IT’S BEGINNING TO LOOK A LOT LIKE RAMADAN

Muslim Boy Green

Muslims pray during Eid al-Fitr to celebrate the end of Ramadan in New York.

It’s that time of the lunar year where we are fast approaching the holy Muslim month of Ramadan. We are about 6 weeks away and to gently help us all with its imminent arrival, for both Muslims and non-Muslims alike, please find below 5 articles that I hope are amusing, interesting, and somewhat informative. These articles show Ramadan, Eid, and Muslim celebrations in a more positive light, by describing the experiences of different Muslims from different parts of the world.

We begin with two articles from the always brilliant Mehdi Hasan, who provides some basic details about all things Ramadan. These are then followed by travel writer Sarah Khan, who describes how she celebrates Eid in her neck of the woods (not sure why she prefers to spell Eid as Id, but each to their own, it must be an American thing). In the next article Bim Adewunmi describes how “Ramadan is my time to shine”. And we end with the sombre thoughts of Fahima Haque on how “celebrating Eid has become a sort of political act”. All 5 articles are presented in full and, as always, they are well worth reading in their entirety. Enjoy!


What Is Ramadan – And Other Questions Answered

A brief guide to the Islamic season of Ramadan for the curious, the bored, the uninformed and the ignorant.

Mehdi Hasan, 13 Aug 2010, newstatesman.com

Some of you may have noticed that it is the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. My stomach has. I can hear it groaning as I type this post. I won’t be eating anything till 8.38pm.

I’ve been fasting since I was about 12 or 13, and every year I’m asked the same bunch of questions about Ramadan by well-meaning non-Muslim friends and colleagues. So I thought I’d use this blog post to answer some of these common queries. Here we go:

What is Ramadan?

It’s the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, when Muslims all over the world spend 30 days observing the fast. Muslims believe it is a blessed month; it is the month in which we believe the Quran was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.

So you don’t eat for 30 days? Is that physically possible?

Sorry, what? There seems to be some confusion about the timing of the fast. The fast takes place from dawn to sunset each day, for 30 days, that is to say, during daylight hours only. We don’t actually fast for 30 whole days in a row – that would be impossible, if not worthy of a permanent place in the Guinness Book of Records.

You can drink water, right?

Nope. No water, no juice, no milk, no liquids whatsoever. In fact, the list of “prohibited” items and activities in Ramadan is fairly comprehensive: no food, no drink, no smoking, no drugs, no sex, no bad language or bad behaviour whatsoever, from dawn to sunset each day. That’s the challenge.

But doesn’t that damage your health?

Hmm. I haven’t noticed my fellow Muslims dropping like flies around me, as we fast together each year. Millions upon millions of Muslims, in fact, have been fasting for centuries without falling sick, toppling over or suffering from premature death. Fasting, contrary to popular opinion, doesn’t damage your health. Vulnerable individuals – the sick, the elderly, children, pregnant women – are exempt from the requirement to fast. And then there is the range of academic studies which show several health benefits arising from Ramadan-type fasting, “such as lower LDL cholesterol, loss of excessive fatty tissue or reduced anxiety in the fasting subjects”.

So do you end up losing weight at the end of it?

I can’t speak for others, but I always end up putting on weight because I eat so much every night, at iftar time, to compensate for not having eaten all day! From my own experience, few Muslims treat Ramadan as a period of dieting, or use the fast to lose weight.

Why is Ramadan in the summer this year? Didn’t it used to be in winter?

Since 622AD, and the time of the Prophet Muhammad, Islam has operated on a lunar calendar, with months beginning when the first crescent of a new moon is sighted. As the Islamic lunar calendar year is 11 to 12 days shorter than the solar year and contains no leap days, etc, the date of Ramadan moves back through our calendar each year. (For example, a few years ago, Ramadan coincided with our winter; the days were shorter and the fasts were easier!)

What is the point of starving yourself for 30 days?

Ramadan is a deeply spiritual time for Muslims. By fasting, we cut ourselves off from the distractions and temptations of our busy, hectic, materialistic lives and try to gain closeness to God. The Quran describes the main purpose of the fast as being to “attain taqwa“, or “God-consciousness”. We use the fast to try to purify and cleanse our souls, and to ask forgiveness for our sins. We also learn self-restraint and we become much more aware of those less fortunate people around us for whom “fasting” is not a choice, for whom hunger is part of daily life. The fast is an act of worship and a spiritual act; it is also an act of social solidarity.


