3am-ses: A Hobbit’s Ramadan
A short story by Noor Yusuf
When Mr Bilbo Baggins of Bag End awoke in the early hours of a spring morning, it was not by the hand of a ticking clock, nor even the beginnings of a tremulous birdsong by the Shire larks. It was by a sound far deeper and far more pressing. It was of course the rumbling of his stomach. A hobbit eats well and indeed Mr Baggins had eaten a hearty meal in the evening just before, but he had come to find that his own body kept the rhythms of the day very reliably, which meant that this now must surely be time for Suhur. This additional meal afforded by the month of Ramadan was one that he enjoyed greatly and to which he had adjusted his routine quite easily.
True the fasting month was, generally speaking, perhaps one of the most difficult times of year for Shire-folk, but Bilbo had come to enjoy it increasingly in his ripening age. Perhaps the swell of years opened the mind up towards a more contemplative pre-occupation, and Bilbo was settling into this wiser lot of decades. Or perhaps he had come to develop such a side to his nature that now he preferred something more of silence over noise, solitude over company, time to write over time to eat; and – though he dared not mention it to his neighbours – prayer even over his pipe.
With a wide yawn, Bilbo climbed out of the warmth of his quilted bed and tied his dressing gown. He poked at the charred logs of the hearth where the smouldering embers of last night’s fire still dimly glowed. Spring though it may be, it was still far too cold. He noted on his calendar the date: the 26th night of Ramadan had just passed with the last sunset and so by sunset later, it would again be one of the odd nights. He wondered what particular way he might make this one special. Given that his engagement tablet was more or less empty over this month, he had taken to filling it with suggestions for himself on how to spend his evenings most worshipfully. The day-time was for him and he appreciated that: he was a very busy hobbit after all, what with all his writings, and it certainly distracted him from the hunger. But the night he liked to give to God and enjoy His most peaceful of companies.
At the gentle insistence of his stomach, Bilbo lit his lamps and made his way to the pantry. A hobbit’s pantry was always well-stocked but, given how little of the day was apportioned for food this month, one would think the larder ought to be a little less full than usual. Bilbo had to chuckle: the room was bursting at the seams. He pulled down a plate of scones, a jar of jam, another of honey, the butter-plate, a container of dried cranberries and raisins, roasted hazelnuts and chestnuts, a perfectly rosy apple, a pitcher of milk, some cream, a bowl of sugar, a different type of honey, the pot of last night’s soup, a loaf of bread, a modest block of cheese, a plate of olives and a handful of dates of course. A simple meal perhaps, but Bilbo was trying himself at some ascetism. The dates he rationed. They were too precious to eat in excess and he saved them specifically for Ramadan. The Easterlings stocked dates aplenty but that land was too far for a yearly trip. During his tour of Harad, a good many years after his return from Erebor, he had picked up a great sackful of these fine fruits and counted them carefully ever since. Vaults of gold aside, Bilbo considered these amongst the most valuable of Bag End’s treasures and he guarded them like a dragon.
The early morning meal was wonderful, long and drawn out. It had to make up for breakfast and second breakfast and elevenses all at once so Bilbo took his time. Now the clock read three o’clock ante-meridian. “My, we ought to call this 3am-ses,” he mused. Through his own window he saw the lighted windows of many other houses down the Hill and the wispy streams of smoke trailing up from their chimneys. He smiled fondly. How he did love his folk. For even in the dark quiet of night, when all were safely tucked away in the privacy of their homes, still – with a lantern in the window, with smoke in their chimneys, with food on their tables – even alone, they all partook together of a good meal, a good intention and the hopes of another good day. “Insha’allah,” Bilbo murmured, “amin.” And it would certainly be a good day, for his dear guests were expected in the evening and his dearest friend, grand old Gandalf, to arrive soon enough.
The Suhur concluded, Bilbo ventured out into his front garden. All was restful in the rolling greens before him. There was the evenstar still bright and shining. And there the graceful moon, nearly diminished, cloaking away its silver, falling at the edge of the horizon. Yes, very soon, the first light of dawn would appear and slowly start to spread over the Shire. Bilbo unfurled his prayer mat. He had taken to keeping it on the seat out here. The garden was looking lovely, ever since young Samwise had begun tending to it. Sam’s father, Master Gamgee was pre-eminent amongst the growers of their corner of the world, but Bilbo felt that Sam had something special. The lilies and snapdragons and laburnums sprang up like great blooms of fire in the young hobbit’s hands. “Green hands, life-giving hands,” thought Bilbo. “May Allah put grace in those hands.” And now for another prayer. Bilbo raised his hands. Before Fajr, a vigil of Tahajjud. When Bilbo found his way back to his bed, the embers by now had all died away. There was enough light in the sky for all the lamps to be out outside, but still it was dark enough to sleep. A perfect gloam of deep blue and blossoming violet and yet sleepy light surrounded Bag End and lulled Bilbo to the threshold of sleep. He had only just begun the morning verses of Ali-Imran, before the waviness of slumber covered him over and carried him to his dreams.
