Ramadan has something to offer all faiths

Despite being primarily an occasion for Muslims, Ramadan provides an opportunity for soul-searching, reflection, bridge-building.

Iftar dinner 311 (photo credit: Yossef Avi Yair Engel/Beit Hanassi)
Iftar dinner 311
(photo credit: Yossef Avi Yair Engel/Beit Hanassi)
Ramadan is when Muslims fast and feast, but the holy month has something to offer those of other faiths, or none.
Ramadan has a tendency to bend space and time. For those participating in the fast, especially in the summer, the daytime hours crawl by like a snail on tranquilizers, while daily routines are like running a marathon through a desert of thirst. In contrast, nights are transformed into veritable days, with cafés and restaurants bursting at the seams late into the night, especially in my hometown of Cairo.
In the Holy Land, the holy month has even resulted in Israelis and Palestinians temporarily living in different time zones, as the Palestinian territories switch to winter time in a bid to make the fast a little easier. Some cynics on both sides might quip that, Ramadan or not, Israelis and Palestinians already live in different time zones, not to mention on different planets.
But Ramadan, despite being primarily an occasion for Muslims, provides a golden opportunity for soul-searching, reflection and bridge-building in this troubled land.
Toward that end, Jews and Christians were invited to attend an interfaith iftar (the meal breaking the fast at sunset) in Haifa where, in addition to feasting, participants chewed over questions of tolerance and mutual respect.
Even hard-line Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who has been a harsh critic of Islam and who warned of an Islamist takeover in Egypt during the early days of the revolution there, tried to get into the spirit of the season with a video in which he wished Muslims around the world a “Ramadan Karim.”
Not to be outdone, the IDF announced the easing of restrictions in the West Bank and Gaza, which, though far from adequate, at least allows Palestinians some extra mobility to visit their families during Ramadan. However, the restrictions on men under 45 praying at Al-Aksa Mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site, are still in place, much to the frustration of Palestinians. As I walked through the Old City on Friday morning to take my son to his crèche, it felt eerie to be almost the only young man on the streets.
Ramadan also illustrates that, despite current political differences, Israelis and Palestinians have a lot of common religious ground. Fasting is common to the three Abrahamic faiths, as well as to other religions.
Although observant Jews only fast about six days a year, the central fast, on Yom Kippur – the holiest day in Judaism – is a gruelling 25-hour affair. Although at its toughest, the Ramadan fast lasts for only about 20 hours, Ramadan is nonetheless like a whole month of mini Yom Kippurs.
Not only is the word for “fasting” more or less the same in Arabic and Hebrew, Ramadan and Yom Kippur etiquette is surprisingly similar, with non-observant individuals generally refraining from eating in public, though Muslims do continue to drive. Of course, though the pace of life slows considerably during Ramadan, it does not come to a halt as it does during Yom Kippur.
GIVEN THE general contemporary distrust between Jews and Muslims, it may surprise many to learn that some Jews observe Ramadan.
“I kept Ramadan for seven years, but I don’t keep it anymore,” says Ya’qub Ibn Yusuf (original name Joshua) from Jerusalem. “Fasting is tough for the first few days, but then your body gets the message and adjusts.”
And seeing others eat and drink around him didn’t bother him in the slightest. He likens it to “watching a couple holding hands” – “It doesn’t make you horny – it just makes you happy for them.”
Ibn Yusuf sees no contradiction between being a Sufi and a Jew. In fact, he describes himself as a “fairly conservative” and observant Jew, despite the fact that he dresses in secular garb. Although political animosity and conflict have driven a wedge between Jews and Muslims, there is nothing New Age or novel about such “fusion spiritualism.”
Sufism is a generally inclusive, esoteric form of Islam that has been influenced by a wide range of mystical philosophies, including the Christian monastic tradition, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism.
It also had a profound effect on medieval Jewish thought. For example, Abraham ben Moses ben Maimon, son of the Jewish philosopher Maimonides, believed that Sufi practices and doctrines were among the lost traditions of the biblical prophets, and so introduced into Jewish prayer the Sufi dhikr (the reciting of God’s name), prostration, the stretching out of hands, kneeling, and the ablution of the feet.
Ramadan is not just for the religious; it also has something to offer secularists like myself. Fasting on Ramadan was the only pillar of Islam I ever practiced consistently.
This might have been because the month carries a secular appeal: Fasting is not just a ritual for its own sake, but is also about exercising control over your physical urges and empathizing with the less fortunate.
I have not fasted for many long years, yet certain aspects of the spirit of Ramadan still inspire my faithless bones. Despite the ready tempers, traffic jams, runaway consumerism and irritability of some, not to mention the Palestinian love for loud nightly fireworks, Ramadan is marked by a special spirit of solidarity, camaraderie, unison and communalism.
Ramadan nights have a special enchantment, a kind of festive magic. And it is this dimension of Ramadan that I miss the most when I am in Europe: the delicious delicacies at communal iftars, sentimental soaps and corny comedies on TV, socializing in smoky cafés late into the night, predawn beans on a Cairo street corner.
Although Jerusalem is not as lively as sleepless Cairo, and most Palestinian Muslims spend Ramadan visiting family and friends, there are still Ramadan-night entertainments to be found here.
Whether you fast or not, are Muslim or not, the social and cultural aspects of Ramadan are open to all.
The writer is an Egyptian-Belgian journalist and blogger currently living in Jerusalem. His website is www.chronikler.com