Ramadan: A Guide For The Perplexed

I’m fasting for Ramadan. It might be a good time to lay to rest some common myths about the whole business.

Mehdi Hasan, 03 Aug 2011, theguardian.com

I crawled out of bed this morning at 2.45am, exhausted and bleary-eyed. I wolfed down two eggs, two slices of toast, a croissant, half a banana and several glasses of water. Then I went back to bed.

I performed a similar routine at a similar time yesterday, and the day before that, too. Awoke, ate and slept again. Have I gone mad, I hear you ask? Why do I seem to be having pregnancy-style, middle-of-the-night cravings for fried breakfasts and lots of liquid?

I don’t. There’s a more prosaic explanation: it is Ramadan and I’m now on to my third day of fasting. Luckily for me, and for the 1.6 billion other Muslims across the world, there are just 27 more days to go. (Is that my stomach I hear groaning?)

Fasting, or “sawm”, in Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam – the others being the “shahadah” (declaration of faith), “salat” (the five daily prayers), “zakat” (almsgiving) and the “hajj” (pilgrimage). The fast is considered to be a “wajib” or obligatory act (though there are exemptions that I’ll come to in a moment).

Muslims fast for 30 days in Ramadan. Just to be clear: we fast from dawn (hence the 2.45am wakeup) to sunset (around 9pm at the moment) each day. We don’t fast for 30 days as a whole. That, of course, would be impossible. Not to mention suicidal.

Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, is regarded by Muslims as one of the most holy months: we believe that it was during Ramadan that the Qur’an was first revealed to prophet Muhammad by the angel Gabriel.

The Islamic calendar has been lunar since its inception in AD622, with each month beginning with the sighting of a new moon. As the lunar year is 11 to 12 days shorter than the solar year, the start date for Ramadan moves back through the western calendar each year. A few years ago, Ramadan coincided with our winter, when the days were shorter and cooler; this year, too much moaning and griping from British Muslims (yes, me included), it’s fallen in the summer, with much longer and hotter days. That means the fasting isn’t easy. Imagine, for instance, going on the underground in the sweltering August heat without being able to take a bottle of water with you.

In fact, you’re not allowed any liquids: no water, no juice, no milk…The list of “banned” items and activities in Ramadan is extensive: no cigarettes, drugs, sex, bad language or bad behaviour, from dawn to sunset. That, dear readers, is the challenge. (In case you’re wondering, chewing gum isn’t allowed either.)

“Has it begun?” my colleagues asked me earlier this week, their eyes expressing a mixture of sympathy, pity and – just perhaps – awe. Most (well-meaning) non-Muslims view Ramadan as deeply oppressive. Isn’t it dangerous, I’m often asked? Doesn’t it damage your health? Weaken you?

The short answer is No. Millions (billions?) of Muslims have been fasting for centuries, without suffering any Ramadan-specific illnesses or diseases. Vulnerable groups – the sick, the elderly, children, pregnant women, travellers – are exempt. And, in recent years, a number of academic studies have demonstrated the health benefits of fasting. According to a paper published in April by the Intermountain Medical Centre Heart Institute in Utah, it can lower the risk of coronary artery disease and diabetes, and keep blood cholesterol levels in check. The researchers found fasting could also reduce other cardiac risk factors such as excess weight, blood sugar levels and triglycerides.

Some of the world’s leading athletes and sports stars have managed to fast while performing at the highest levels. Next year, Ramadan starts in July, and will cover the whole period of the Olympics. East London will be home to Muslim athletes from across the world, fasting, competing and – I guarantee you – winning medals.

It’s nothing new. In the 90s, Hakeem Olajuwon, a devout Muslim considered to be one of the greatest basketball players of his generation, would often play in the NBA for the Houston Rockets while fasting. “It made me stronger and my statistics went up,” he later remarked. “I was better during Ramadan, more focused.” In February 1995, Olajuwon averaged an impressive 29 points per game and was named NBA Player of the Month, despite the entire month coinciding with Ramadan.

More recently, Manchester City’s Kolo Touré, also a practising Muslim, has had no qualms about fasting and playing top-flight football. “It doesn’t affect me physically,” Touré argued during last year’s Ramadan, which happened to correspond with the first month of the Premier League. “It makes me stronger. You can do it when you believe so strongly in something.”