Bilbo awoke once again, now many hours later, rested and perfectly peaceful. His stomach was rumbling again but he knew this time to ignore it. Golden light filled the room and he felt something in him surge. “Good morning,” he said to himself and to the angels too. He had begun suspecting their presence, especially since the start of the month. Things were altogether too tranquil than could be his own doing. “It is a good morning, a morning to feel good on and to be good on.” He washed and made his ablution, then dressed in a fresh cotton shirt, and his favourite green waistcoat then made his way to the library. For a while, he sat in his chair, rosary in hand, reciting his morning litanies and revising what portion of Quran he had memorised yesterday. Nothing too long or arduous, he hadn’t the stamina as the young hobbits did to memorise so much, so quickly.
They were all giving it a go, the youngsters, becoming Huffadh. Otho Sackville-Baggins had appointed himself the Madrasa teacher of the Shire, which made very little sense given he had never studied, but no-one argued with him about it, least of all Bilbo. Otho needed some occupation other than devising plots to legally swindle him out of Bag End. Despite the lack of qualification, Otho at least managed to supervise the young hobbits’ Quranic learning and it was coming along alright. Undoubtedly little Fredegar Bolger was the best of them; if angels were not present after all, then they would surely swoop down during the birthday parties, summer fetes and winter bonfires when young Fredegar, or ‘Fatty’ as he was affectionately known, got up on stage and recited. Everyone loved to listen, especially Bilbo who knew so well the cadences and lilts of the Arabic language that he spent so many years studying alongside Quenya. Fatty had aspirations to be the Shire Muezzin when grown, and Bilbo was sure his calls to prayer would alight all the Shire Folk from their beds one day. But as for Bilbo himself, well-versed and invested he may be, such a task of memorisation he admitted to be beyond him, especially at this age. The only person whom he’d ever known to commit the scripture to memory in old age – after his hundredth birthday – was the Old Took. Bilbo may be competing with him in age, but he could not rival that. Rather he was contented to have engraved in his heart just a few of his favourite passages. His was right now learning an interesting section from Surah Al-Kahf, about the mysterious guide to one of the elder prophets. From Bilbo’s study, he ascertained that this referred to Al-Khadir, the Green Man of whom the Holy Prophet spoke. He had always found it fascinating and at times asked Gandalf about it. Of all teachers, Gandalf was certainly the wisest, and had guided Bilbo quite all his life. Gandalf was, he fancied, his own Green Man – or at least Grey Man. Perhaps Al-Khadir was in fact one of the wizards of Gandalf’s order. But Gandalf kept many secrets, so Bilbo supposed he could never really know.
Bilbo was a literary creature, having spent many years learning the poetries and stories of the elves, the ancients and the Awliya. He had amassed in his library under the hill a fair collection of entirely different histories and peoples in a range of languages from Quenya (whose rudiments he acquired in Imladris), Sindarin, Khazad (for one could not but pick up this roughly hewn yet deeply moving language given one’s long acquaintance with its dwarven speakers), Arabic and Persian. The Arabic was certainly most difficult of all and yet somehow the most magical to his tongue. But more than the languages, Bilbo loved to read their literatures. At times he would look at them in parallel, and wonder of the occurrences of their themes and ideas in his own little life. A little life it was and Bilbo knew this well, having lived a life as no other hobbit had, having seen so much of the great wide world, and meeting the lords and ladies of people.
