seek the bounty of God, and remember God often so you may prosper.”

The image of men lining up in rows to pray, with one person in front of the main group, is universal. Just as in a Western church it is bad manners to turn one’s back on the altar, in a mosque it is considered bad form to pass in front of someone at prayer. It is standard, therefore,

for the praying area to be marked with a barrier, which originates from the Prophet Muhammad’s custom of placing his staff in front and to the right of him.

The ritual of the worship usually consists of two to four cycles of prayers accompanied by the appropriate bowings to God. In the course of prayers, the worshipper completes these words and movements, known as rak’as. A rak’a consists of eight stages of worship, and the number of rak’as required at different prayer times increases during the day – the first, early-morning prayer requires two; noon and afternoon have four; early evening has three; and the night-time prayer has four.

After niyyah, or preparation, comes takbir, “glorifying”, during which the outside world is forgotten. All Muslims stand, raise their hands to their shoulders and announce allahu akba. Then, putting their right hand over their left on their chest, they say: “Glory and Praise be to You, O God; blessed is Your name and exalted is Your majesty. There is no God but You. I come, seeking shelter from Satan, the rejected.” Next is recited the Fatiha, the most sacred opening verse of the Qur’an. 

After another reading from the Qur’an selected by the imam, there is a series of bowings known as ruku, intended to show respect to Allah. During these rukus, Muslim men bow deeply, with a straight back. To preserve their modesty, women bow less severely. All then stand to acknowledge God, and say the words: “God always hears those who praise Him. O God, all praise be to You, O God greater than all else.” After this is the sujud, or sajda, when a Muslim kneels on the ground in complete submission to God, touching forehead and palms to the floor. The fingers face Mecca and elbows are off the ground. Then each person says three times: “Glory be to my Lord, the Most High. God is greater than all else.” They then kneel, sitting on their heels, and pray silently for a few moments, before repeating the whole motion of lying down once again.

At the end of the set prayer ritual, there is frequently time for personal prayers, and prayers for others and for the forgiveness of sins, a prayer that is often accompanied by placing the right hand on the right knee, and extending the forefinger. It is not uncommon to see people sighing and wiping their faces at this point. Finally there is “the peace”, or the salaam: Asalaam aleikum wa rahmatullah, meaning “Peace be with you, and the mercy of Allah.” This is almost identical to the “Peace be with you” spoken by a priest in the Christian church service; in Islam, however, it is directed not only at fellow members of the congregation but at guardian angels also present. At the close of prayer, many Muslims perform an additional voluntary rak’a or two, according to the acts of the Prophet as described in the Sunnah.

In a country where many barely have enough food to survive, it might seem strange to the Westerner that fasting – during Ramazan, and at other times – is so important, but perhaps it is precisely because of the harshness of life faced by many Afghans that this aspect of their Islamic life is all the more important. Whatever their circumstances, all Afghans, if they can do so, practise fasting.

Like prayer, the fast binds all Muslims together, allowing them to share in an experience so important to Islam that the great early Muslim theologian al-Ghazali described it as “one quarter of the Muslim faith”. As such, the act of fasting is known as the fourth pillar of Islam. It is not simply a matter of giving up food during the daytime. It is a symbolic act, just as washing before prayer is a cleansing and purifying act, enabling people to rid their system of impurities on all levels and so become closer to God.

God’s message to Muhammad stated that fasting helps us to learn self-restraint; the example was set by the Prophet himself who, according to a famous hadith by Bukhari describing the frugality of Muhammad, would break his fast with a mouthful of water and a date. To this day, many Afghans do the same. Through the physical act of fasting, a person experiences the deprivation that the poor suffer throughout the year, hopefully becoming more sensitive and responsive to their plight as a result. It is a selfless act that makes crash dieting in the West, aimed at dropping a dress size in a few weeks, seem rather shameful.

Ramadan is known in Afghanistan as Ramazan, the month of the fast. Its name comes from the Arabic root r-m-d, “the great heat” of the deserts of Arabia, and it is the ninth month of the Muslim calendar. It is special, because it was during this month that Muhammad received the call to be a prophet; God Himself instructed that it should be the official month of fasting, in a revelation received after the establishment of the community in Medina.

Although no one knows the exact date, in the early days of Islam fasting took place on the tenth day of Muharram. This is still one of a number of days of voluntary fasting; but today Muhammad’s call to be a prophet is celebrated on 27th of Ramazan. This is a particularly significant night. Many people stay at their local mosque until long into the night, reading the Qur’an and praying together. It is thought by some that prayer at this time is particularly powerful, awarding more blessings than prayers at other times.

