We are four days into Ramadan now! Ramadan is that time in the Muslim calendar when all Muslims fast from Sunrise to Sunset, taking no water or food for the daylight hours. Ramadan begins at a slightly earlier time every year in our calender, so it can be at any time of the year depending on the Islamic Calender. Last year it was August and this year is is July! The hottest times of the year.
During Ramadan month you also have no sexual relations during the daylight hours, no mean feat I’m sure! You do good deeds, taking care of your neighbours who might have less than you, you spend more time praying and getting closer to God. Ramadan is a time when you think peaceful thoughts and do no evil etc.
In many ways Ramadan is viewed in the same way that Christmas is viewed in the Christian Calender. But Christmas is more about abundance and Ramadan is about self-sacrifice for God, perhaps more like Lent! But as much as it is about self-sacrifice people here love doing it, or at least they believe they love doing it! Fasting for Ramadan makes you a ‘good Muslim’! The point of fasting in this way is to teach people how to empathise with people who are starving or have no water to drink or who struggle on a daily basis.
However, living in a community where struggling on a daily basis to meet your basic needs is the norm I fail to see the value in this practice! There are people who live way below the poverty line and most people around me are poor. They already know what it is to suffer and be hungry and live in perpetual fear of their needs not being met. When I see this around me everyday I fail to see how Ramadan is of any benefit to them whatsoever! And to be honest, when you are really thirsty and not eating all day where is your focus? It’s not on God, let me tell you!!!
Certain people are exempt from fasting, such as old people, children, pregnant women, people who are ill or women who are menstruating. However, even they will follow it! Children see the adults doing it and they do it too. This is crazy to me, as children are often malnourished here and fasting for a month adds to the malnourishment!!! Old people too need water and food, yet they will also fast.
It is a strange thing though. It is totally accepted here and not doing it feels like you are swimming against a huge tide of energy. I find that I am looking at it objectively but in my experience I find that I am unable to eat! I am within the flow of the Ramadan energy and I cannot do otherwise.
Our last meal of the day is at 3am and then we sleep. We then go for the entire day,until sunset without food and water. The first meal at sunset is called ‘break-fast’ and is usually quite filling. More protein being eaten during Ramadan than at any other time. People generally pray more during Ramadan especially in the evening. Even people who don’t normally pray will pray as it forgives the sins of the previous year! Unfortunately this is like catholic confession!!! For those of you who are Catholic you will probably recognise this!
Because of the work I do around the origins of religious festivals and customs I want to understand how Ramadan came to be in the first place. I know from reading about Islam that Ramadan pre-dates Islam. The month of Ramadan is the ninth month in the Arabic calender and comes from the root word rmḍ, which denotes ‘intense heat’ and ‘scorched earth’ and ‘shortness of rations’. (A very informative site about Ramadan is here: http://bloguna.com/alfalah/view/11327 )
If you are living in the desert at that time and this is your reality in this month then fasting is not something you are doing out of choice. It was something that you have to do because there is no food available. Life before Islam was a predominantly pagan one, where Polytheism was the norm, and Mecca was their sacred centre, housing 360 stone and wood ‘deities’. Arabs were tribal and each tribe had its own ruling deity so perhaps each tribe had a representative of their own tribal deities anchored at Mecca and these made up the 360 statutes. This would have given each tribe an equal share in the sacred place. But what makes me curious is if each tribe had their stone/wooden tribal deity there and the New Muslims removed them, rededicating the site to Allah, then whose tribal deity is still there in the form of the sacred stone? The Quraysh were the most powerful tribe in Mecca at that time so perhaps their tribal deity remains, although it has changed its name to fit the newer belief system?
According to tradition Abraham had originally built the Kaaba and had dedicated it to the the One God of the Hebrews but that the Arabs had turned it into a place of ‘Idol worship’. So when Mohammed arrived he was ‘reclaiming it’ for the One God, the word for God being ‘Allah’ denoting a male God. However, there was also a word for his female counterpart: Al-Lat and she too was originally worshipped there and that the stone was dedicated to her and the seven major planets. This has conveniently disappeared…but that is another story!
So what might Ramadan have meant to a nomadic culture whose spiritual and economic centre was at Mecca (and Yathrib)? A time of scarcity and lack, where food and water is limited? Did they too have a belief in ‘God’s Will? Or did the religious reasons for self-sacrifice come from the Christians or Jewish populations of the time? According to Karen Armstrong the Arabs of pre-Islamic Arabia were arrogant and warlike, and therefore Ramadan taught them humility. However arrogance is still the norm here, many centuries later!
But was Ramadan the reality of all the nomadic Bedouin AND the sedentary urban dwellers at Mecca? Mecca was a thriving business centre, most businesses made up of money-lenders, traders and merchants. During Ramadan no war was allowed, no murder or any evil act of harm to another. The settled peoples lived in constant fear of Bedouin attack so was this religious rule created by God, or by the Arabs who used Mohammed’s teachings to benefit themselves, once Mohammed had grown in stature?
I believe that Mohammed tried to offset the harsher beliefs of Ramadan by slightly changing the festival to make it easier on people who were more vulnerable, such as the elderly, ill or indisposed. We all know how hard it is to change anybody’s belief, no matter how negative so I imagine that Mohammed had to follow his guidance carefully and see what could be changed in a very practical sense!
In the Qu’ran it says ““O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, that you may become God-fearing.” (The Quran, 2:183)”
Somehow I doubt this. Why would a God of Love want people to fear him? This sounds like Judaic and Christian patriarchal beliefs again and not something channelled from ‘God’ or his intermediaries!
So, I am experiencing Ramadan and seeing where it has come from and how it has evolved and in the process I have realised that there is a book here! So lots of research to keep me going while I fast!
(I have just realised while re-reading this that all of the pictures I have put on this blog are of women! Except for the picture of the prophet. I wonder what that is about?)