My first Ramadan

Amman, JordonSunset today marked the beginning of Ramadan for millions of Muslims around the world.

Muslims believe that during the month of Ramadan, Allah revealed the first verses of the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam. Around 610 A.D., a caravan trader named Muhammad took to wandering the desert near Mecca (in today’s Saudi Arabia) while thinking about his faith. One night a voice called to him from the night sky. It was the angel Gabriel, who told Muhammad he had been chosen to receive the word of Allah. In the days that followed, Muhammad found himself speaking the verses that would be transcribed as the Qur’an.

At many mosques during Ramadan, about one thirtieth of the Qur’an is recited each night in prayers known as tarawih. In this way, by the end of the month the complete scripture will have been recited.

Muslims practice sawm, or fasting, for the entire month of Ramadan. This means that they may eat or drink nothing, including water, while the sun shines. Fasting is one of the Five Pillars (duties) of Islam. As with other Islamic duties, all able Muslims take part in sawm from about age twelve. [Link]

I thought that I would share the story of my first Ramadan to mark the occasion here on SM. To me Ramadan was nothing but a word and a vague concept until three years ago.  I had read about it in books and had Muslim friends explain some of the traditions to me, but as a non-Muslim, unless you live in a Muslim country or near Detroit, I think it is difficult to really understand the feeling of Ramadan.  In November of three years ago I landed in Amman, Jordan just hours before sunset on the first full day of the holy month.  I had never stepped foot off a plane in an Islamic country before and I was excited to begin my adventure, in addition to being a bit nervous.  My destination lay approximately three hours south near the ancient ruins of Petra.  I stepped outside and looked for a cabbie that could speak some English.  I asked him if he could drive me to south to Petra.

“Sure.  You go Petra?  I take you.  Please sir. Come.”

The Sun was hanging low in the sky as we left the airport.  Minutes later the cabbie was anxiously fumbling around with his hand in the glovebox.  A pack of cigarettes lay inside.

“Have one,” he said as he lit the cigarette already in his mouth.  He had a bit of the shakes I remember thinking.  “I can’t smoke all day,” he explained to me. 

Ahhhhh.  I remembered that nothing is supposed to pass your lips during the day. 

“Here, take take, I will light for you.”  Frequent travelers understand that the whole world thinks Americans are prudes for not lighting up as often as they do.  I fancy myself as part of the old school though, one who partakes in local customs if it will help establish trust with those the cross your path while traveling.  I grabbed the cig and lit up for the first time in years.  I don’t inhale.  Soon after, the two of us exchanged background.  He told me about his wife and kids and I told him what I did in the States and what I would be doing on the rest of my journey.

“I would like to spend a night sleeping in the Wadi Rum,” I told him.

“Yes, you know Wadi Rum?  I take you.”

A few minutes later he told me that we were taking a break.  We had only been driving for about 40 minutes.  Pretty soon to take a break, I thought.  He pulled off the side of a road and next to a rather large one-story building with many cars and buses parked outside.  It was a restaurant.  Again I felt embarrassed as I remembered that he hadn’t eaten all day.  He ordered us two plates of rice and lamb stew and we sat down to eat together.  It is not wise to eat and drink from a roadside establishment less than an hour into an overseas trip to a third-world country.  It’s just asking for gastrointestinal trouble.  However, protesting this food did not even cross my mind.  All around us were men who were similarly hungry from their first full day of fasting.  I liked the feeling of community and the friendly smiles all around me.  It was completely different than eating at a restaurant where you enter and leave with the people you came with.  Here you felt as if you were eating with the whole restaurant.  My driver explained that many of these people were Palestinian refugee day laborers.

We got back on the road and drove for two hours until arriving at Petra at almost 10 p.m. at night.  The driver took me to a hotel he recommended, which is code for “so-so place where I will get a kick back.”  Whatever.  I was beyond tired.  He told me that he had arranged for a room for me, and oh by the way…it had an extra bed.

“I sleep in extra bed, is ok?”

Ummm.  No.  I needed my privacy.  That’s where I drew the line.  I had tea with some gentlemen in the lobby that were friends of his.  They told me that I looked Saudi Arabian.  Depending upon the length of my hair and whether or not I have any facial hair, I can probably pass for someone from any of about about a dozen countries. He crashed on a couch in the hotel lobby.  I was asleep within minutes in my room.

