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Is there an American culture of Ramadan?

By Abdullahi An-Na‘im


Immigrant Muslims continue to rely on the Ramadan culture of their regional origins (whether African, Middle East, South Asian, etc.). What is the culture of Ramadan for American Muslims? Is that culture already present, or do American Muslims have to invent it? Whether pre-existing or to be invented, where does that culture come from? Does having or cultivating a culture of Ramadan diminish or enhance American cultural citizenship? Can the same question be raised for a culture of Thanksgiving or Christmas?

I am not suggesting by raising such questions that there is a single monolithic culture of Ramadan for all American Muslims, but mean to argue that American Muslims should reflect on how to socialize their children a common core of values and practices around Ramadan for this holy month to be as enriching for the children as it has been their parents. Part of the inquiry should also be how to avoid aspects of the culture of Ramadan for the parents which will be negative or counterproductive for their children. To begin this conversation, let me begin by presenting what I believe my own culture of Ramadan has been growing up along the Nile in Northern Sudan.

Ramadan Prayer. Photo by Thamer Al-Hassan. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Ramadan Prayer. Photo by Thamer Al-Hassan. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Fasting for a Muslim is total abstention from taking any food, drink, or having sex from dawn to sunset. Religiously valid fasting requires a completely voluntary and deliberate decision and intent (niya) to fast that is formed prior to the dawn of the day one is fasting. This intent to fast is entirely a matter of internal consciousness and free choice, but has two highly significant implications. On the one hand, the entirely voluntary nature of fasting and all Islamic religious practices is that the state cannot interfere with the choices Muslims make. That means that the state must be neutral regarding religious doctrine (i.e. secular) and cannot claim to be Islamic, or pretend that it can enforce Sharia because that would encroach on the ability of Muslims to act on their individual conviction and choice. On the other hand, abstention from food, drink, and sex with the required free and autonomous intent to fast must also be accompanied by maintaining appropriate decorum by avoiding harming other people, hurting their feelings, or using abusive language. Moreover, the more affirmative good a person does while fasting, as opposed to simply refraining from causing harm, the more religious benefit she or he achieves. The Prophet repeatedly cautioned against the futility of fasting, as abstention without realizing any religious benefit because of failure to observe the etiquettes (adab) of fasting.

The practice of fasting draws on much more than a religious mandate. There is a whole culture of Ramadan that sustains the practice, including the communal expectations and rewards of social conformity beyond the commands of religious piety. A culture of Ramadan defines and affirms the religious practice, including all the sounds and smells of the season, the shifting of the rhythm of social life to the carnival of evenings of sweet food and special drinks. Fasting the days of Ramadan entitles me to participate in the carnival of the evenings and sanctions my belonging to the community of believers.

As children we used to be excited with special activities, different foods, and delicious unusual drinks in the evenings, with slight apprehension for our own disrupted meals during the day, when grownups were too dehydrated and hungry to cook for us while they fasted. Although children are not allowed to fast until they reach puberty, so we used to dare each other to fast a few days, but often break the fast when we get hungry. Our social code of honor tolerated breaking the fast as children, but imposed harsh stigma and shame upon those who pretend to fast but cheat by eating or drinking in secret. I also remember my parents telling me not to fast because I was a child, but once I began fasting a day, I must keep fasting until sunset because breaking the fast may become a habit. Those were some of the values of the culture of Ramadan I grew up with.

Other values of the culture of Ramadan draws on what we observed in the behavior of our elders. As I recall, it was unthinkable for adults to speak of their ambivalence about fasting Ramadan. Yes, it was also clear to us that our parents were struggling to be productive and take care of us despite the hardship of fasting. All these mixed feelings were so deeply engrained into our consciousness as children that we grew up with a complex combination of love and apprehension of Ramadan. We were also socialized into the values of self-discipline and management of ambiguity and the ambivalence of religious piety and social conformity. When we became old enough to fast regularly, failing to fast was so alien and abhorrent to us, utterly out of the question. This deeply engrained aversion of failure to observe Ramadan may have been more social than religious, but it was social because fasting is one of the essential requirements of Islam.

