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Muslims and Ramadan

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Posted by Lycinus on Friday, November 08, 2002 at 01:54:20 :

Today Muslims are in their second day of observing the Fast of Ramadan. If there are no Muslims around you the impact of Ramadan for you may be nil. But if you are working in an environment where there are Muslims, and you are a non-Muslim, you might wonder if there is anything you ought to do or avoid doing during Ramadan.
First, a quick explanation of what Ramadan is (hey, some people really don’t know). Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic year (this is the year 1423). It was during the month of Ramadan (27 Ramadan - The Night of Power) that Muslims believe the Angel Gabriel first appeared to Mohammed and acted as the conduit through which Allah spoke to him. During the entire month of Ramadan, Muslims fast during daylight hours. Fasting includes not only a prohibition on eating, but also on drinking, chewing gum, smoking, sexual intercourse, and the like. At night they break the fast and have a meal, visit with friends, pray, etc. Some feast and attend parties at night, an activity sometimes criticized by Muslims with a more austere interpretation of their duties as Muslims during Ramadan. It is traditional to gather and recite the Koran each night (not the whole thing each night but dividing it into sections over the month into prayer sessions called Taraweeh). The fasting serves one or more of several purposes for Muslims. The hunger experienced during fasting helps them empathize with the poor who experience hunger all the time. Maintaining control against hunger helps build self-discipline. And denying ones bodily hungers is thought to help purify the spirit. Anyway, Muslims believe fasting during Ramadan is a duty Allah requires of them.
One thing you might want to do is wish your Muslim coworkers and friends a “Ramadan Mubarek” (blessed Ramadan). Some will appreciate this. A few (or many depending on where you are) will not. There are some Muslims that take offense at non-Muslims employing Muslim greetings and figures of speech when they speak Arabic. More often, they are delighted at non-Arab attempts to speak Arabic. Reasonably fluent speakers however, who are neither Muslim nor Arab may occasionally arouse suspicion and resentment from some Muslim Arabs. On the whole, I recommend greeting Muslims with “Ramadan Mubarek” during Ramadan. If it’s said in a neighborly way they’ll take it that way and appreciate the gesture. It they take offense, chances are they are probably the kind of Muslims who couldn’t hate you any more than they already do, so you’ve lost nothing (the magic of good manners – they cost nothing even when wasted on those who don’t appreciate them and they can pay great dividends among those who do.)
The big issue of course is this: if my Muslims coworkers and friends are fasting and prohibited from eating, drinking, smoking, chewing gum, sexual intercourse, etc., should I refrain from doing these things in front of them? It is almost always good manners in most cultures to refrain from sexual intercourse in public and this is especially so among Muslims, even during months other than Ramadan. But eating, drinking, smoking, and the like are another matter. We could assume, since feeling hunger and resisting temptation help build empathy for the poor, develop self control, and cleanse the spirit of bodily appetites, that the more temptation we provide the more we maximize the benefit Muslims gain from resisting it. So maybe we should wait till we’re sure our Muslim coworkers are good and hungry. Late afternoon is best because many may have actually had a big Iftar the previous night – that’s a meal eaten at night during Ramadan – for some a modest affair for others a nocturnal feast that sates their appetite for a significant portion of the next day. Heat up some savory dish in the office microwave and walk around with it to ensure the delicious smell spreads. Then sit near our Muslims coworker and say “gee Ahmed this is great stuff, I’ve got plenty, you want some? C’mon, Allah will forgive you won’t he?” Now you might say this sounds like a cruel and immature prank. But resisting temptation is an important theme in Islam. Consider this: during the Hajj (another important event in the Muslim year – when Muslims make the pilgrimage to Mecca), one of the rituals Muslims perform to commemorate events in the life of Abraham is stoning the “devil pillars.” This honors the memory of Abraham having resisted Satan’s efforts to tempt him from fulfilling Allah’s command to sacrifice his son Ishmael (Jews and Christians say it was Isaac but we’ll leave that disagreement alone since it’s not central to the thought here). Abraham threw stones at the devil and resisted Satan’s attempts to convince him to ignore Allah’s command. Had Satan not tried to tempt Abraham and had Allah’s original command been to sacrifice something less precious than a son, say a cheeseburger, it would have been no big deal. Would Abraham’s resolve against temptation be revered if the devil had stayed home out of respect for Abraham’s religion and if the command had been to sacrifice nothing? And if a Muslim is supposed to resist temptation and deny bodily hungers during Ramadan, how can they do so if they don’t actually face temptation or experience hunger? We might call the person who purposefully provides the temptation a self-sacrificing humanitarian since they’d likely do harm to their own reputation with such antics, but they’d be providing their Muslim friends with the temptation they need in order to practice resistance. On the other hand we should not be surprised if our Muslim friends, like Abraham with Satan, throw stones at us if we use this approach – oh the ingratitude! Anyway one might properly ask us by what right we presume to decide for Muslims what they should experience during the fast.
So should we then refrain from eating drinking and smoking in front of Muslims during the fast? Again one might properly ask by what right we presume to decide what Muslims should see during the fast. In Saudi Arabia it’s a no-brainer. There, public volunteers (called Mutawah) for the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice might smack us with a stick if we refuse to stop doing things publicly that fasting Muslims aren’t supposed to do, even if we’re not Muslims. All that said, I recommend not violating the fast in front of fasting Muslims if you can avoid it - no matter where you are. I don’t say this out respect for their beliefs. If you take their beliefs seriously then providing temptation actually helps them achieve a goal of fasting, thought they won’t necessarily appreciate you for it. I recommend it as a means of pursuing your own interests. They’ll be less likely to be irritated with you if don’t eat and drink in front of them, and they might even like you better. And that could translate into better and more productive professional relations with them and a willingness on their part to share more with you. Of course there could be rare circumstances where your goals require that you do irritate them and you actually want them to be angry with you. In such odd cases, go for it.
This year most Muslims will observe the Fast of Ramadan until probably 6 Dec when the tenth month, Shawwal, should begin and Eid Al Fitr should occur (that’s the Feast of Breaking the Fast - a festive occasion with an atmosphere somewhat comparable to that of Christmas, with family and friends gathering and feasting and feeling very close to one another.) I say should rather than will because officially it is the sighting of the crescent moon at maximum wane, before it begins to wax, that marks the start of a new month. There is some question over whether astronomical projections that very accurately predict when the crescent should be visible are acceptable or whether it is necessary to wait until the crescent is actually sighted. Since the Islamic calendar is lunar it is generally 11 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar. So if you remember Ramadan starting a bit later in our year last year, you remember correctly.
Finally, here’s a rather goofy saying that might make your more lighthearted Muslims laugh during Ramadan (and piss off the more austere): Qaabultuha faqalat “aarun alayka wan-nasu seeyamun.” Faqultu leha “shifatayki hilalun walsawmu ba’ad ru’yat alhiliali haraamun.” Meaning: I kissed her and she said “Shame you on you, the people are fasting.” So I said to her “Your lips are a crescent, and fasting after sighting the crescent is forbidden.” The “crescent” refers the crescent moon marking the end of Ramadan and start of Shawwal.

Lycinus wishing you a veteran’s day (in USA).

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