By Mike Mohamed Ghouse
The Spirit, Politics, and Rituals of Ramadan are the three main topics of this article. Ramadan is pronounced Ramzan in the Subcontinent, Iran, Turkey, and the Central Asian Republics wherever the Persian linguistic influence exists, elsewhere in the world, it is Ramadan. In the Arabic language, “Z” is “D” and hence Ramadan.
About 50 Random pictures of Ramadan around the world are at https://www.flickr.com/photos/mikeghouse/albums/72157713982572563 Courtesy of Boston Globe
The Rituals of Ramadan
Some may disagree but starting from our birth until the last rites of our lives and beyond, every moment is filled with rituals. Whether we go to the gym, eat, sleep, wear clothes, drive, or talk on the phone, we are indeed following rituals.
Rituals signify the milestones of our daily life. Every significant moment of the day is a ritual. It is an unwritten way of measuring our progression, a memory pattern to bring discipline to our actions. A disciplined life requires one to do things on time, manage personal relationships, drive to a destination, or keep within one’s means. The result of disciplined behavior is worthwhile for most people. When joyous, a sense of incompleteness lingers in our hearts until we get the opportunity to express that joy.
The spiritual masters have captured the human inclinations towards rituals and have molded it with the art of self-discipline in their respective religions. The purpose of each tradition was to bring a balance in our lives. Twenty-five hundred years ago, Buddha, the enlightened-one, explained that human suffering comes from unrestrained desires to possess and had recommended a middle path. The same recommendation came from Prophet Muhammad fourteen hundred years ago. Indeed, that is the wisdom of all religious and social traditions. Therefore, fasting is an integral part of almost all major religions in which one must rise above his or her basic desires.
Every faith is composed of a set of unique rituals to bring discipline and peace to human life. Fasting is one of the five essential rituals that Muslims around the world observe. Ramadan is a month given as a gift by Islam to its followers to teach discipline and to bring moderation in their daily lives. It is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, which Muslims observe with ritual precision. It requires one to abstain from food, drink, intimacy, ill-will, ill-talk, harmful actions and other temptations from dawn to dusk, every day for a full month.
It’s a celebration time when Muslims around the world anxiously wait for the first moon of the ninth Lunar month to appear in the sky. The families gather in their backyards, or get on the nearest hillock or climb on top of their homes, and wait for the pencil-thin moon to appear on the horizon, and when it does, Ramadan begins. It is a joyous activity.
Right after the moon is sighted, an announcement that Ramadan has started is made and thanks to the social media, it reaches the entire Muslim populations within a few minutes, including Muslims in Amazon to Zulu land. Yes, there are Muslims there.
As the Christians do the count down from the first day of Christmas or Hindus express devotion for each one of the nine days through Navaratri or the Jews follow eight days of Chanukah, Jains observe nine days of Paryushan. Others follow a similar path and the Muslims count the next 29 to 30 days with a sense of devotion.
Muslims are required to pray five times a day and most fulfill this obligation, particularly during the month of Ramadan. Prayers can be congregational or individual and are performed in the morning, noon, afternoon, evening, and night. During Ramadan, starting the night the moon is sighted until the night before the last day of fasting, additional congregational prayers called “Taraweeh” are offered following the regular nightly prayer. Every night, during the Taraweeh prayers, an Imam recites a section of the Quran which has 114 chapters divided into 30 sections.
Due to Corona, this year, every mosque around the world has canceled the congregational prayers, and Muslims will pray in their homes. However, the ultra-right Muslims like the ultra-right-Christians, Jews, Hindus, and others defy the orders and congregate anyways.
The Spirit of Ramadan
Although Ramadan is famous in the west for its culinary delicacies and fancy iftars (ceremonial breaking of fast at sundown), the spirit and intent of Ramadan lie in a human transformation achieved in a month-long journey of finding oneself in tune with spirituality.