Another social ritual of Ramadan is arguing about the sighting of the new moon, which signifies both the beginning and ending of the month of fasting. At one level, the debate has always about whether Ramadan should begin, or should end, because a new moon is confirmed. Who has the authority to confirm, however, is a highly charged political question within each country, and contested regional politics across the Muslim world. At another level, the underlying issue is whether to follow the literal language of the Quran and Hadith (physical sighting) or rely on astronomical calculations and trust human judgment and scientific advances. If either side concede the position of the other, that will have far reaching consequences in every aspect of religious doctrine and practice, indeed the totally of Sharia can be transformed as a result of the prevalence of one view or the other among Muslims globally. The debate over the sighting of the new moon also has some immediate practical implications for the ability of American Muslims to negotiate for religious accommodation in their work schedule by giving their employers (or school authorities) advance notice of religious holidays.

Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law at Emory Law, associated professor in the Emory College of Arts and Sciences, senior fellow of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion, and senior faculty fellow of the Emory University Center for Ethics. An internationally recognized scholar of Islam and human rights, An-Na’im is the author of six books, including What Is an American Muslim?: Embracing Faith and Citizenship. He is the former Executive Director of Human Rights Watch/Africa.

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2 Responses to “Is there an American culture of Ramadan?”
  1. Hana says:

    I enjoyed reading this piece and could very much relate to many of the experiences that Professor An-Na’im shared, even though I grew up as one of only a handful of first-generation Arab American Muslims in Colorado. To supplement his point, I have shared a bit of my experience below. Having grown up in a community of first generation American-Muslims, we were allowed an opportunity to create new traditions when it came to celebrating the holidays of our faith while still living the American lifestyle. Some of my fondest childhood memories surround the month of Ramadan and Eid El-Fitr.

    When I was a child, the number of Muslims that actually lived permanently in my city did not exceed 500 total. Then there was a significant number of university students who were Muslim, oftentimes they would come with their families. These people would stay in my city for a range of years – and we frequently made new friends that would come and go. These people are what created my community, and they helped bring forth traditions that have implemented to this day. For example, many of the religious aspects we have implemented came from students who were from Saudi Arabia.

    When the time of Ramadan would come near, there was a lot of excitement in the air. As children, we could not wait for the month to come because we anxiously awaited the 3-day holiday that followed – Eid El-Fitr. We would call it our version of “Christmas” when we spoke with our non-Muslim friends, except we would proudly tell them that we got a whole month and 3 days to celebrate – not just one day. We always knew that Eid meant parties, gift, and tons of fun – so Ramadan was a pre-Eid celebration for us.

    We also had a tradition of moon-sighting, and usually we would wait at the Mosque the night that was anticipated to be the first of Ramadan, anxiously waiting to hear the announcement of whether the elders sighted the moon. Other times, we would call the Masjid or visit the website to see when the first day of Ramadan was announced to be. In recent years, there has been a lot of debate over whether to follow the scientific method of calculation – in which case the Islamic Society of North America announces, or whether the moon must be still sighted with the bare eye.

    A lot of communities now have groups that take families up to mountains for “moon-sighting trips”, to engage the younger Muslim generation.

    In my own family, we have made it a custom to all wake up together before the sun is up to eat breakfast and then pray the morning prayer together, and the same for the iftar, or breaking of the fast, and the evening prayer. As my siblings and I have grown older and become more busy with university, work, etc., we have all looked forward to Ramadan because it is the one month where we eat breakfast and dinner together, every single day, as a family.

    Every evening, depending on our schedules, we would go to the local masjid for the night (taraweeh) prayers. As we grew older as well, and started driving on our own – we often times will go out to get a late night dessert or coffee after the taraweeh prayers and made this a yearly custom. A few times we would even meet for the early breakfast at the only restaurant open at 4:00am – Ihop! These are small traditions that my friends and I have come to look forward to – because we know we will see each other this month when other times of the year our busy schedules don’t allow for it. These are the basics of Ramadan that we have all followed in my community.

    As far as fasting went, as young children my friends and I would participate in ½ day fasts. We would either fast all morning or afternoon – since we were too young to handle the entire today.

    When it comes to the fun traditions that we have put together – we have many! When I was younger, my mom would always come to my class in elementary or middle school (and she would do the same for my siblings) to give a fun and interactive presentation on Islam. She would tell my classmates about our beliefs and holidays. When she talked about Ramadan, she always had an activity for the students to participate in. We would all make lanterns out of colorful paper. She would then attach a plastic bag full of candy in the inside of each kid’s lantern.