Ramadan becomes an unparalleled, month-long opportunity for personal and spiritual growth – and the fast is a deeply private act of worship. “Of the five pillars of Islam, the fast of Ramadan is perhaps the most personal expression of self-surrender to God,” the American writer and convert to Islam, Jeffrey Lang, argues in his book, Even Angels Ask. “We can observe a Muslim performing the other four pillars, but, in addition to himself, only God knows if he is staying with the fast.”

So far, I’ve managed three. Now, what time is it? Noon. Hmm. Just eight hours and 55 minutes to go.


All-American Id

Sarah Khan, 07 Nov 2011, nytimes.com

When I think of Id, I think of doughnuts.

Some might expect more ethnic fare to be symbolic of this holy day—haleem, perhaps, or baklava. But growing up frequenting a mosque in suburban New England, my Id mornings involved leaping up as soon as prayers were over, dispensing the customary three hugs to everyone in my vicinity and racing with my friends to the social hall, where a smorgasbord of powdered and jelly-filled confections awaited. To this day, nothing says “Id Mubarak” to me quite like a chocolate-glazed doughnut.

In countries with significant Muslim populations, Id-al-Adha—Bakr-Id, or Festival of the Goat, as it’s known throughout South Asia—is synonymous with qurbaani, or the sacrifice of animals. But you’d be hard-pressed to find Muslim families in the United States ferrying sheep home in the backs of their SUVs, securing them to their white picket fences and slaughtering them on their driveways. In the motherland, the ritual is as standard a practice as baking Christmas cookies is here, but most Muslims I know in America have never witnessed the practice themselves.

Instead, my family, like countless others, has outsourced our qurbaani to—where else?—India, where the meat is then widely distributed to the needy on our behalf. And then we eat doughnuts.

Id-ul-Fitr, at the end of Ramadan, is enthusiastically anticipated by hungry Muslims counting down the days to the finish line that marks the culmination of the month of fasting. But it’s harder for those of us not participating in the hajj pilgrimage to muster the same level of enthusiasm for this Id—ironic, considering it’s perhaps the greater of the two, and most symbolic of the very core of the faith. The word Islam means submission, and today we celebrate Abraham’s submission to the will of God when he was asked to sacrifice his son. When he agreed without hesitation, a lamb was sent in his son’s place; today, Muslims honor that devotion by sacrificing lambs, goats or cows.

That’s not to say I’ve never had a close encounter of the sheep kind. I’ve witnessed the full-fledged Bakr-Id experience numerous times at my grandparents’ home in Hyderabad: servants gathering lambs in a shack behind the house; my grandfather reciting a prayer and solemnly slaughtering the first animal as I peer through a window; and, soon enough, fresh shami kababs being served for lunch. At least I always knew exactly what was going on; some of my less fortunate acquaintances naively made friends with their family’s Id goat—the name Billy was an obvious go-to—only to be dismayed to realize that their new pet was the main ingredient in the holiday biryani. They were left so scarred that it’s a wonder I don’t have more vegetarian friends.

An American Id has its own homegrown traditions, albeit more sterilized ones. We stay up late the night before for chaand raat festivities, midnight bazaars and cookie-baking parties. The hearts of desi-centric neighborhoods like Jackson Heights in New York and Devon Street in Chicago resemble Delhi or Karachi, with cars honking, revelers overflowing in the streets and music blaring from every storefront. We visit family and friends all day, going from house to house feasting on kababs and sheer khorma, a sweet milk concoction with vermicelli, saffron, and nuts. Meat plays a major role in the form of lamb biryani, mutton chops and goat nihari galore, though unlike in Hyderabad I can’t trace its provenance to my backyard. At night some might play Pin the Tail on the Goat; in years past I’ve participated in Secret Idi exchanges. When I have kids, there just may be an Id Elf responsible for mounds of presents magically manifesting themselves. He’ll likely navigate by way of a flying camel.

But when you’re living in New York, far away from your parents and hometown mosques, the local community takes on a whole new level of importance. In a city like this, friends become family; and with the restrictions imposed by most Manhattan shoebox apartments, gatherings at homes are replaced by massive brunches at Sarabeth’s after prayers. When I’m really lucky, I score an invite to one of my adopted families’ homes in Brooklyn or New Jersey to fill up on kheema rolls and kebabs.

On Sunday morning I donned a new shalwar kameez and took a cab to the Islamic Center of New York University. Imam Khalid Latif, 29, something of a rock star in the Muslim American world (he also happens to be married to one of my best friends, Priya), led the service and delivered the Id sermon. His words resonated as I sat there, part of one diverse, transient yet unified community: “When you celebrate today, celebrate with each other. Don’t just extend your greetings to the people you know. Don’t leave each other alone.”