What is spirituality? It is not wearing fancy clothes to separate yourselves from the others, as the clergy and kings in most traditions, do. Spirituality is to train our inner selves to decrease arrogance and a sense of superiority and increase humility, empathy, and compassion.
Knowing about hunger is not the same as knowing to fast. Empathy is not a rational equation; it is a human experience. Our hardness of heart often springs from our distance from the human condition of others. The poor, sick, disenfranchised, oppressed — we rarely walk a mile in their shoes, not even a few steps. “Rest assured,” cautioned one teacher, “if you do not taste what it feels like to be hungry, you will not care for those who are.”
God wants humans to learn to have empathy for those who don’t have and learn to respect the otherness of others. The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) added that fasting of the stomach must be matched by the fasting of the limbs, eyes, ears, tongue, hands, and feet all have their fasts to undergo. The tongue’s temptations, for example — lies, backbiting, slander, vulgarity, and senseless argumentation — must be challenged and curbed to maintain the integrity of the fast.
The Consciousness of behavior and vigilance over action are the most profound dimensions of Fasting: The Fasting of the heart focuses on the attachment to the divine. That is when Ramadan becomes a source of peace and solace, just as Christmas goes beyond the rituals to bring forth kindness, charity, and caring.
True Fasting is self-purification; from this comes an abundant inner life that brings about values such as justice, generosity, patience, kindness, forgiveness, mercy, and empathy — values that are indispensable for the spiritual and social success of the community.
Fasting imparts a sense of what it means to be truly human, and its observance reflects its universality in Bahai, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Zoroastrian, and other faiths.
Ramadan will come and go with such stealth that we cannot but think of our mortality. What is it that we value, and why? Habits, customs, even obsessive behavior like smoking can be given up with relative ease in the face of a higher calling.
For fasting to be truly universal, its benefits must extend beyond the fraternal ties of Muslims and must continue to forge common humanity with others.
The Politics of Ramadan
Politics plays a crucial role in our Temples, Synagogues, and Churches; Mosques are no different. Moon sighting is full of politics resulting in different start dates for Fasting and Eid (celebration at the end of month-long Fasting). Currently, various methods are practiced to determine the start date.
A growing number of American Muslims have adopted NASA’s calculations to set the start date of Fasting and Eid. Many Muslims believe in seeing the first moon with bare eyes to start fasting, and some follow others. Every group enjoys their tradition, and yet they are frustrated and wish that we all observe it on the same day. This year, most Muslims around the world will begin fasting from either on Thursday, April 23rd or Friday, April 24th, 2020 (Moon sighting to begin on the evening of April 22nd). In the pluralistic tradition of Islam, a majority of Muslims have accepted each method as valid.
The Traditions of Ramadan
Throughout the month of Ramadan, every day, with small variations in practices, families rise early around 4:00 AM and gather up in the kitchen to participate in preparing the meal. As a kid, I used to chop onions, one rolled the rotis (flatbread), the other blew air through a steel pipe into the old-fashioned earthen stove, one made the tea, and of course, mother managed it all. It was a family affair.
Traditionally, the entire family sits on the floor in a circle, says a short blessing, and eats the meal while having a conversation. Everyone has plenty of time to finish off the food and water intake at the call of Adan, roughly an hour before sunrise.
Then most people go to the mosque to pray, but this year, due to the lockdown to control the spread of COVID-19, all mosques are closed and Muslims will perform all the prayers at home.
Throughout the day, a conscious effort is made to abstain from food, water, or temptations that are detrimental to self-discipline. Those who do not observe Fasting, honor the ones who do, by not eating or drinking in their presence.
One should remain steadfast despite temptations; many a fast observing Muslims are open to their friends eating. Indeed, it adds to one’s will power to resist the temptation to eat, thus enriching ones’ faith and discipline.
One of the most appealing aspects of Ramadan is the domino effect other Muslims have on you to guard yourselves against greed, anger, ill-will, malice, hate, jealousy, and other ills of the society. One feels pious during the month. Of course, there would always be a small percentage in a group that does not receive that wisdom.