I awoke at 5:15a.m. the next morning.  All through my room was a booming voice speaking in Arabic.  “What the hell is going on,” I thought.  Was there a fire or something?  As the haze of sleep slowly lifted, I started putting things together in my mind.  “This must be the call to prayer.”  I hated being woken up this early but I again thought that it was a cool concept that everyone in the entire city was waking up to the same alarm clock.  “Everyone in their beds for miles around me feels exactly like I do at this very moment,” is what I thought at the time.  I had never woken up to praying before.  It was a good feeling.

Hours later, after sunrise, I was ready to explore the famous ruins of Petra.  Before doing so however, I needed fuel.  No shop of any sort was open, and my cab driver was given dirty looks for even asking for food for me.  There was no way I could spend an entire day wandering amongst the desert ruins without food or water.  Eventually I found some cheese and crackers. 

Petra, JordonI had Petra mostly to myself that day.  There were few tourists at that time of year.  Absolutely amazing.  There was no Holy Grail to be found but it was worth every minute it took to get there.  Around lunch time that day is when my transformation began.  I was hungry but was feeling guilty about my hunger.  Even though I tucked myself in the shadows of one of the isolated ruins, I could only bring myself to eat two cubes of cheese and three crackers the whole day.  I couldn’t bear the thought of someone stumbling upon me and thinking that I was a bad Muslim.  The fact that I wasn’t really Muslim didn’t matter.  This pattern continued later when I was back in Amman.  I needed people around me to know that I was a good Muslim.  I wanted to belong to this place and to them in the way they belonged there and to each other.  It took me three days in a Muslim country to understand the power of Islam, and why it inspires such dedication.  You know with complete certainty that for at least that month you are one with all around you.  Throughout the day you feel what everyone around you feels and it makes you powerful even when you are so hungry that you may have to sit still.  I will probably never experience Ramadan again in my life but I am grateful that I got the chance to in Jordan.  I may not know the teachings of Islam the way accomplished scholars do, or unjustly interpret it as fanatical fundamentalists do, but at least I got to experience for a few days the one aspect that I feel may be the most important.  The brotherhood.

85 thoughts on “My first Ramadan

  1. my dad had a friend who worked in anchorage alaska. i am pretty sure he went by ‘mecca’ time unless it was around the equinoxes.

  2. Vikram wrote:

    heart warming tale… I look forward to hearing a Saudi Muslim’s story of experiencing the same sense of brotherhood while bathing in the Ganga at the Kumbh Mela.

    That would be quite a sight, I must say. Several Muslims I knew growing up were interested in a more syncretic approach to religion. One fellow, a friend of some Hindus in my housing complex, even visited Tirupati and came home from the pilgrimage with a beaming, spit-shined head. Sensing a spiritual comrade, some Hindus started observing a single day of fast during Ramadan, and were treated to succulent lamb biriyani, haleem, and other savories at fast-break.

    Then in the 90s something changed. His wife started sporting a hijab, and he began donning the skullcap and reading the Koran at all hours of the day. At first sheepishly, then almost defiantly. He slowly distanced himself from other Indians. A shame too–the man could cook.

  3. Abhi, thanks for deleting my post!! You sure are, like ohters, propogating waves of “brotherhood” by your actions.

    p.s.: I’m assuming you did it intentionally…

  4. umair, a Rational person would stop adhering to and explaining the rules, perpetrated by an illiterate misogynist biganist who lived and died more than a millenia and half ago…..

  5. you know, i have some issues with abhi’s post too, but i’m not him, and didn’t experience what he did. in a more discursive post i’d moot the issues, but that post isn’t this. “my first ramadan” says it all. this wasn’t a big picture analysis. deal with it.