The observance of Ramazan, or Ramadan, is regarded as a source of blessing, and not a time of trial. Afghans generally look forward to this time of bodily and spiritual cleansing, and do not view it as being arduous or a chore. They hold it as a special period that brings them back in touch with the values at the heart of their faith. They say Ramazan demands a certain spiritual attitude towards the body. The time of fasting is about reflection and contemplation – a return to the core values of Islam, and a reassessment of what they mean. Ramazan is about remembering to take nothing for granted, and about removing daily distractions so that the mind is better able to focus on closeness with Allah. On a practical level, this means no eating, drinking, smoking or sex from dawn to sunset for the entire month.

While fasting, believers are especially encouraged to avoid sin, such as lying, violence, greed, lust, slander, anger and evil thoughts. The fast is about self-discipline; during it, people are called to make an extra effort to cultivate a more spiritual outlook, to consider others and to behave well. At Ramazan, people are given the opportunity to master all their natural appetites, mental and physical. Hence, fasting during Ramazan is considered 30 times better than at any other time, although many people fast at other times, and some even on a weekly basis.

Most Afghans begin the fast each day, according to the Qur’an’s instruction, at the moment when dawn makes it possible to distinguish “a white thread from a black thread”. They then break the fast as soon as possible at sunset, eating another, lighter meal later in the evening, with perhaps some rice or dates in the early pre-dawn hours before the next morning’s

fast begins. The evening is a time of relaxation, visiting, and prayer, and the sound of Qur’anic recitation often punctuates the evening air. Most individuals perform a voluntary salat of 20 rak’as, called taraweeh, sometime after the fifth prescribed prayer of the day. Most people go to the mosque during the evening, especially during the last 10 days of the month.

The fast also gives people an opportunity to get together with friends and family, and to share whatever food they have after the hour of sunset. According to Islamic tradition, this is the time when the gates of heaven are opened, the gates of hell are closed and Satan is put into chains. The act of sharing is special, both as a religious duty and also an ancient cultural tradition. Since fasting can make people feel weary and weak, great care is taken over the type of food eaten during Ramazan. The consumption of special dishes at Ramazan dates back to the earliest Islamic times.

Long before the day of Eid, special donations are collected for those poorer and less fortunate, so as to ensure that everyone can afford to take part in the festivities, and have some money left over to buy a new pair of shoes. On Islamic feast days, it is customary to sacrifice an animal – a sheep or goat, or sometimes even an ox – using the halal method. Those better off distribute the meat among the poorest of their friends and neighbours, so that everyone can have a good meal with meat.

The word “eid” or “id” is Arabic, and means “returning often” – it represents the idea of renewal, a time for new beginnings. Eid al-Fitr, which takes place at the end of Ramazan, is not the only such celebration – Eid al-Adha, the feast of sacrifice that happens during the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca is also a special occasion. Like Christmas and New Year, both Eid feasts bring friends and family together to celebrate and offer thanks to God. Both award a sense of unity to Muslims, not just within their country, but with their brothers and sisters all over the world.

In Afghanistan, Eid is a great climax and release after a long month of fasting, and consists of three days of holiday for prayer, partying and eating. As soon as the new moon is sighted at the end of the month, the fast is broken, often by eating just a date. People all congratulate each other with “Eid Mobarak”. Sweets are handed round, decorations are put up, and cards are given to friends and family.

At Eid there is no call to prayer. All are supposed to wash and dress in their best clothes, and then go to special Eid prayers an hour after sunrise at their local mosque. Mosques at this time are packed, and so many people try to get to prayer that Eid gahs are set up in open spaces or fields. The Eid prayer itself usually consists of two rak’as and extra takbirs or sayings of allahu akbar. There is also usually a sermon, and other prayers before noon. Afterwards there is hugging and kissing, and gifts are given. At midday a great feast is usually served to friends and family, and the celebrating goes on late into the night.

Apart from the Eid festival at the end of Ramazan, the Eid al-Adha, meaning “the main Eid”, is held in memory of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael. The festival of Eid al-Adha above all symbolises the idea of sacrifice and renewal of faith. For those pilgrims on Hajj at Mecca, the sacrifice is physically represented with the sacrifice of an animal. Eid al-Fitr or Eid Ramazan is slightly shorter than the four-day holiday taken for Eid al-Adha and so is sometimes referred to as the minor Eid, or little festival – in Arabic, Eid al-Sagheer.

