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.
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.