  6. Umair,

    Sure, I understand what you’re saying, completely. As I mentioned previously (or at least alluded to in my comments about Guru Nanak ji), Sikhism doesn’t really recognise formal religious distinctions between people, at least not in the conventional sense. The danger, though — and this is a general comment and not related to yourself or anything you have said about your own viewpoint — is when people perceive the “blurred boundaries” as meaning that Sikhism agrees with the religious tenets and guidelines for “ideal” human behaviour in certain other faiths in their entirety. Which is obviously not the case. Sikhism recognises the inherent divinity within every human being irrespective of their religious affiliation (there is no “believer vs. infidel” concept in Sikhism), but it does not mean that the faith necessarily believes that “all religions — at least in their accepted, orthodox, structured forms — are equally of divine origin”. This is something of a misconception, and neither is it correct that Sikhism is some kind of artificial faith where the “best of both Islam and Hinduism was adopted”.

    A few more brief points:

    himself a Sikh and a Sufi

    Hmm…technically, you can’t be both, not in the strict sense anyway….

    his greatness as a saint does not for me depend on whether he testifies to the existence of the one God

    He did.

    and the prophethood of Muhammad…

    He did not.

    Anyway, the interesting — and perhaps most pertinent — point was that he was generally recognised as being a great saint by people of multiple faiths, including during his travels throughout the Middle East, even though people weren’t able to “pidgeonhole” him into one particular religion. The same happened most notably with Guru Gobind Singh ji too a couple of centuries later — even by Mughal soldiers on the opposing side.

    Since you’ve mentioned your Sufi leanings, you may be aware that the famous Sufi saint Baba Bulleh Shah joined the Guru’s army along with several hundred of his family, during the struggles against the Mughals. It’s a tragedy that there appears to be less of a Sufi prominence within the global Muslim community these days — and instead we’re faced with Aurangzeb-style Wahabbism spreading everywhere, along with OBL and his friends.

    Bong Breaker,

    About practicing religion a bit or not at all – I don’t agree.
    I don’t think religion should be about half-measures.

    You know that such black-and-white viewpoint raises some controversial questions about (for example) those of us who are Sikhs and simultaneously clean-shaven (amongst other things) ;) But I think I understand your point — you’re referring to the fact that there shouldn’t be hypocrisy in religious matters — and you’re totally correct there.

  7. Kush said :

    Before sunrise, in any town in India, you can hear islamic prayers, sikh keertans, and bhajans – all together on separate loudspeakers in the background, and bollywood songs too.

    May I add to that list the religious songs blasted from churches (atleast in tamilnadu). Of these listed I think I prefer the islamic version because of its brevity [as opposed to an all-day continuous religious-song-athon], and because it’s acapella it’s not as severely distorted by the poor sound systems used. In fact, as long as the source is far enough away, and the prayer [or rather, call to prayer ?] is short, it actually sounds kinda nice imho.

    Also: in the spirit of Umair’s comment, http://ship-of-fools.com/Features/Dalrymple_body.html“>here’s an article about religious/cultural cross-polination by William Dalrymple called “Nearest In Love”. It’s interesting, though he might be extrapolating a little. An excerpt :

    ISLAM GREW UP in the largely Christian environment of the Late Antique Levant, and the longer you spend in the ancient Christian communities of India and the Middle East, the more you become aware of the extent to which Eastern Christian practice formed the template for what were to become the basic conventions of Islam. The Muslim form of prayer, with its bowings and prostrations, appears to derive from the older Syrian Orthodox tradition that is still practised in pewless churches across the Levant. The architecture of the earliest minarets, which are square rather than round, unmistakably derive from the church towers of Byzantine Syria, while Ramadan, at first sight one of the most distinctive of Islamic practices, bears startling similarities to Lent, which in the Eastern Christian churches still involves – as it once used to in the West – a gruelling all-day fast. Perhaps no branch of Islam shows more Christian influence than Islamic mysticism or Sufism. For Sufism, with its holy men and visions, healings and miracles, its affinity with the desert and its emphasis on the mortification of the flesh and the individual’s personal search for union with God, has always borne remarkable similarities to the more mystical strands of Eastern Christianity. Many Muslim saints – such as the great Mevlana Rumi – worked to reconcile the two religions. Indeed, the very word “sufi” seems to indicate a link with Christianity…
  8. I don’t think religion should be about half-measures. and you’re referring to the fact that there shouldn’t be hypocrisy in religious matters — and you’re totally correct there.