When the time to break the fast approaches towards the sundown, anxiety builds up, it is almost like the countdown of seconds when the space shuttle takes off—curiously watching when that big red ball of the sun sinks on the horizon. If it is cloudy, they follow the prescribed time. A prayer call (Azan) signifies the time to break the fast. It is called Iftar.
Prophet Muhammad had initiated a healthy way of breaking the fast; it was graduating the empty stomach with light items like dates, fruits, and veggies to prepare the stomach to receive a full meal after the prayer break. The dates are the most popular item around the world, they are chewy, meaty, and tasty after a long day of Fasting, and dates are also a preferred item as it was for the Prophet. It has the right nutrients to give one a smooth transition from fasting all day to eating a full meal. Indeed, each Muslim at least consumes three dates, which is 5.4 billion dates each evening for a total of at least 162 billion dates in one month.
The breaking of fast, also known as “Iftar,” has become a community event. It is an excellent opportunity for friends of Muslims belonging to other faiths to host the Iftars. It is a way to bond, connect, and build cohesive societies. Unfortunately, this year, no one is holding the iftar parties.
President Clinton started the tradition of holding an Iftar party at White House, which was carried forward by President Bush and then-President Obama. They invited a few Muslim leaders from around the United States. President Trump also held the iftars for the Muslim Ambassadors. It is a major social event for the politicians, just as it is with Christmas, Rosh Hashanah, Diwali, and other festivities.
After Iftar, most people go to the mosque to pray Taraweeh. However, as previously mentioned, the mosques are closed this year, due to the lockdown to control the spread of COVID-19. Therefore, Muslims will need to perform all the prayers at home.
Now comes the 29th or 30th evening – everyone is anxiously watching for that new moon to appear again, this time to declare Eid.
Once the new moon is sighted (or go by the calendar), Ramadan ends and the Eid celebrations begin. In the Subcontinent, it is known as the Chand Raat or the moonlit festivities. Everyone rushes to the market to purchase gifts (same scenario as last-minute Christmas shopping) and food items (I am talking about 40 years ago when everything was bought fresh on the given day).
Families gather up in one large facility to accommodate the whole town, or the convention center, or a Mosque. In my case, back home in the town of Yelahanka, we all went to the open-air mosque by the cemetery and prayed together.
On this day, one formally forgives and gets forgiven and starts the year with a clean slate. The Quran says the dearest person to God is the one who forgives. Everyone hugs each other three times; I am your friend; you are my friend, and as friends, together we forgive each other. It is the equivalent of Michami Dukkadam in Jainism.
The phrases Ramadan Kareem and Ramadan Mubarak are usually used to greet each other from day one to the last day of Ramadan and Eid Mubarak, or Happy Eid is used on the Day of Eid. Indonesia holds the largest Muslim population in the world and they say, “Selamat Hari Raya” – However, Eid Mubarak and Ramadan Kareem are the most popular around the world.
Traditionally everyone in the family wears new clothing, a symbol of starting afresh. The head of the family gives gifts, traditionally in the form of cash (called Eidi) to all members of the family to spend as they wish and to teach responsibility with freedom. If you have a guest celebrating Eid with you, then his Fitra is obligatory upon you too. Every able Muslim also pays a special charity called “Fitra” for himself and for all his dependents. The Fitra for each person must be equal to the cost of a good meal and must be immediately distributed to the poor and needy.
A few years ago, I was in Louisville, Kentucky for Eid, and had written a similar piece and had suggested Muslims make the point to thank the police officers for ensuring the safety of the congregations. One the way in, I talked to a police officer and showed him the email appreciating them. He asked me to forward it to him. When we finished the prayers, the police officer had forwarded that email to his entire group. I urge my fellow Muslims to do that. We need to appreciate them, the firemen, and the military personnel in the uniform.
