Reflections on the Month of Ramadan
This article was posted on the Arabic-language reformist/Liberal online journal, Al-Awan (Kairos), on 29 August, 2010. It was authored by Sa’eed Nasheed, a Moroccan intellectual whose articles appear frequently on Al-Awan.[i] The following are excerpts from the article, followed by my analysis and comments.
Note: The Islamic calendar is lunar, each year Ramadan occurs approximately 12 days “earlier” than the previous year. For example, in 2013, Ramadan begins on 10 July, but in 2014; it will begin on 28 June. In 2010, Ramadan began on 15 August! Rather confusing for people accustomed to a solar calendar!
“Ramadan is that time when more prayers are offered, food prices rise, more money is spent, more traffic tickets are issued, more women put on their hijabs, young ladies get harassed, and a great increase in digestive and heart illnesses is quite noticeable!
“What’s going on? Please don’t worry! This is the month of Ramadan!
“I used to wonder, and am still wondering, what are actually ‘the benefits of fasting’ that people brag about. In fact these ‘benefits’ are very disappointing? Take for example those doctors who, at the beginning of Ramadan, talked about the benefits of fasting; but now as they go to their clinics late in the morning, they find many patients waiting and hoping to get relief from a severe case of indigestion, a rather common phenomenon in the month of fasting! As for those teachers who assume the role of ‘Du’at’ (missionaries) and harangue their students about the psychological and moral benefits of fasting; they hasten to criticize the young for lack of manners when they don’t stop yawning! Not to forget the religious enthusiasts among psychologists and social scientists who compose theses on the social benefits of fasting, but remain perplexed by the spread of aggressive behaviors during this holy month!
“Are there some hidden benefits in the month of fasting that we aren’t aware of, or are we really ‘looking for a black cat in a dark room?’
“Lately, I have been spending Ramadan in the old part of Fez, a place that is steeped in tradition. Here, locals get ready for the observance of religious occasions as if they were preparing for the festivities associated with an Andalusian wedding[ii]. And what a wedding it is! Walk around the old section of the city just before the call to prayer that announcing the ‘Iftar,’ (the time for the first meal at sunset) and observe people’s behavior. Traditionally, men and women in Fez are known for being well-mannered; but not in Ramadan. You behold people fighting, or verbally abusing one another. Some confrontations last until the Athan (Call to Prayer) announcing the beginning of the fast at dawn.
“During the night, several of these quarreling people rush to the nearest mosque with their prayer rugs under their arms to attend the special prayers and listen to season’s chants. What a sight to behold men standing in line waiting to get into the mosques! But when I notice that a mosque is packed, I return home to offer my prayers. That’s not a problem; I can offer my prayers whether riding on a camel, or in a train, or even when flying. In Islam no holiness is attributed to the land where a mosque has been built.
“In the final analysis, who is a Muslim? A Muslim is the one who has been spared the tongue of another Muslim! How can I be a true Muslim if I appear angry and cause terror to others! Why should I resort to violence when I see someone breaking his Ramadan fast? What kind of wisdom is it that intimidates someone who dares to eat in my presence?
“Let’s get back to the institution of Ramadan. It so happens that this year  the month of fasting coincided with the time to go to the beach for relaxation. [As noted above, Ramadan in 2010 began on 15 August, the hottest month of the year.] My wife and I had decided to spend Ramadan there on the Atlantic shore. We arrived at the beach on the first day of Ramadan before the time of Iftar. The first sight that greeted us was a verbal battle going on among women! But why women? We got our answer the next day. Only men were enjoying lounging on the beach and swimming. What about the ladies? As for them it’s Ramadan, the month for fasting and receiving forgiveness. My wife turned to me and said, ‘Now you have to suffer my anger!’ Wow, I said to myself, a whole month, that’s too much!”
The author considers himself as a “cultural” Muslim rather than a true believer; so he decided to question the so-called benefits of the Ramadan “Sawm” (Arabic for fasting) and to demonstrate that no real benefits, spiritual, social, or physical, come out of that exercise. People become short-tempered, work only few hours a day, suffer greatly from hunger and thirst, especially when Ramadan happens to be in summer. Women slave during the day preparing fancy meals; and at sunset, the family sits around the table to eat delicious meals and end with special deserts such as “Baklava” and “Kenafeh.” Eating such big meals requires staying up until midnight or even after. After a brief time to sleep, Muslims have to get up very early, in fact before dawn, to have breakfast and go back to sleep, not a healthy routine to follow!
Sa’eed Nasheed did a good job in critiquing the contradictions in this institution; I hardly need to add more to his words. Islam is a thoroughly legalistic system; for example, should a Muslim swallow his saliva during Ramadan, he would have broken his fast, and must make amends by fasting another day after the end of the month. In such a spiritual atmosphere, perpetual anxiety reigns, and a person gets irritated at others for the least reason. Ultimately, this is due to the fact that in Islam, faith is not internalized; it remains an external assent to a creed that declares the unity of God (as a solitary being) and the apostleship of Muhammad, as the last Messenger to mankind. Thus fasting during Ramadan, while advertised as a beneficial spiritual exercise, ends up manifesting serious problems. While the author has provided us with a light-hearted critique of this basic “pillar” of Islam, he leaves us with no practical solutions to the problem. Every year, Muslims worldwide go through the month of Ramadan with all its inherent contradictions, but they seem to be incapable of seriously dealing the ill-effects of this religious tradition.
The link to the Arabic text is:
[i] Note about Sa’eed Nasheed based on an autobiographical article posted on Al-Awan, 14 January, 2010
About 25 years ago, Sa’eed was studying philosophy at the University of Rabat, Morocco. He was an activist among leftist university students. Quite often, he would miss attending classes, spending his time at the Soviet Cultural Center, learning Russian, and reading Pravda and other Soviet publications. He became very fond of his professor of philosophy, Abdel-Salam ben-‘Abdel-‘Ali who taught his students how to reflect and think through the problems that faced the nation at the end of the century. Sa’eed’s world almost collapsed with the fall of the USSR, but eventually, he could see the weakness of all totalitarian ideologies and regimes. However, his love-affair with Russian writings and his acquaintance with post-modern philosophers contributed to his loss of faith in the truth claims of Islam. Somehow, he still considers himself a Muslim, but a Muslim who questions everything, even the authority of the Qur’an, Muhammad’s claims, and Allah’s!
2. Al-Andalus is the name given by the Arab conquerors of the Iberian Peninsula in 710 A.D. The Arabic language does not have the letter “v”, this creates a difficulty for the Arabs to pronounce a word that has this letter. Since the Vandals were the rulers of Spain at that time, the Arab conquerors dropped “v” and called Spain “Bilad al-Andalus” the country of the “Andals.” After the Reconquista of Spain in 1492, the Muslims, known as the “Moors” were evicted, many settled in Morocco. They exerted a great deal of influence on the country by adding many of their customs and traditions to the host country, including wedding celebrations, colorful songs and music.