Bilbo would read the discrete literatures and find himself reflecting for hours after on the qualities that connected them to each other. When first he read the elven writings on the Ainulindale, the world’s creation from light and song, he at once thought of that beatific Verse of Light: Allahu Nur al-Samawati wa’l Ardh… and how it was written in all those other sacred texts of the Muhammadan Light – or the Haqiqa Muhammadiyya as they called it – the very ability to know God. This was the first thing created and then given into the souls of every living thing, and of them all, most to the Lordly Prophet. When he thought of the legendary Valar, he wondered also of the Asmaa al-Husna, the Names of Allah, and how he could almost find such names manifested in the characters of the Valar of whom the elves spoke with such reverence. Or perhaps the Names were not manifested in characters, but the characters were manifestations of the Names. Or perhaps both at once. The epics of the elven lords and kings, Fingolfin, Gil-Galad, Earendil also rang to remind him of the epics of angels and Prophets, the Awliya Allah, the Rijal Allah, mystical figures, appointed to enact all manner of the secrets of destiny. Even in simpler ways, when he read of the days of Durin, the dwarven forefather, he also would think of the young days of men when the first of them walked in Jannat al-Adn and was taught the names of all things as no other before. Yes, when he read of Melian, he thought of Khadija, the great, great one. And even more beloved to him, when he read of Melian’s daughter Luthien, he thought of Khadija’s daughter Fatima.
True: in all the history, in all the poetry, in all the figures and personages and heavenly powers venerated by all the people, across all the world, across all of time, there were truths that bound them all. A truth of character: nobility, trust, loyalty, valour, faithfulness. A truth of purpose: to serve, to grow, to venture, to return, to belong, for home. For did not all the ancient elves of the Noldor seek to find a home after their flight? Did not they now hold devotedly to the homes they made in Rivendell, the Greenwood and Loth Lorien. Yet, did they not at once yearn to return to the home they were always destined for in Valinor? And the dwarves: for all their adventuring, Bilbo knew the reason for the quest of Thorin Oakenshield and all his honourable company, for its reason had rung so true to his own heart that it had taken him with them: to go home, to go home. A hobbit understood that in the very core of his being. And alike, in the stories of every one of the Awliya, in all the searching and striving, their litany was: from Allah we have come, to Him we return. All to return to the place they belonged. Whatever the place of one’s belonging, at whatever level it was considered, be that a warm hearth, or an ancestral mountain, or a legendary shore beyond the sea, or the embrace of God, it was home. And home was one thing: love. Every person of whom Bilbo read possessed these things: truth of character, truth of purpose, and love, their truth of being.
“Ah, me and my philosophising,” mumbled Bilbo. He shook his head at himself. What should such a little fellow know of such things? Yet he believed it deeply. And he wished it for himself, for what more could one wish for than to know and to embody truth? He supposed, he could only do his part and bring something of it into his mornings and evenings. He sat for a while, pen and ink at hand, and scribed away in the Red Book. He wrote in here his life story and all he had learnt of his strange and wondrous glimpses at truth. He had found it in brotherhood, fellowship, as he travelled with Thorin’s company. He had found it in learning and lore, during his stay at Lord Elrond’s Last Homely House east of the sea. He had found it in the dark caves and tunnels where he had riddled with Gollum, a flicker of mercy, of seeing beyond the façade of thing to the real deepness within it: to find that Haqiqa Muhammadiyya even in such a creature as that. He had found it in Bard’s quiet courage and unyielding determination in Lake Town. He had found it in guidance and reassurance from his oldest friend and wisest teacher Gandalf. And he had also found it in himself, when he faced fire and terror, desolation, madness – and in that moment knew what was right. Perhaps it did not matter to write it all down, for at the very least he had learnt the lessons himself. Who else would read such a long tome as the Red Book had become? But it was his final act; his attempt at service and collecting the lessons of a long life lived in love. He would leave this to Frodo, his young cousin. Frodo, although no-one knew it yet, was one of those figures. Bilbo hadn’t known it himself for a while but something about turning one hundred seemed to bring about an eye of insight in him. Gandalf had also mentioned something of it. Yes, who was to know where it may lead him? But Frodo was one of those who had in him the truth.
Bilbo went walking after this, quite a way down in Buckland, along the Baranduin river and he stayed there in the softness of the grass and the shade of the trees and washes of water until the sun fell low, small as a piece of gold, and the ink stains of night began to seep into the edges of the world. Soon it would be time for iftar, breaking fast! Bilbo hurried back to Bag End; how fast the time had passed. And he had guests! Rushing in, he lit the fire and began to ready a hearty meal. He’d not had quite such a party as this since the dwarves had come to his door and confusticated him. But now he looked forward to the company of dear friends. Soon enough, there they were, gathered behind the round green door of Bag End. He welcomed them all in. There was Gaffer Gamgee and Samwise, there the tumble of Meriadoc and Peregrine – or Merry and Pippin, as better suited them – children of his cousins and good friends of Frodo. Frodo was already there of course: he lived with Bilbo but had spent his day out and abroad, or sitting and reading while Bilbo wrote. But there were more than hobbits visiting today. Just as the adhan rang out across the Shire for Maghrib, another came to the door and Bilbo rushed to open it. “Balin, salaam alaykum!” he smiled and hugged his old friend. “At your service and alaykum salaam,” replied Balin, dipping down into such a deep bow that his long white beard touched the doorstep. Bilbo was delighted that Balin had come: he would soon be away for the Mines of Moria and this perhaps would be the last they would see each other for a while.