Don’t forget the poor and have-nots; Islam is about building cohesive societies to care for everyone. Indeed, two of the five obligatory rituals of Muslims take place in the month of Ramadan. One is Fasting, and the other is Zakat, which is like the tithe in Christianity, Daan in Hinduism, Sedekah in Judaism, and Dusvand in Sikhism, and there are other words in other traditions. Every family (except the poor) calculates 2.5% of the value of their assets and passes that amount on to the needy. It is an investment in human capital, to help uplift everyone on a level playing field to maintain a sustainable good in society. It is preferable to give Zakat during the month so that needy people can have it on time to be able to celebrate Eid.
On the culinary side, it is a feast! A variety of dishes are prepared, over the years I have discovered that the most common item around the globe is a dessert made out of vermicelli’s, i.e., hair-thin noodles cooked in milk with nuts, dates, honey, and other goodies, it is both in liquid or solid forms. It is a feast! Then each country around the world also has its own unique traditions.
A Challenge to Muslims
I am sharing this story with a particular reason. Sean Hannity on Fox News and I have argued extensively. He was afraid and gave his audience the impression that Muslims are striving to bring the Caliphate back; it was red meat for them. I argued, “Sean, it will never happen,” I am glad his marginal audience got my message.
Caliphate will never come back, there is no trend, nor there is a desire among Muslims. His peers genuinely elect the Pope; Muslims indeed chose the first four caliphs in the same manner. They were pious and faithful servants of people. They were exemplary humans.
Mu’awiyah ibn Abu-Sufiyan became the 5th Caliph – he killed the emerging democratic society among Muslims. Even though he called himself a Caliph, he became a dictator-King. His son Yazid carried the dictatorial tradition.
No Muslim wants that kind of Caliphs ever again, there were several competent caliphs in between through the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1922, but most of them acted like dictator kings. The United States laid the foundation for actual democracy, and that resonated with Muslims and given a choice, all Muslims want freedoms, and indeed, currently, more than 60% of Muslims live in Democracies.
The other critical reason Caliphate will not materialize is the deep division among Muslims, and each group is hell-bent on declaring the other as non-Muslim or less than a Muslim. As long as that arrogance exists, any Caliphate is out of the question.
So here is a challenge to my Muslim brothers and sisters all over the world – by the way, whatever I ask others to do, I do it first. I urge my fellow Muslims to visit each other’s Mosque, to learn to respect and accept different traditions. Islam is about diversity, God says, he has created us as tribes, nations, and communities to which Prophet added, that someday his followers will multiply into an infinite (72) number of groups. Each one of us should compete in doing good deeds. A good deed is any act done with the intention of serving fellow humans without expectation of any returns. It is like planting a tree knowing well that you will not be the beneficiary of its shade or the fruit.
Over the years, during Ramadan, I have visited Mosques of every Muslim tradition and about 30 of them; Sunni, Shia, Sufi, Ahmadiyya, and all their sub-groups. Indeed, I have documented the uniqueness of each culture. Particularly in the years 2011 and 2012.
For fasting to be truly universal, its benefits must extend beyond the fraternal ties of Muslims and must continue to forge common humanity with others. Fasting is meant to impart a sense of what it means to be truly human, and its observance reflects its universality in Bahai, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Zoroastrian, and other faiths.
Although the annual ritual of Fasting takes thirty days, the journey to perfect spirituality is endless. May our hearts continue to desire deeper spirituality. May we aspire to find our balance, connect, open our hearts and minds to fellow beings; the joy that comes with it will be ours to keep, Insha’Allah forever!
Ramadan Kareem to all and be safe.
Mike Ghouse is the founder and president of the Center for Pluralism. He is a speaker, thinker, author, consultant, pluralist, activist, newsmaker, and an interfaith wedding officiant. He is committed to building cohesive societies and offers pluralistic solutions to the media and the policymakers. Book information at www.AmericanMuslimAgenda.com and his info at www.TheGhousediary.com