And we didn’t. Nearly a thousand New Yorkers—students and young professionals; families and children; people of all races; dressed in jeans, suits, hijabs, thobes and kurtas—gathered in that crowded space, in the basement of a church, to celebrate Id together in a quintessentially all-American way.

Then we ate. The spread was elaborate—bagels, fruit, muffins, pastries, chicken tikka, M&M’s, baklava and more—but, to my dismay, something was missing.

And so on my walk home, I made a pit stop at Dunkin’ Donuts

Id Mubarak, indeed.


I Love Ramadan – It Makes Me Feel Connected

I am not a model Muslim, but Ramadan is the one pillar of Islam I do really well; it’s my time to shine.

Bim Adewunmi, 20 Jul 2012, theguardian.com

It’s finally Ramadan. All year long, I’ve been waiting for this, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, the month that all non-Muslims can name because of what we do during it – fasting. I love it. It is the one pillar of Islam that I excel at, every year, without fail. Ramadan is my time to shine.

I was raised Muslim by my Nigerian parents and have an Arabic middle name. And though I have long forgotten how to read Arabic, I can still recite most of the alphabet I was taught by the tutor who came to our house every Saturday for a few months (we requested the tutor). My parents were remarkably relaxed about our “faith”: there was always an understanding that we were Muslims, but it didn’t stop us from attending a Catholic school, where we did the Stations of the Cross every Friday (I can still name all 14 of these). In the school holidays, we would sometimes attend Jumaah services, going to the local mosque at the end of the street with our cousins. I learned how to do a water ablution (wudu), to reply to greetings with a jolly “Wa-alaikum salaam!” and to bless the prophets when their names came up. I learned the shorter Qur’anic verses: suras Al-Fatihah, Al-Iklas, Al-Falaq and Al-Kawthar among them. My father’s extended family is deeply religious – his grandfather is widely credited with introducing Islam to his hometown – but we were never made to feel like we were doing Islam “wrong” by anyone in the family. We all did what we could, when we could, and in the meantime, got on with life. I honestly think this was the best approach to religion.

I think I was 11 when I took part in my first Ramadan. I was at boarding school in Nigeria, and the bell prefect sent one of her minions to wake us up for the pre-dawn meal, the sehri. A few hundred sleepy girls got up to walk to the dining hall at 5am to queue up in front of older girls who dished out piping hot rice and stew. Afterwards, we’d trudge back to our dormitories to catch some extra sleep and/or pray. In the evenings, we slipped out of prep to attend the Taraweeh prayers in the assembly hall. During the day, we would go to class as normal, virtuously turning down drinks and food with exaggeratedly pious expressions. The Ramadans of my youth were brilliant – communal pre-dawn meals of cassava, yams, rice or bread, followed by evenings of breaking the fast (iftar) with fruit, cornmeal and bean cakes. There was alms-giving, introspection and a community feeling; moments that have made it my favourite Islamic month.

It is the reason I still fast today. I am not a model Muslim: I swear like a sailor, I’m not often “modestly” dressed and cannot ever see myself wearing a hijab. I fall down on all the other pillars quite regularly – my zakat is sporadic, I have never done the hajj, and I don’t make five prayers a day; I take heart in the Islamic view that sincerity in intention is the foundation of all actions. But Ramadan, I can do. I am good at Ramadan. I love every element of it – the not eating, sure, but also the long tasbih sessions, the contemplation, the meditation, the communal prayers, the hum of anticipation right before iftar. It is a month where the halal butcher puts a little extra into my bag when I’m buying lamb shanks. It is the time when I throw out “Salam alaikum!” to hijabis and they smile back and reply. It is the time where I overhear Yorubas, who have a greeting for every occasion, say “E ku ongbe” empathetically on the bus. Everyone is better during Ramadan, more patient, more kind.

Ramadan makes me feel connected. There’s a network of us all across the globe; more than a billion of us, all doing the same thing at the same time. However disparate our lives, whatever freedoms we enjoy – or otherwise – however different our experiences, someone else is probably feeling exactly the same way I am. I find that incredibly moving and life-affirming. At this point in my life, I’ve documented my various issues with organised religion – and I’m not entirely comfortable with everything I see. But I know I love Ramadan. I fast because I want to, and because I can. I fast because it makes me feel good.

