Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Ramadan Chronicles, Part II: Religion

What is the spirit of Ramadan? What is up with all this fasting and praying for a month?

Ramadan prayers outside of the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca,

the world's 3rd largest mosque, after Mecca and Medina

FIRST OF ALL, let me preface this post by saying that I am in no way a religious scholar. I haven’t studied Islam or the Qu’ran in depth (though I have read it in its entirety). What I am writing comes from personal observations and experiences, as well as parallels drawn from my own spiritual practice.

As in every religious community, there are those who get a lot of meaning from their spiritual practices, and there are those who are just “going through the motions”. Doing "as they ought” for the sake of their reputation, or societal pressures. This is also the case in Morocco during Ramadan.

“Are you going to fast this year?” I asked my friend Mustapha.

“Of course.” He replied.

“Why?” I couldn’t help it. I’m a researcher by nature.

He paused and had to think about it. “Because it’s Ramadan. It’s what we do. It’s our religion.”

So interesting that he used the plural “we” in his response. In Morocco, there is a group mentality that pushes/encourages everyone to fast and pray this month. In one sense this is good, because everyone can stand in solidarity through a difficult month. But on the other hand, it’s almost as if you have no choice. You must practice according to the letter of the law, no matter what. In fact, Muslims in Morocco DON’T have a choice. Article 222 of Morocco's penal code states, "A person commonly known to be Muslim who violates the fast in a public place during Ramadan, without having one of the justifications allowed by Islam, shall be punished by one to six months of prison and a fine”. Morocco's non-Muslim minorities - Jews and non-Muslim foreigners – are exempted from the ban on public eating during Ramadan.

This was demonstrated last September, when a group or Moroccans advocating religious freedom were arrested and fined for organizing a public picnic during the holy month. Some organizers even received death threats.**

Special Ramadan meals at a KFC in Malaysia

“This is the month for renewing our commitment and re-establishing our relationship with our Creator.” explains Khalid Baig. Besides fasting during daylight hours, the religious practices of Ramadan include 5 daily prayers, plus a few extra on certain days. At some mosques, 1/30th of the Qu’ran is read every night, so that the whole book is completed by the Eid al-Fitr, or End-of-Ramadan Celebration.

Most importantly, Ramadan is the moment to re-evaluate your heart, and re-connect with God.

“Islam does not approve of monasticism.” Says Baig. “It does not ask us to permanently isolate ourselves from this world, since our test is in living here according to the Commands of our Creator. But it does ask us to take periodic breaks from it. The mandatory Salat (five daily prayers) is one example. For a few minutes every so many hours throughout the day, we leave the affairs of this world and appear before Allah to remind ourselves that none but He is worthy of worship and of our unfaltering obedience. Ramadan takes this to the next higher plane, providing intense training for a whole month.”

The practice of fasting is a great way to increase consciousness, intentionality, and thankfulness for God’s provision and especially to realize how much we are blessed, and thus how much we can bless others. The other day, when we prepared a beautiful iftar (break-fast) meal (American-style, complete with pancakes and omlettes) for our friends and our Arabic teachers, Sam commented to me how fasting all day makes iftar that much more meaningful. Like exercise, I hate it when I’m doing it, but afterwards I feel great.

Nowdays, one could say that Ramadan fasting has taken on a Hallmark life of its own. Interestingly enough, In Egypt national statistics have pointed to substantial increase in consumption of food, electricity, and medications related to digestive disorders during the month of Ramadan as compared with the monthly average in the rest of the year. For a veeery interesting commentary on this phenomenon, read “Wasting Ramadan” by Abdel-Moneim Said***

And certainly not everybody who fasts is achieving a zen-like state of self-denial and liberation from vices. People are crabby and tired during the day. People stress out about food and income and which iftars are the most important to attend (to see and be seen, that is). For the best example of the negative aspect of Ramadan, just look at the insanity that is traffic in the city when everyone has been fasting.

In Moroccan Arabic, there is even a verb, “t’rrumden”, which can be loosely translated as “being crabby because you’ve been fasting for Ramadan”. Thus the phrase, “Ma t’trrumdensh maaya” basically means, “Don’t you go all Ramadan on me!”

According to Baig, The Prophet Mohammed warned: "There are those who get nothing from their fast but hunger and thirst. There are those who get nothing from their nightly prayers but loss of sleep."

No matter what you get from it, Ramadan is a perfect time to do some real soul-searching. To ask some critical questions about religion and why we practice as we do. And to examine how we are living our values, year-round, to influence the world positively


Commander of the Faithful,

King Mohammed VI wishes everyone a

Ramadan Mabrook Saiid!

**Human Rights Watch. “Morocco: End Police Actions Against Persons Accused of Breaking Ramadan Fast” 19 September 2009.

***“Wasting Ramadan” Abdel -Moneim Said. “Wasting Ramadan”. Al-Ahram Weekly. 3 - 9 September 2009. Issue No. 963.

****PS, “The Meaning of Ramadan” by Khalid Baig of Al-Balagh helped a lot in this post. Access it here:

Photo credits:,,


learningquranonline said...

Ramadan is the best moment for all the Muslims in the world so lets pray for peace

Lynda said...

Interesting post, Cath. I've missed you!