Afghans also celebrate various other Islamic events throughout the year. Muharram, the first month in the Islamic year, marks the departure of Muhammad to Medina, the Hirja, the date of which event is recognised as the beginning of the spread of Islam. Laylat al-Isra wal-Miraj on 27 Rajab celebrates the Prophet Muhammad’s Night Journey to Jerusalem and through the seven heavens.

Another important evening is the Laylat al-Bara’at, the Night of Blessing, which takes place on the full moon before the beginning of Ramazan. On this night it is said by Afghans that God commands those who will live and who will die, and those who will be forgiven or condemned for the coming year. It celebrates Muhammad’s preparations for Ramazan, during which he would pray for entire nights. This is why so many Afghans also spend the night in prayer, just as they do on the Laylat al-Quadr, the Night of Power, on the 27th of Ramazan, the night of Muhammad’s first revelation, which is the holiest of nights for all Muslims. Nauroz, the Islamic New Year, also has a special significance for Afghan Muslims, and just as in non-Muslim tradition, resolutions are made at this time.

Showing regard towards and helping others is not just for Ramazan. Such is the importance of charity in Islam, it is considered the third pillar of the faith. It also chimes deeply with the ancient cultural traditions of Afghanistan. Hospitality and generosity are not just a duty of Islam, but are ingrained in the cultural psyche. Everyone is given a personal responsibility towards others, and this has wider implications. “Every good act is charity,” said the Prophet Muhammad. “Smiling upon your brother is charity; urging others to do good is charity; helping the blind is charity; removing stones, thorns, and other obstructions from the road is charity.”

Such acts of goodwill and kindness towards others reflect that which the Prophet himself showed to others in his own life. They are known in Islam as saddaqah, meaning literally “righteousness”, and are a testament to a person’s faith. They are acts of goodness based on both free will and a desire to help others.

Zakat, derived from the word meaning “to purify, thrive, or be wholesome”, is an annual charitable donation that all Muslims are expected to make. Those who have nothing are excused from giving; no one is forced to do so and no one checks whether they have done it. It is a moral decision, left to a person’s conscience. By giving to those less fortunate, one attains righteousness and virtue. According to Islam, ultimately everything in the universe belongs to God. Our homes, cash, belongings, even the clothes on our backs, are only on loan from him. If God has chosen to make a person rich, it is his will; riches are given in trust only in order that they may be used wisely.

Afghans struggling to survive take comfort from the Prophet’s instruction that there is no use coveting worldly possessions, nor allowing greed to be your motivating force. “Alms are for the poor and the needy,” says the Qur’an, “and those employed to administer the funds; for those whose hearts have been reconciled to truth; for those in bondage and in debt; and in the cause of God; and for the wayfarer.”

First and foremost, people have a duty to look after their families and dependants. Islam teaches that work should not be regarded as a burden. It is a vital feature of everyday life. Workers should take pride in what they do, and regard their employment as one of the means by which they live good and prosperous lives. This refers to emotional supportiveness, as well as to material protection. The popular image of the man going out to work and bonding with other men, while the women of the family remain at home behind closed doors, may be an accurate representation of the situation in Afghanistan, but it should not be forgotten that this is cultural tradition and not one that is hallowed by the Qur’an. Khadija, the Prophet’s first wife, not only worked but was a highly successful businesswoman.

Every Afghan Muslim, whether man or woman, hopes to make the pilgrimage to Mecca once in his or her lifetime. It is a duty to do so, if they are able, and it is a privilege to retrace the steps of the Prophet. It is so important that it is regarded as the fifth pillar of Islam. Although doing God’s will and worshipping Him are the pilgrims’ primary objectives, those who attend the Hajj also enjoy the feeling of unity and pride –pilgrims are a part of a unifying and united force. Although successfully completing the Hajj bestows on someone the honorary title hajji (or hajja, for a woman), the sense of inner satisfaction is reward enough.

Making the Hajj inevitably involves great personal sacrifice, but it has only ever been required of Muslims who could afford it. For Afghans who commit to undertake the journey, the cost of the pilgrimage could eat up a lifetime’s savings. Very often, family or friends club together so that one of their number may go to Mecca and represent them all. The elderly or infirm, who are not fit to bear the stress of the trip, or who simply cannot afford it, rely on the younger generation to go on their behalf.

Women in Afghanistan, suffering from the many limitations on their freedoms imposed by culture, are all too often denied the chance to make the Hajj. Fortunately for all, in God’s eyes the intention of going on the Hajj is all-important. The would-be pilgrims still gain honour, even if they are prevented from making the journey by some unexpected event. The intention is what matters, and a blessing of niyyah is bestowed on all those who would otherwise have made the trip were it not for their financial circumstances.

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