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On the First Day of Ramadan

August 11, 2010

The Holy Month of Ramadan started today.

Writing about Ramadan in the Middle East is rather like writing about Christmas in the West. A subject with so many facets that it’s the equivalent of writing an article about the meaning of life.

But if you’ve never been in a Muslim country, and you know little more than that Ramadan involves fasting from dawn to dusk, there’s much more to discover. Why bother? Because understanding Ramadan takes you a long way towards understanding Islam and the traditions of the Muslim world. Far further than stories of the Taliban murdering a team of Western medics, or the sight of women in the street dressed in black from head to toe.

So this is a personal view of a non-Muslim who has lived through many Ramadans among Muslims celebrating their holy month.

Let’s start by looking at the Christmas analogy. It’s true that both seasons involve goodwill, charity, family gatherings, feasting and present-giving. But there the similarity ends. Christmas in the West is a one-day festival with an indeterminate (and some say interminable) lead in. It’s marked by indulgence, excessive eating, drinking and partying. It involves no personal sacrifice, except on the part of mothers and fathers who go into serious debt in their attempt to give their children a “good Christmas”. Only a small proportion of those who consider themselves Christians perform an act of worship on Christmas Day, or any other day for that matter.

Observing Ramadan, on the other hand, is an obligation on all Muslims. Fasting is one of the Five Pillars of Islam (the others are daily prayers, the declaration of faith, the giving of alms and the pilgrimage to Mecca). It involves serious personal endurance.

Consider the implications of fasting from dawn to dusk for 30 days. No food, no, drink, no smoking, no brushing of teeth. In short, nothing to enter the mouth or any other part of the body. And the vast majority of the hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world, rich and poor, do this every year. For example, as I sit in an air-conditioned room writing this, I can see manual laborers in the street working away in 40 degrees of heat with no food or drink to sustain them.

There are, of course, exemptions derived from the Quran and religious tradition. Pregnant women, children, and the sick do not have to fast. Nor under certain circumstances, do travelers, although they have to fast at other times to complete the obligation. There are also rules which apply to people living in areas where the summer sun doesn’t fully set, such as Finland, Alaska and Antarctica. Fasting for 23 hours a day simply isn’t practical, and contrary to some perceptions in the West, Islam is a practical religion.

Such is the power of the obligation that in many parts of the world, including where I live, it is enshrined in the law. Nobody, Muslim or non-Muslim, is permitted to drink, smoke or eat in public during fasting hours. The penalties for breaking the law can range from admonition to jail.

So this is no festive season with a bit of religion thrown in. Nor is it the equivalent of giving up chocolate for Lent. It’s a drastic, annual, change of behavior by a significant percentage of the world’s population. For many Christians, their religion is a way of living, and the teachings of Jesus inform, without enforcing, social norms, morals and behavior in the West. But Islam is a way of life, and Ramadan exemplifies that life. Obligation. No compromise, right and wrong, adherence both to form and substance.

Yet beneath the seeming harshness of the obligation lies the meaning of Ramadan for Muslims. A time of contemplation, of spiritual cleansing, of consideration for others, of self-discipline, of shared experience. It’s a positive time which leaves participants with a real sense of achievement and wellbeing.

Of course not everyone enters into the spirit even if they adhere to the form. Just as in the West the inevitable reaction of horror follows the appearance of Christmas advertising many months before the season begins, many Muslims complain of the creeping commercialization of Ramadan. Just as we do, many Muslims max out their credit cards during the season and spend the aftermath worrying about how they will make ends meet. And many overindulge during the night time hours, with some actually gaining weight over the month.

Some also mitigate the fasting hours by sleeping. Visit the more traditional offices in parts of the Gulf during Ramadan, and it’s not uncommon to see sleeping bodies littering prayer areas, offices and communal areas. But even among the weak-willed, there’s no mistaking the desire and intention to meet the obligation of their faith.

For non-Muslims living through Ramadan, only those who wrap themselves in their own bubble of reality can fail to be affected and often uplifted by the experience. I enjoy the month immensely. Social activities go on late into the night. Shops stay open until the early hours. There are special Ramadan foods, including the sweet, sticky variety which I adore. Above all, there’s a spirit of animation and excitement in the night time hours not to be felt at any other time of the year.

Daytimes are quiet. Working hours for those who are fasting are shorter. Meetings late in the afternoon are best avoided. Try as they might, even the most diligent start flagging. I remember one meeting with a very senior executive. At his request, it was at 5pm. As the meeting went on, I could see his eyes drooping as he fought to stay awake. Though there was a good chance that I would have bored him to sleep anyway, I learned my lesson.

