THE ‘festive season’ – which is held over the Christmas-New Year period – may be Christian in ethos, but it is celebrated by all as a holiday, as it is the chief vacation period for South Africans.
Traditionally, Christmas is seen as a time of family togetherness, good cheer and generosity. It was the author Charles Dickens who invented Scrooge – a mean and miserly character, who saw no happiness in anything, least of all, giving at Christmas. Today the word “Scrooge” epitomises the very archetype of stinginess.
As Muslims, we respect Christmas, and the point of my article is not to plunge into debate about it. My departure here is that Christmas is a festivity in which kindness is encouraged. The other great monotheistic faith, Judaism, has the institution of tzedakah, or charity, which – not unlike Zakah – is regarded as a social obligation.
In the same vein, our two holy days (the two ‘Eids) encourage exactly the same things – via the fitrah or fidya, the compulsory charities of ‘Eid ul-Fitrah, and the sacrifice of ‘Eid ul-Adha, where the meat is distributed to the under privileged. Arguably, so does the mawlud – the commemoration of the birth of our beloved Prophet Muhammad [saw] – when people are given food after its rituals.
It is quite evident then, that notions of wealth purification via giving to the poor have been with us as humankind for a very long time. In Islam, it has been fully codified for us and made easy. We have different kinds of charity (sadaqah, lillah) and Zakah, a legal pillar of worship – a potent instrument of poverty eradication.
However, for Zakah to succeed as an institution it is my belief that it has to be underpinned by a culture of giving. This spirit of giving is what acts as the glue that keeps communities together, and makes Zakah such a natural step-up from the spontaneities of sadaqah, or voluntary charity.
In Cape Town, we have had this spirit for over 350 years. It is reflected in our Javanese heritage. In Java, it is called slametan, a communal feast offered after a social event symbolising the unity of those participating in it. Scholars such as Clifford Geertz have said the slametan became the core ritual of Javanese faith practice.
A slametan, says Geertz referring to Java, can be given to celebrate almost any occurrence, including births, deaths, engagements, marriages, events on the Islamic calendar, moving to a new house, and so forth. Depending on the intention, the mood and emphasis of the event may vary, but the principle would always be the same.
Locally, the slametan has followed the Javanese tradition closely. In the days of 17th century slavery at the Cape, a gadat (dhikr session), a mawlud or a doepmal (name giving ceremony) would be followed by a meal, or sweetmeats. Rich and poor would mix freely during the meal, the poor receiving charity devoid of social discrimination, or loss of personal dignity.
The intention of the host would be reflected in the word slametan, derived from the Arabic salam (peace), which hinged around the idea that the generosity of the host would ensure him peace with his Creator. In this, nothing is wasted too, the celebrants leaving with parcels of food, or barakats, as we call them at the Cape.
It is heart warming to see that so little has changed over the centuries in terms of this gallant tradition, which is the building block of successful communal life. We can safely say that the spirit of slametan is still alive and well in Cape Town, South Africa.
The positives are just so many: people gathering together for a common good; a poor person taking food back to their hungry family; children being acculturated with a noble tradition; those well off making sadaqah of their gifts, and even non-Muslims leaving the gathering with good thoughts about Islam.
Or, as our anti-apartheid struggle heroes might proclaim in 2018: “long live, slametan, long live!”