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Helplines have the answer for India's Muslims

Hundreds seek guidance every day on matters of faith, such as whether it is alright to use Facebook during Ramadan.

NEW DELHI // Shakeel Rizvi has been pondering a question this Ramadan. Is it acceptable to use Facebook while observing the day's fasting and prayer?

"My friends and I have talked about this a few times," said Mr Rizvi, 29, an entrepreneur from the city of Lucknow.

To get an answer, he turned to the increasingly popular Islamic helplines that offer guidance to India's 176 million Muslims.

The phone lines, set up by religious leaders in Lucknow, the state capital of Uttar Pradesh, have grown in popularity over the past three years.

There are at least two serving the Sunni community and two serving Shiites. The imams running them say they have been receiving 100 calls a day on average - and sometimes as many 200 - during the holy month this year. The calls come from across the country and abroad, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

"Usually we get general questions about the moon sightings or medical emergencies, but with the younger generation we are finding a lot more interesting queries," said Syed Saif Abbas Naqvi, 42, an imam who runs one of the helplines in Lucknow.

This week, Mr Naqvi received a call from parents asking whether it was alright for their children to play video games during Ramadan.

"I tell them it is fine, as long as it does not distract from the message of the holy month - introspection and charity," he said. "If children want to play in a healthy way, there is no harm in that."

Lucknow, which has India's second-largest Muslim population after the city of Hyderabad, has become home to the helplines after the first one, run by Mr Naqvi, became popular three years ago. As president of the All India Shia Chand Committee, he has run the helplines from various mosques in the city for more than a decade.

The number of calls increased after he started publishing some of the questions he received along with answers in local Urdu newspapers. Now he has some of the calls re-routed to his mobile phone.

Khalid Rasheed Firangi Mahali, 42, head imam of the Eidgah Aishbagh, one of the oldest Sunni mosques in Lucknow, has also had a helpline for almost a decade.

"The young, they call with all sorts of questions," he said. "It is heartening to see their enthusiasm during the holy month."

Three years ago, Mr Mahali decided to hire a female Islamic scholar to help answer the calls from his office during Ramadan.

"There are some questions, especially in this era, that are of delicate nature, that should be handled by a lady," he said.

Although most of the imams stipulate times for callers, during Ramadan they have to work much later because of the influx of calls after the day's fast is broken.

"The young ones, they like to call late at night, usually when they are about to go out and do something with their friends," said Hamid Ul Hasan, the headmaster of the Jamia Nazmia in Lucknow, one of the oldest Shia religious institutions of learning in India.

The 74-year-old runs a helpline and also has about a dozen volunteers from his school answering queries online.

Over the past week, Mr Naqvi has fielded calls about what happens if someone is browsing a page on the internet and questionable images pop up. Would that be deemed a transgression?

"No," Mr Naqvi said. "As long as you didn't go in search of it."

"Can a woman wear lipstick? Yes," Mr Hasan said.

Mr Rizvi and his friends, who asked about browsing Facebook during Ramadan, got a reply from Mr Naqvi the next day.

"We are good to go," Mr Rizvi said. "We have been advised that whatever we do, we must be respectful."


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