    This memory always stuck with so many of my classmates and is always a fun tradition to do with the younger children that I intend to carry on. It is also a great opportunity for the non-Muslims, because they are used to seeing decorations for every holiday – whether it is Christmas, Hannukah, Easter, etc. When it comes to Islamic holidays- the decorations depend on each country. The lantern (fanoos) is probably one of the most frequent decorations used in many countries – and we have even used it in the United States but in an “Americanized way” – where we add candy, different decorations, etc.

    Another tradition that we always had was helping my mom with is baking special sweets for Ramadan (there are some for Eid too). We had all of the traditional Arabic sweets – including baklawa. However, for Ramadan and Eid El-Fitr there was always one traditional sweet that came at this time: Maamool. It is a bread-type dessert that is either stuffed with pistachios and walnuts, or dates. Then, it is sprinkled with powdered sugar.

    My siblings, friends, and I had the opportunity to get a taste of the Ramadan culture from overseas from our parents and merge those traditions into our American way. In addition to all the basics such as fasting, taraweeh prayers, moon sighting, and traditional desserts, we have also added new things that our parents did not have. For example, we now decorate the homes with Ramadan decorations – and we even have Ramadan “lights” that we like to hang up (similar to how lights are hung up for Christmas). There are many American companies emerging that sell these decorations (similarly to how decorations are sold for other holidays). We like to send Ramadan cards and Eid Greetings in the mail to our distant relatives and family around the United States. There was even a “Eid Stamp” created by USPS that we are always excited to use. All of these decorations help create a festive atmosphere.

    There are new songs that are released every year in English by American or European artists that sing about Ramadan- and we are always excited to have these and have them playing throughout the month when the Quran is not on. We have even had dances synchronized to these Ramadan and Eid songs that we participated in in our elementary schools. They used to put on a holiday show every year with songs from every holiday. I still have the Ramadan song we used memorized – we talked about sighting the moon, welcoming the month of Ramadan, and all of the fun and spiritual aspects put together in a kid’s song.

    These small traditions are fun and making Ramadan exciting for the younger children, and I think this is immensely important especially as the second and third generations of American Muslims begins to emerge. I grew up loving Ramadan and Eid, and feeling so satisfied with these holidays that I never felt deprived from not being able to participate in the highly commercialized holidays of other religions, like Christmas, Hannukah and Easter. Many companies (Muslim-started) are starting to commercialize Ramadan and Eid and creating new fun decorations and toys to help kids feel the Ramadan spirit. I highly support this because it is fun to create these exciting things for children to help them feel the joy of this month, as long as it does not become too commercialized that the entire meaning of the month is lost.

    I know that if we were to have celebrated Ramadan overseas in our parents’ countries, the atmosphere might have been very different. We do not emphasize as much here the need to spend hours every night cooking huge feasts for the iftar every day. I know this is a huge deal overseas, where they eat very heavy sweets and have very elaborate buffets. Here, we do not go overboard on the foods we eat and try to focus on other things.

    Another big thing we emphasized growing up was giving back to the community. There was always some volunteer event that we would participate in during Ramadan. Today we always have a “Feed the Hungry” day where all the teenage Muslims gather at a soup kitchen or elsewhere to help the needy.

    Finally, as my friends and I have grown older, we appreciate the somewhat basic Ramadan and Eid that we had as children, compared to how it is becoming today. We still had decorations and gifts and desserts, etc., but we were able to engrave in ourselves the true meaning of Ramadan as children that today we truly feel the meaning of this month. Today it is a time of the year that I always look forward to so that I can “recharge” my relationship with God, and to reflect on all the blessings I have. I know that I speak on behalf of my siblings and other first-generation American Muslims who are now older when I say that we do not care so much about the commercialization aspect of Ramadan – other than for how fun it is to participate in with the children to make them excited. However, we all look forward to the spiritual aspect. We had our fun as children, and this is what I think allowed us to be fulfilled from that, and to now appreciate Ramadan for what it really means. We also all look forward to passing on these fun traditions that we participated in to our children, and to creating new ones as well.

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