Muezzin and Me

A local man speaks to me every day. He greets me when I get out of bed each morning, and he always has his piece of advice for me before I go to bed.  I can never understand what he says, but his words always ring loud and clear.  He and I have never been formally introduced, and no, he is not some creepy house watchman or homeless vagrant.  He is the muezzin at the local mosque, and his voice, broadcast five times each day, has been one of my good companions here in Cape Town.

Ramadan starts tomorrow morning, and I am not sure what to expect.  I know every Muslim is meant to fast from Sunrise to Sunset during this holy month, but I have also heard stories of communal potlucks and acts of charity.  For some reason I find those last two points hard to believe.  

the hilly cobble-stoned streets of the bo-kaap
bo-kaap literally means "upper cape" in afrikaans

Ramadan is Islam's holiest month, set aside as a time during which Muslims are expected to fast, and in doing so put more effort into following the teachings of Islam and avoid obscene and irreligious sights and sounds, but when I think of Christianity's "holiest month," (whether that would be Easter and Lent or December and Christmas) "charity" and "community" don't spring foremost to mind.  Maybe it's the commercialism that gets associated with both seasons, but I believe that physical restraint and service toward others are much more admirable and Christ-like characteristics than the widespread routine celebrations and Western cultural gluttony that comes during commemoration of Christian holiday seasons.  

I'm no authority on this matter, but I think that there is a lot of truth in fasting. I have only done it once but I am curious to see what effect this month of restraint and spiritual focus has on the neighborhood.

As I recently read in a national news-paper article entitled "What's the Point of Ramadan Anyway", journalist Khadija Patel offers some perspective on the matter:

Will power, psychologists say, is a lot like a muscle - it needs to be burdened before it is built, but once built, the whole body benefits. And, in my view, that is the thinking behind Ramadan. Abstaining from food and sex during the daylight hours is meant to jumpstart your ability to resist temptation through the rest of the year. This month is an acknowledgement of human beings as not merely physical creatures, it admits our physicality, but also shows we are so much more than the pleasure of our own flesh.

My neighborhood at a glance
According to City of Cape Town statistics, the Bo-Kaap neighborhood is 90% Muslim (although I speculate the other 10% are international students looking for a cheap place to crash!).  Pursuant of this religious demographic, I assumed that everyone in Bo-Kaap would be speaking Arabic. Granted, a few do. But everyone? Boy was I wrong! I have heard very little Arabic spoken besides the adhan call to prayer, as everyone here relates in the lowest common linguistic denominator- usually either English or Afrikaans.  After making a few Muslim friends here I have found within many homes intricate calligraphic posters and weavings in Arabic.  From my inquiries, these are usually Qur'anic texts that have been emblazoned on fabrics and parchments for their religious significance, but also for their graphic appeal as Islamic law prohibits depiction of the human form in art (although, to be honest, Arabic calligraphy is very beautiful).

Allow me to elaborate with some architectural perspective - Bo-Kaap is the home of Islam in South Africa. I'll try not to get the history wrong here, but from what I've learned when the Dutch settled in Cape Town many many years ago they brought along Indonesian Muslims as workers and fellow immigrants.  The Islamic community grew from this core of "Malay" immigrants in Cape Town to its current state, now with over 400 mosques in South Africa alone.  The first of these mosques is actually located just down the road from my apartment, and was constructed by an exiled Indonesian Prince in 1798.  1798! That's OLD!! (as a comparison, Cincinnati was FOUNDED in 1788, only ten years earlier). There are currently six or seven mosques in Bo-Kaap, each of which put out a call to prayer five times per day, and it is my goal to get to know more about the Muslim community here, especially as Ramadan begins. 

bo-kaap represent. i love great graffiti and there's
a ton of it here in cape town

So, what's a good way to understand this holy month from a Christian perspective? Here are a few thoughts, largely borrowed from Jim Petersen:

Be considerate

I walk through the heart of Muslim Bo-Kaap every day.  I believe that chowing down on an apple in front of fasting Muslims might more disrespectful than wearing high-heels to a midget convention (my analogy, not Jim's), so I must be aware of the people I'm with, the tenets of the belief to which they adhere, and act in kind consideration.

Be worldly (and relatable)

"I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists . . . whoever. I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ — but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life."  (1 Corinthians 9:19-22, MSG) 

Relating well with Muslims may not be easy- I'll need to first confront the obstacles of my own cultural stereotypes and my own tendency to consider my ideas and ways as being the smartest approach. But this is a great growing point! I would hope to relate with people wherever I go, and Paul's advice from 1 Corinthians is a bright beacon of guidance on this matter.

Be compassionate

Beyond being kind and adaptive, I want to be action-oriented. Passively absorbing cultural traditions is important, but once I get a sense of how Ramadan works here, I want to respond to it. As Jim Petersen says,

"Love is a verb, a call to action. It calls us not only to seek to understand these neighbors but also to serve them in ways that reflect God’s love. How else will they ever see the kingdom of God?"

And that's about all I have to say for now. In doing some research for this blog post I discovered that the message of the call to prayer begins as follows:
“Get up and pray. To pray is better than to sleep.”

Architecture students don't typically get much rest so I'm cool with the whole no-sleeping thing-- but praying instead of sleeping? I wonder how that idea would go over in the US...  regardless, I look forward to what Ramadan has in store for me, my roommates, and the neighborhood.  Although not technically fasting I'm going to give up a few things that I over-rely on and try to focus more on God.  And fast or no fast, I know that the with the muezzin's voice as my companion I'm going to learn a lot.

at the intersection of buitengracht and rose streets,
the boundary of bo-kaap

"Therefore, do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration, or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality however, is found in Christ."
- Colossians 2:16-17

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