More Muslims Than Ever Observing Ramadan
Oct. 14, 2006
JERUSALEM (AP) _ The boom of a cannon and the wail of a muezzin signaled the end of the day's fast and thousands of worshippers at one of Islam's holiest shrines tucked into their dinner.
The faithful sat cross-legged, some family gathered in circles, others strangers in long rows, on the ancient stone pavement around the Al Aqsa Mosque. They broke their fast with sips of water after a scorching late-summer day, ate a few dates for a quick energy boost, then moved onto a main course of chicken and rice.
The holy month of Ramadan is under way, and from Morocco to Indonesia and the growing Muslim communities of the West, around one-fifth of humanity is on a daily dawn-to-dusk fast, honoring the revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad.
The faithful rise before dawn for a small meal, read the Quran, and fast for the next 12 hours or more. Nights become days. Heads ache, throats are parched, nicotine cravings rise. Children as young as 7, who have gone back to sleep after a dawn breakfast, head off to school bleary-eyed and tetchy but determined to fast until dusk.
Relief comes with Iftar, the fast-breaking dinner, and in some cities traffic snarls up late into the night as the faithful catch up on socializing.
Islamic scholars say more Muslims than ever observe the fast _ a religious revival brought on in part by globalization's assault on local cultures and the growing tensions between Islam and the West.
On the downside, Middle East factory output drops 20 to 40 percent, economists say. Schools and government offices close early. Construction goes idle during the hottest part of the day, or resumes under floodlights after the Iftar meal. Many restaurants close for the month.
For most Muslims, Ramadan is simply a time of joy, feeling closer to God and family, getting out of a rut. ``Ramadan is always a time out, wherever you are,'' said Mustafa Abu Sway, a Palestinian philosophy professor and expert on Islam. ``Everything you take for granted comes to an end, at least for that month.''
In the West, Ramadan observance is more difficult, says Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. He says his 12-14 hour day workday goes on unchanged, ``But I still need the same amount of physical energy to go about my endeavors.''
But as Muslim populations grow abroad, Ramadan is becoming more familiar. Naheed Akhtar, a Ph.D. student at the University of Birmingham in England, says her college friends are considerate enough to refrain from eating in her presence. Her brother, a lecturer, gives his class a break at sunset so he can eat his Iftar meal.
Many who fast say they are driven by faith. Others observe Ramadan to cut down on smoking, lose a little weight, set an example for their children, or simply because social decorum demands it.
With an entire month dedicated to God _ 29 or 30 days depending on when the next new moon is sighted _ there's little time for ordinary pursuits.
Fasting is not just about refraining from eating, drinking and smoking during daylight hours. It's about becoming a better person, more generous and patient, said Sheik Saleh Moatan, prayer leader at the Greater El Bireh Mosque in the West Bank.
These days most of the calls to his daily half-hour morning radio show are about Ramadan. (Are you allowed to brush your teeth during the fast? Yes, because it's good for your health.)
In general, Muslims are exempt from fasting if it is likely to worsen a medical condition.
Addictions are held in check, but not defeated. ``The first thing I do after breaking my fast is having my coffee cup,'' said Saed Halawani, who works for the British Council in Jerusalem. ``My uncle breaks his fast on a cigarette.''
Housewife Ilhem Saleimeh, 55, gets up at 2:30 a.m. to read the Quran, then spends most of her day praying and reading in the Al Aqsa Mosque compound, Islam's third holiest shrine. ``We perform all the prayers here,'' she said, sitting under a stone arch near Al Aqsa with two other women. ``We go home in between, we cook, and then we come back.''
Charitable giving, an Islamic imperative, is accentuated during Ramadan. In Cairo, the wealthy pay for public ``tables of mercy'' to feed the poor.
The contrast between the austere day and celebratory night is a Ramadan highlight. As the sun sets and the smell of food wafts from the kitchen, families gather. Children are praised for fasting to the end, consoled if they don't make it.
Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, starts with the sighting of a new moon, but each year different Muslim countries and communities disagree on timing. This year, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the Palestinians, among others, began the fast on Sept. 23, while Egypt, Jordan and Syria started a day later.
There's also disagreement on method. Muslim leaders in North America say the starting date should be based on astronomical calculations rather than an actual moon sighting. Others insist it's not Ramadan without a sighting, regardless of what the astronomers say.
Various countries have their own special customs.
In Egypt, belly dancers take the month off. In Syria, storytellers keep their ancient tradition alive in coffee shops. In Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, people break the fast with sweet coconut milk.
Iftar is a social occasion. ``When it's dusk, I make it more of a point to break my fast and be around other Muslims instead of being alone, or even just with my family,'' said Walid, the Detroit community leader.
After the meal, the faithful are asked to return to the mosque for lengthy Quran readings; the entire book is to be covered by the end of Ramadan. Others stay home for TV marathons of soap opera, comedies and variety shows made for Ramadan, or visit friends and relatives late into the night.
The Palestinians got their first homegrown production this year, called ``What's Up?'' and set in a West Bank college dorm. In contrast to the sometimes fluffy imports from Egypt and Syria, the local show raises weighty issues such as the use of violence and Christian-Muslim intermarriage.
In the Palestinian territories, where tens of thousands more have plunged into poverty since the Islamic militant Hamas took power this spring, most barely squeeze by. In the West Bank city of Nablus, the civil servants' union set up 17 tables in the main square for a Spartan fast-breaker of rice, lentils and water to illustrate the hardships endured by its members, who haven't been paid for months because of the international boycott of the Hamas government.
Hard times have sparked a religious revival.
Sheik Moatan, the West Bank preacher, said that in the twin towns of Ramallah and El Bireh, once a bastion of secularism, the number of mosques has gone from 4 to 30 in recent years. His mosque, once only 20 percent full, now regularly overflows with worshippers.
Walid said more U.S. Muslims, particularly the young, became observant after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. ``9/11 forced many Muslims to have to reaffirm their faith because there came to be clear lines of delineation between Muslims and non-Muslims,'' he said.
Mohammed el-Awa, head of the International Union of Islamic Scholars in Cairo, said in any case, compliance with Ramadan rituals is very high throughout the Muslim world. ``It's for a limited time of the year,'' he said. ``People look at each other and say, 'These people are fasting, why am I not?'''
Islamic militants tap into the greater religious fervor of Ramadan to incite to violence, said Israeli counterterrorism expert Boaz Ganor. ``The call for jihad is intensified,'' said Ganor. ``More than that, it's a good time to inspire the lone gunners ... to decide to fulfill what they see as a divine command.''
Chatter on Web sites linked to militant groups is up during Ramadan. However, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Ramadan has not been a time of greater violence.
Religious rites at Al Aqsa are considered particularly powerful because of the close connection to Muhammad; tradition says this is where Islam's founder ascended to heaven.
In a Jerusalem cemetery a few blocks from Al Aqsa stands the cannon that signals the end of the day's fasting. This year the blank shells were provided by the city's Jewish-run municipality, and the first shot was ceremonially fired by Mayor Uri Lupolianski, an Orthodox Jew.
As the sun set over Al Aqsa, the cannon boomed and the faithful took their first sips of water, then opened prepackaged meals, donated by charities in Britain and Qatar. Others brought their own food and spread pots and paper plates. After the meal, worshippers kneeled to pray in neat rows.
Rafique Gangat, a Muslim visiting from South Africa, said he was overwhelmed. ``It's one word, faith,'' said Gangat, a political consultant. ``We have faith in Islam, we have faith in Allah, and it's the faith that carries us through the entire day for 30 days.''
AP reporters Chris Brummit in Jakarta, David Runk in Detroit, Albert Aji in Damascus, Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah and Sarah El Deeb in Jerusalem contributed to this report.