For those experiencing the season for the first time, there can be memorable moments. When I first came to Jeddah in the 80’s, I woke up on the first morning of Ramadan to a loud explosion. When I crawled from my refuge under the bed and looked out of the window, I could see a field gun on a bit of waste ground outside my apartment, which was fired every morning at dawn to remind the faithful that the hours of fasting had begun. Then there’s the craziness on the roads as people rush to get home or the mosque at dusk for prayers and the breaking of the fast. And for half an hour following nightfall, the experience of driving on deserted roads normally packed with crawling rush-hour traffic.

For non-Muslims Ramadan is a chance to listen, observe, understand and enjoy. It’s unforgettable.

For my Muslim friends everywhere, Ramadan Kareem!

  1. Gill Slee permalink

    Dear Steve,I’m a friend of Ginny’s and she has been forwarding some of your blogs. They’re fascinating and very informative. I really enjoyed your blog on ‘the veils of fears’. Ginny and I have discussed this subject endlessly. ‘Ramadan’ is also interesting. My father was stationed in Cairo and Palestine during the 2WW and often talked about Ramadan and it’s effect on the local population.
    I have some Christian friends who have moved into inner city Bristol to live and work. Jan works with Somali women teaching them English.She was brought up in Pakistan and speaks fluent Urdu. She and Derek her husband are now learning Arabic. They are great people and very sensitive to the lifestyles and culture of the diverse population in Easton. They are enjoying your blogs as well. Please keep them coming.
    Regards Gill Slee

    • Thanks for your interest, Gill

      That’s good to hear. There are many who lack that sensitivity. I admire their efforts with Arabic. I’m not bad with spoken Arabic, but the written word has defeated me so far! But there’s always time…..

  2. Hi Steve, lovely article, few things are worth mentioning here. Ramadan adds to our list of good deeds to give to the poor and feed them during ramadan, so most of us would part with our money and savings to provide a good life to the poor people, if you visit any supermarket during ramamdan you will notice the stacks of food products near the charity stations, its incredible really. also if we have not fasted in the previous years we need to feed 10 poor poeple from the same staple that we eat every day per day of non-fasting ( for example if rice is our daily food, then it should be 3 kilos of the same variety of rice that we consume, so if buy basmati rice for ourselves, we should not buy a cheaper quality rice for the poor), also the end of the month we need to pay a fitra which is a type of tax, and it is calculated by the mosque, so every household guive a fitra per person that lives in the house, including the workers. so my house hold has 5 of us, a house keeper, and also the staff in my office, even though its not a lot of money, but it adds up.

    Also the most important thing in ramadan is the nightly prayers and the midnight meal that many people do in their homes and invite others for it in Bahrain we call it Gabgha. i would push myself to go to one of them if i were you. another thing is that we are now accustomed to cook a lot of dishes and send plates to our neighbors, so one ends up with a lot of stuff on the table. i normally have to have at least a couple of people in my house every day of ramadan. it brings baraka ( blessings) to my life

    • Many thanks for your interesting comment Suad, which enriches my initial observations about consideration for others and shared experience. I think that telling non-muslims about Ramadan, because of its inclusiveness and humanity, is an excellent way to counter negative perceptions of Islam in the West. And that can only be a good thing.

  3. i agree with you Steve, unfortunalty i had lived in many western countries and all i heard is “it cannot be good for you to not drink water the whole day” basically only superficial observations. no real interest was shown in knowing the secrets of this month. so i must thank you for this opportunity.

    • Ignorance is often a consequence of laziness. Unfortunately we live in a three-minute world in which people get much of their information from the web and TV, and have forgotten to inquire further than the bite-sized chunks of information and opinion that’s presented them. Fast food for the mind!

  4. This is really interesting, You’re a very skilled blogger. I’ve joined your feed and look forward
    to seeking more of your excellent post. Also, I’ve shared your website in my social networks!

    • Thanks for your kind words. The piece you have commented on is fairly old. There’s lots of newer stuff you might also enjoy!


  5. Hello, i think that i saw you visited my site thus i came to “return the
    favor”.I am trying to find things to improve
    my site!I suppose its ok to use some of your ideas!

    • Use any ideas you like. I only ask that if you quote from this blog, you attribute the quotation. Good luck with the site improvements! Steve

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