    true. but one tendency that secularists and fundamentalists both have (in my experience, and i’ve been guilty of this too!) is that we often view a strict and “orthodox” expression of religious faith as the only real form.* richard dawkins has this issue too, one of his essays is a full-bore attack on the roman catholic church because he despises their equivocation in relation to evolutionary theory (or accommodation) more than the outright rejection of the fundamentalists.

    i’m an unbeliever, but i think that secularists should cut liberal and heterodox believers some slack and not just assume that the old-style norms are the only way. moderate religious people need atheists in my opinion because we’re the only ones who will attack fundamentalist religion in direct no-holds-barred fashion. on the other hand, we need moderate religious people to serve as restraints and buffers on their nuttso coreligionists.

    • isiah berlin once said is that the orthodox synagogue is the synogue he doesn’t belong too, except on high holy days. which implies that as an unbeliever he only legitimates classical rabbinical judaism as “authentic.”
  9. I grew up in a suburb of Bombay. Ours was a primarily Hindu locality, separated by a main road from a Muslim neighborhood. The muslim neighborhood had a mosque in it. The muezzin did a beautiful azan every morning at 6:30am or so. Shortly after, when I was walking to school I used to pass by a ton of people performing their morning prayers on a side street. To this day, the azaan anywhere in the world, even here in Houston, Texas, brings back memories of home.

    I don’t really remember my first Ramadan, but I do have a story.

    It was evening, close to sundown, on a busy Bombay street. I was about 12. My mom and I were returning home from somewhere in downtown when we pass through in an autorickshaw through one of the big Muslim localities. The streets were chockful of people shopping and waiting for sundown, tons and tons of food vendors getting ready to satiate thousands of fasting folks. Kababs were being barbecued all around, the aroma was tantalizing, hypnotic. We get stuck in a traffic jam.

    We are hungry, the kebabs beckon.

    “Those smell really good”

    “I know, I wish we could eat those”.

    “Why can’t we, mom?”

    “Are you nuts? We’re Hindu, moreover Brahmins, we’re not supposed to eat that!”

    “Why?”

    “It’s beef, I’m sure!”

    “Oh, ok”.

    Five minutes later

    “I’m hungry”

    “So am I”

    “Those smell really good”

    My mom and I look at each other, our greedy eyes meet and we detect the saliva almost drooling over from each other’s mouths.

    “Please just don’t tell your dad”.

  10. I wanted to belong to this place and to them in the way they belonged there and to each other.

    …typical ABCD sentiment – longing to belong.

  11. Throughout the day you feel what everyone around you feels and it makes you powerful even when you are so hungry that you may have to sit still.

    I think that captures the inspiration you felt at that moment quite beautifully. Thanks for sharing.

  12. The kebabs in India are mutton – goat meat.

    Not necessarily, especially in poorer Muslim neighborhoods (like the one we were passing thru). Beef is really cheap in India, I believe, coz of low demand.

    But that was not the point, anyway :)

  13. Anna said:

    just swoon-worthy, abhi. remind me why i play gwen to your tony again?

    “After all that we’ve been through I know we’re cool”

    Kush said:

    You never heard the morning prayer when you were in Delhi.

    Nope. I went to Delhi right after I left Jordan. I have visited India about 4 or 5 times. Most often I stay in Ahmedabad where my family is from. Most of the Hindu and Muslim parts of town are kept separate (at least the ones I saw).

    Jai said:

    In the interests of clarifying any misconceptions (and to pre-empt any responses from people casting aspertions on you), it would probably be worthwhile to briefly explain your motivations for writing all this.

    Thanks for looking out for me Jai. It seems however that your concern was unwarranted. The aspertions you feared didn’t really materialize. Remember, sometimes when people cast aspersions on you it’s cause you done good. As far as motivations I am not sure I understand. Believe me, if there was an election for President of the Blogosphere I would be pandering to every group possible. My ambitions to rule with an iron fist are well known. In the abscence of such an elected office I don’t understand what “motivation” has to do with a story about my real life experience.

    Mathematiker said:

    The talk of Sufism reminded me…Has anyone here read “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam”? I loved it, what with Ole Omar insisting on seizing the day and boozing up while you can (he meant metaphorically but hey…)

    Yep. Here is the tapestry that hangs over my bed.

    razib said:

    “my first ramadan” says it all. this wasn’t a big picture analysis. deal with it.