And of course, the glorious feast after a month of fasting is nothing to be messed with. Roll on, Eid.


Celebrating Eid: ‘As A Conflicted Muslim, This Day Doesn’t Come Easily’

At the end of a Ramadan marred by violence, Fahima Haque reflects on how her relationship with Islam has shifted from active rejection to thoughtful resilience.

Fahima Haque, 06 Jul 2016, theguardian.com

Growing up, whenever a classmate would shout “fucking Hindu” at me, I was devastated. It felt like no one could see me, that all they could see was yet another brown person. I was lumped into some incorrect category driven by ignorance. Then, September 11 happened and I realized how different it was to be the subject of active hate.

As far as insults went, “Hindu” was inaccurate and ignorant. But being asked if my family were terrorists or being told to “go back to where I came from” cut right through me.

And so as Ramadan ends and Muslims across the world joyously celebrate Eid Al-Fitr with feasting and presents, I am grappling with the faith I was raised with.

My parents are devout, and it became clear to me as a child that straying from Islam was not an option. There was no exploratory period of what Allah meant, what other religions meant, or what not believing in a higher power could mean. It was suffocating and with every surah I memorized, I felt more stifled. Did I really want to be Muslim? Would I be more enamoured with another religion? I wanted a chance to find out for myself, but doing so was out of the question.

As I got older, I had more and more reservations about Islam. Things like not being able to wear shorts when my brother could, to knowing women in a Muslim nation like Saudi Arabia still can’t go anywhere without a chaperone were very hard to reconcile with my budding sense of my self as a feminist.

So, as a teenager, I adopted the age-old liberal trick of disavowing religion; because religion is for the ignorant and narrow-minded. I knew enough to know that the sky is blue because of scattering light and tiny molecules, not merely because Allah said so. In college, I avoided telling people I was raised Muslim. I didn’t observe Ramadan, and the prayer rug my mother so lovingly packed for me gathered dust in the back of my closet as I finally wore what I wanted freely for the first time.

While I can now honestly say I never really stopped believing in God, I definitely tried. I publicly called myself an atheist and smirked at those who needed religion, but secretly I never abandoned simple rituals like saying a short prayer before eating or absentmindedly asking a higher power for guidance when lost.

But that all changed because of Isis. Islam needs real allies in in the face of such barbaric acts like those we have seen in Orlando or my family’s home country or Turkey or Iraq or Saudi Arabia. So, within the last five years I started to double down on Islam. I am the one now initiating discussions on Islam and its role in politics, race and feminism in my social circles. I am no longer ashamed to say “Yes, I am Muslim” but “No, I probably will never wear a niqab and yes, I too have a lot of questions myself”. By having such frank discussions, I had to admit to myself that being a Muslim was ingrained for me and I could never abandon it – but I did have to find a way to practice.

Like any other religion, there is a spectrum of belief for Muslims. I never had progressive Muslim role models growing up, but that’s changing. People are speaking up, using their experiences to rally on behalf of inclusion, that really helped me see how identifying as a Muslim was not mutually exclusive with me being an American, a liberal or feminist. People like Hasan Minhaj poignantly talking about being different in his one-man show, London mayor Sadiq Khan’s delightfully frank essay on fasting, queer Muslim photographer Samra Habib sharing the stories of other LGBT Muslims, Muslim American teens in New York City coping with identity and books like Love InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women are refreshing and inspiring. The Muslim experience is no longer a monolith.

When you’ve spent most of your life as a confused Muslim, days like Eid don’t come easily. I don’t have many Muslim friends, despite growing up in a predominantly Muslim neighborhood in Queens, and my family never really spent it as a cohesive unit mainly because getting the day off from work or school wasn’t a guarantee.

So for me celebrating Eid has become a sort of political act. My attitude towards celebrating has changed now that my six nieces and nephews are older. Their version of Islam can be full of merriment and acceptance. In fact, this Eid I will be at my brother’s home with his white, American wife and their newborn son, and I can’t think of a more inclusive way to celebrate.

With every terrifying terrorist attack that is being wrongfully blamed on Islam, Muslims across the world understand Aziz Ansari’s fearing for his family’s safety or comedian Dean Obeidallah’s feeling of immediate, internal turmoil that happens whenever there’s a terrorist attack. And I can’t do much to stop any of that.

But what I can do, is celebrate Eid with courage and show by example what it means to be Muslim – as varied and complicated as it is to be human.

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