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“God, the Exalted and Glorious, desired to maintain equality between His creatures and make the rich person experience hunger and pain so that he may have pity on the weak and mercy on the hungry one” (1).
– Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq
Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic lunar calendar and by far its most auspicious, for it marks the month in which the Holy Quran was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad through the Angel Gabriel in the year 610 AD. After much anticipation, its advent is heralded by the sighting of the new crescent moon, which, depending on where you live, was either Sept. 1 or 2 this year. The congratulations exchanged between Muslims at the moon’s sighting is an expression of happiness at being alive to once again witness and honor the month, considered to be one filled with an abundance of blessings and rewards.
Many non-Muslims recognize Ramadan as the time when all able-bodied Muslims are required to abstain from food and drink one-and-a-half hours before sunrise until after sunset each day. The fast is then joyfully broken with dates as family and friends (and oftentimes, strangers) gather to share the evening meal, or iftar, together.
Each year, Ramadan begins 11 days earlier than the last, inexorably moving through the entire Gregorian calendar and all four seasons every 33 years. The respite provided by fasting during the short, winter days eventually yields to doing so during long, hot summers. At the time of the Prophet, Arabs named the months according to when they fell. Ramadan, derived from the root word ramda, or to burn from the excessive heat of the sun (making the object ramad), was aptly titled since it coincided then with the blistering heat of the Arabian summer (2).
But it is also the month in which ones sins are “burned” and forgiveness granted; a month in which instincts and impulses are tamed, the performance of good deeds and charity emphasized, and where friend and foe put differences aside and join in breaking the fast.
Unfortunately each year we are reminded of those who cannot partake in the happiness of Ramadan.
“I don’t know what to do. Ramadan is the month of food and joy and I have none of them. My kids have not eaten meat for more than five months,” said Gaza resident Salem Ebid on the verge of tears (3).
Gaza’s citizens continue to wither under the cruel siege imposed by Israel and maintained by Egypt, allowing in only the most basic humanitarian supplies—if that—and little else. As the economy crumbles and prices skyrocket, 1.4 million Gazans are increasingly dependent on goods smuggled though tunnels from Egypt and food distributed by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and charities. Even then it has been hard to make ends meet, especially during Ramadan where large numbers of people meet for iftar in each other’s homes or communally in the mosque.
In Iraq, the sweltering summer coupled with the lack of electricity has posed its own challenges. Much of the country, including Baghdad, receives only four hours of electricity daily (4). Their hardships are mirrored by Iraqis who were forced to flee the country to Syria, Jordan or Egypt, where they are unlikely to find jobs and barely subsist on rapidly dwindling funds. The Iraqi government is currently coaxing them to return home, perhaps to an equally desperate situation (5).
Now some may ask, is it possible for the non-Muslim to experience Ramadan?
To the reader who would like to see for himself or herself, I propose the following:
Pick any day this month. Wake up very early that morning and have breakfast. Then abstain from all food and drink during the period described above.
When it comes time to break your fast, and as you begin to take the first sip of a cool drink or taste the first bite of a delicious meal, should you remember those in Gaza who are struggling under an oppressive siege, those in Iraq who have been driven out of their homes and have lost everything, the persecuted in Darfur, or the poor, needy and hungry in your own community, and then vow to make a difference in these people’s lives … at that very instant, you have tasted Ramadan.
RANNIE AMIRI is an independent commentator on the Arab and Islamic worlds. He may be reached at: rbamiri <at> yahoo.com.