    If only blogging were so simple :)

    Hammer & Sickel said:

    Abhi, thanks for deleting my post!! You sure are, like ohters, propogating waves of “brotherhood” by your actions. p.s.: I’m assuming you did it intentionally…

    Dude, if I had posted a story about my first Christmas and how I opened presents under the tree, would you have posted a link to facts about the Spanish Inquisition? Have some common sense man.

    Nacheez said,

    …typical ABCD sentiment – longing to belong.

    Any place I have ever lived (and I have lived many places), I always belong. If you hear a longing in any of my writings it is always for the same thing.

    epoch said:

    I rather like the way the muslim brotherhood is reappropriated here to reflect ordinary muslims.

    Thanks epoch. I am glad someone caught that :)

    To everyone else, thank you for the very kind words!

  14. The kebabs in India are mutton – goat meat.

    mutton is usually meant to be sheep. so did you mean goat, or do you know it was mutton and didn’t know that it was sheep, or do they simply assume goat and sheep are interchangeable in india so you are right on both counts?

    i can eat mutton (sheep), but i HATE goat meat. there is a difference.

  15. “mutton is usually meant to be sheep. so did you mean goat, or do you know it was mutton and didn’t know that it was sheep, or do they simply assume goat and sheep are interchangeable in india so you are right on both counts?”

    You are right. I just meant broadly within the Indian context – I think they do not differentiate between goat and sheep meat when the term mutton is used, I can be wrong though.

    technogeek is right about using beef amongst poorer population.

    During my visits to India, I tend to be a vegetarian there for most part so I am not up on finer points.

  16. In my experience when Indian Muslims say mutton they generally mean goat meat

    this makes sense. there was a lot more of this stank shit at dinner parties thrown by brown muslims that i choose to remember, and not nearly as much lamb as i’d have wanted.

  17. umair said

    Harsh words Razib — :-) Personally I’d take goat over lamb in desi food any day…

    razib replied

    mebee you put so much curry on that you can’t taste the flavor of tendon, gristle and cartilage.

    personally there’s nothing that sets the juices flowing, causes a thin layer of anticipatory perspiration to form on the brow and sends the tongue to rapture as well as a nice juicy slab of tofu. highly recommended for your next weekend feast. due to overwhelming demand we’ll restrict 16 kilos to the individual. operators are standing by.

  18. I suppose that I should take this story for the way it was intended: as a story of a person profound spiritual experience in a foreign culture. But I cannot because that is not how this story affects me. It just doesn’t resonate with me in that way. The last paragraph ruins it. I find this story deeply disturbing and it makes me wonder how strong any of us are withstand the pressures of mindless conformity. I keep coming back to these passages

    I couldnÂ’t bear the thought of someone stumbling upon me and thinking that I was a bad Muslim. The fact that I wasnÂ’t really Muslim didnÂ’t matter. … I needed people around me to know that I was a good Muslim. I wanted to belong to this place and to them in the way they belonged there and to each other.

    Why should someone raised outside of a culture feel this overwhelming need to conform? Why should someone feel a greater need to belong to a people he has only been around for three days – a people who do not love him – than a need to preserve the culture of his mother who carried him for nine months or the rest of his family who do love him. Is this personality trait unique to Abhi or something all of us would feel if we were faced with a monoculture?

    I don’t think the issue here has anything really to do with Islam but really about monoculture and the stifling pressure to conform. Actually, the image that came to mind when I read the last paragraph was of a Nuremburg rally. Of everyone wearing uniforms and marching in step to the drummer and the individual is completely destroyed. When faced with that situation, we would feel the need to blend in, and worse, we might like it. We might like the illusion that everyone wants what we want and we want what everyone else wants until it slowly dawns on us that the concept of wanting dies in a world without choices.

    If I visit a foreign culture (and I will be traveling to one in a couple of months) I would like to appreciate all that there is experience there but I also would want to keep my self apart enough to respectfully observe but not feel the pressure to participate in their traditions. If I want to participate, that one thing, but I don’t want to feel obliged. I want to be able to respect them and for them to respect me as I am.