Breaking fast was a wonderfully joyous affair. Bilbo emptied out quite the entire pantry and laid a glorious banquet of fruits and vegetables, soups and stews, meats and fish, cheeses, milk, tea and coffee, loaves of bread, pies and pastries, cakes and biscuits and sweets – and all the rest of the dates in his treasury! They kept themselves only to about half of all the food: after all, breaking fast is only to satisfy the bite of hunger before prayer. After that they ate the other half of the food and, once again, Bilbo congratulated himself on his own restraint and told them all about his foray into the ascetic life. So they sat for a good hour afterwards and played their instruments, took turns singing. The young hobbits recited what new Quran they had learnt. Gaffer gaffed a good deal. And as usual, it all culminated in Bilbo and Balin telling the story of Bert, Tom and William – the trolls who caught them but ended up, by Gandalf’s cleverness, turning to stone. “When will we see Gandalf?” asked Frodo, for Frodo of them all loved Gandalf the most. “Soon, soon, my boy, he’s leading Tarawih and it’s just about time to head off there now!” Before they left, they all cleaned up and donned their clothes for prayer. It was always nice to wear something a bit special when going to speak with God. Bilbo swapped out his green waistcoat for a velvet one in plum.
Tarawih, the prayer of rest, the long vigil of night. Twilight deepened and stars gathered and the wind hummed a low tune as all the hobbits of the Shire made their way down from the holes in the hills to the moonlit hall of prayer in the open fields. The 27th night was upon them and perhaps this was the night: the Night of Destiny. Not many of them knew what exactly that meant, but very many of them felt it. The few who didn’t had probably eaten a little too much for iftar, even for hobbits. Bilbo walked so freely under the cool night air that he scarcely noticed the Sackville-Bagginses hurrying towards him with that unfortunate glint of resolve in their eyes. “Gracious, Lobelia,” he stuttered when his strong-willed cousin came before him with yet another paper from the Mayor’s office, lazily written, about how her ownership of Bag End was entirely valid after Bilbo disappeared from the Shire. “My dear Lobelia,” Bilbo sighed, “it was fifty years ago.” When she did not appear to make a move away, he said, “well listen. It may well be the Night of Destiny. If Bag End is really in your lot, I’m sure Allah will clear up the matter for you this very night! Why don’t you go off and pray and so will I.” Lobelia, somewhat baffled by this response, had to agree that it was the only thing for it. Her husband Otho was appeased easily enough when Bilbo added, “and the young hobbits’ memorisation is coming along very well!” Bilbo heaved a great sigh of relief when the two of them made their way to join the prayer. Every encounter with Sackville-Bagginses was unpleasant, but he was able to restrain himself this time with a strength that only Ramadan could provide. It occurred to him that this may be one of those moments where he might like to disappear in that special way he did, but come to think of it, he hadn’t felt any inclination towards that old ring of his since, well, since the new moon.
Many joined the rows of the prayer. Hobbits especially but also a few travellers staying at the Green Dragon Inn, and even a few from the Prancing Pony which made for an eclectic congregation. But a lovely grace fell about the place of prayer when from the woodlands came a concourse of bright-eyed, silk-clothed elves. Wood elves were a wondrous sight to see, especially for the young hobbits; at times they passed through on their way to the ships in the west. And at last came Gandalf. He strode in with smiling eyes beneath his bushy eyebrows. And as ever, he was Gandalf, without air or pretence, and yet with a grace that ran so deep that not even his dusty well-worn grey robes or crooked wizard’s hat or big boots could cover it. Of course, every hobbit there simply saw that: grey robes, a crooked hat and boots. But no, Bilbo did not. Bilbo saw, as for so long he had seen, the light of an eternal fire; the mystic, the ancient; one of those who had the truth. The prayer was long and restful. The clouds and constellations circled above, keeping time as the melodies of the recitation wound out in a spiralling spell over those who prayed. And Bilbo prayed. Where his life had come, where his life would go, where he was right now: it was all present in him, in his mind, in his heart. All of it he gave forth as he prayed and all of it was received and returned greater and more beauteous. Oh, for home! For home! Bilbo’s eyes closed and his breathing stilled.