Bent over for hours, the men labored to remove the debris that was once the Agrotech Education College, searching for bodies buried deep below. It was backbreaking work, made all the harder because they never allowed themselves even a sip of water.
Many of the relief workers helping quake victims have the added burden of fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. Between dawn and sunset, Muslims are not allowed to eat or drink — a sacrifice meant to bring them closer to God.
“It was a little difficult for me because of the stink coming from the rubble, but I kept myself in control and completed the work,” said Shoaib Hussain, 30, as he stood in the shadow of the ruined building.
For practicing Muslims, the holy month means they are expected to abstain during daylight hours from food, drink, smoking and sex to focus on spiritual introspection. The Quran allows for two exceptions to that rule: those who are sick or traveling. Children are also exempted.
Injured Muslims exempt from fasting
The rules mean Muslims injured by the quake are permitted to eat and drink, but Islamic clerics are divided over whether rescue workers should be exempt.
They acknowledge, however, that the natural disaster has created special circumstances.
“The best thing is to serve suffering humanity,” said Islamic scholar Maulana Hamid Saeed Kazmi.
Kazmi said he believed that since most of the rescue workers in Kashmir are from other parts of the country, they fall in the category of those who are journeying. Still, “it would be better if people fast and do their work” if they can, he said.
Other Muslim leaders were less willing to give wholesale exemptions for all relief workers.
Liaquat Baluch, a senior cleric and political leader in Islamabad, said fasting was “compulsory and people should fast during the whole month of Ramadan, as it constitutes one of the five pillars of Islam.”
However, he also clarified that “if any rescue worker thinks that he cannot do his work without eating, he should not fast. But the condition is that he must not make an announcement that he is not fasting. He can silently keep doing work without fasting.”
Baluch said the Quran does allow for exceptional cases: “While doing some noble cause, you can skip fasting, but you must complete the number of missed fasts in other days. You can fast after Ramadan for those days when you could not do it.”
Not all Muslim leaders believe the rules regarding Ramadan are so hard and fast.
Some believe fasting is a choice
Calling Islam a lenient and flexible religion, religious scholar Abdul Hameed of Islamabad said fasting is a choice during hard times.
Islam “allows its followers to opt for the easy way or the hard way. The easy way is not to fast during travel or struggles or war, but it’s up to them. If they do it, it’s appreciated. If not, it’s allowed,” he said.
For some devout Muslims, fasting even as they carry out rescue efforts is only another test of their faith.
“It’s no problem for me — fasting and doing this work — because fasting teaches us patience and courage,” said Sanaullah Khan, 25, a driver for an aid group.
On Thursday, Khan and a group of other workers pulled out five bodies from the rubble of the local college — all of them former faculty members. The men, using their hands, shovels, and pickaxes, unearthed the putrid remains after more than four hours of digging.
Only after the skies darkened after sunset did they break for “iftar,” the meal that ends the dawn-to-dusk fast.
Wielding a shovel in one hand, soldier Abdur Rasheed broke his fast with a date and a single glass of water before he headed to prayer.