    Why must we feel that we must be like others to be brothers. Can’t I be like me and believe in what I believe and you be like you and believe in what you believe and we can still be brothers?

  19. Why must we feel that we must be like others to be brothers. Can’t I be like me and believe in what I believe and you be like you and believe in what you believe and we can still be brothers?

    there’s plenty of stuff in the social psychology and cognitive science literature to address your question, no point in mooting it here. as an “out” and vocal atheist of muslim cultural origin who spent his adolescence in a predominantly mormon and evangelical christian small town i think i can buck the trend decently, but i got to say, you better be real fucking cool and self-assured. like me :)

  20. Why must we feel that we must be like others to be brothers. Can’t I be like me and believe in what I believe and you be like you and believe in what you believe and we can still be brothers?

    Michael your whole thesis is misinformed. I do not believe in religion. I have stated that before on many entries. I reflexively shun all organized religious dogma, including the dogma of Islam and that of my “mother who carried me”. I certainly wasn’t “conforming,” and the idea that I could be brainwashed is preposterous. I am much more likely to be the washer of brains.

    I am me. I walk my own path and it is one that nobody else treads upon.

    Mahayana Buddhism beieves in the concept of bodhisattvas. A person who aspires to eventually become a bodhisattva knows that he has failed if he alone attains enlightenment. It is only when humanity as a collective reaches Nirvana that the journey of a bodhisattva is complete. I seek to know my fellow man and to learn from him. In order to do that I have to belong to the moment body and soul. That doesn’t mean that I become trapped in the moment or lose my individuality or my beliefs. In a sense you are accusing me of selling out my true beliefs to fit in. In reality I used my experience to strengthen my own beliefs.

  21. … stifling pressure to conform. Actually, the image that came to mind when I read the last paragraph was of a Nuremburg rally. Of everyone wearing uniforms and marching in step to the drummer and the individual is completely destroyed.

    does godwin’s law apply here? :-) michael h – i feel you are being too severe. the guy opened himself to an alien culture and came away enrichened (at least in his mind). whether that was right or not – i dont know. would i take such leaps of faith – absolutely. i may lose my individuality, but sure beats being lonely. and sitting alone on the computer late into the night raising an ass lobe periodically to avoid leaving sweat stains on the leather chair. oh!…

  22. Abhi, thanks for deleting that post! No sarcasm this time. Apparently, I was reading about Sikh history in some article and after finishing that I came across your post. So naturally bad things happened. Anyway, I will save my findings for another post!

    Happy Ramazan and Happy Navaratri.

  23. Harsh words Razib — :-) Personally I’d take goat over lamb in desi food any day…

    Say it, brother. I’m a goat lover too.

    Er, wait. I mean I enjoy Goat meat. Er, eating it, I mean. The meat, that is. Nothing more…

    Anyway, I recall family members telling me that in India, poor Muslims ate beef while rich ones ate goat. Seemed bizarre, as beef is usually a high status meat — higher than goat at least. But this comment by technophobicgeek explains it

    Beef is really cheap in India, I believe, coz of low demand.

  24. I really enjoyed your description of Ramzaan. I hope we can all search and experience the beauty of every religion in a similar way.

    By the way, Happy Navarathri to all!

    yaamini

  25. since the topic is religion, thought that i would share this beautiful quote by linus pauling, the nobel prize awardee in chemistry and peace. “all religions are not equal, some are much worse than others” how true.

  26. Abhi:

    I seek to know my fellow man and to learn from him. In order to do that I have to belong to the moment body and soul…

    I don’t doubt that you were deeply affected by your experience but like Michael H., I am skeptical about the worth of the ‘knowledge’ you’ve gleaned. Your citation of the experiences of a Bodhisattva only obscures the issue and is question-begging to boot since many argue that Bodhisattva-hood is an incoherent notion (read, e.g., the Dvaitin critique ‘Jewel Necklace of Argument’ aimed at Advaita Vedanta but also applicable to many strains of Buddhism etc.).

    SepiaMutiny is, of course, not a philosophy blog but I don’t think it pedantic to point out that you are using ‘know’ in a rather loose sense. I would be interested in an elaboration of just how your experience constitutes ‘knowledge’ in any coherent sense.

    Kumar