September 16, 2007
Ramadan Karim Mubarak to everyone.
Fresh Air interviewed the Washington Post’s Thomas Ricks the other day promoting, I guess, Fiasco. The interview’s worth listening to, maybe even commenting on, but I wanted to go off on a tangent on one thing here. Ricks mentioned that every year violence has gone up during Ramadan, and speculated that with the month coming in longer and hotter days this would keep getting worse. He remembered being in Kabul for a summer Ramadan and feeling the aggravated tempers of the people all around him. He also said that Ramadan moves by about four weeks a year with respect to the Gregorian calendar. That’s pretty far off, but it’s better than the mean considering I’ve heard many a journalist or traveler who had lived in the Islamic world and still thought that Islamic dates move back and forth with respect to the Gregorian calendar by a few days – like the Jewish calendar and Christian holy days. (Ramadan actually moves – always forward – by about 11 days, the difference between 12 lunar months and a solar year.)
The idea of Muslims becoming irritable and bad tempered in Ramadan is fairly common. I think I first remember noticing it in Lonely Planet guides. Maybe it’s even true in some way, but for most Muslims Ramadan – especially the Ramadan of their childhood – is a time of magic and light and mercy and tenderness. Just after I heard this interview my wife mentioned – after scolding our son and feeling bad about it – how “soft” both of her parents (normally quite strict by any standards) would become as soon as Ramadan came. I feel the same way. Ricks mentioned that people would get especially irritable towards the end of the day, but every experience I’ve ever had has been the opposite. People who normally shout and argue with everyone are calm and resigned and easy going at the end of a day of fasting – and by the time they finish iftar they have forgotten whatever might have bugged them and they’re all good spirits.
Part of me wants to say that non-Muslims are projecting some of their own irritation on to those who are fasting. Especially for a traveler, Ramadan in a Muslim country can be a bit frustrating. And if you are relying on restaurants to eat and the restaurants don’t open until sundown, well, that could be irritating. But I don’t think it’s entirely fare to say it’s just projection of non-Muslims own irritation.
During Ramadan, Muslims’ entire schedule and focus changes. And it feels like the entire 24 hours of a day is occupied in a way that one almost never feels outside of this month. One’s fellow Muslims shift right alongside oneself – in activity, in schedule, and in mentality. But if someone is out of sync with the flow of Ramadan days, it can be much harder to accommodate them in the ways that would be simple and normal outside of Ramadan. In normal days – whether they realize it or not – all journalists, tourists, foreign social workers, diplomats,and so on, live lives that are out of sync with those of their host societies. Whenever and however they cross paths with locals – buying food, taking interviews, starting development projects – it is an interruption to the normal flow of life. Not a bad thing, just a harmless disruption. But in Ramadan, the flow of life lacks the slack to accommodate disruptions. People will still accommodate the stranger, but it takes more effort and adjustment. They may be slow in meeting your needs, or may do the bare minimum – not out of stinginess, but just out of not having the means to do what you want. If you were to enter the flow of their lives, you would experience generosity and happiness and softheartedness like at no other time.
so why the rise in violence? First, as I think Ricks pointed out, people’s religious sentiments are raised. The rewards for individual acts of piety are multiplied 70 fold in this month. Many people who don’t pray the rest of the year pray in Ramadan. People give up many of the little or big sins they are addicted to during the rest of the year. Men who shave may stop for the month, or at least the last ten days. Women who don’t cover may start. So if you’re a member of one of the cults who identify religiosity with shedding the blood of innocents, I suppose it makes sense that you would increase such activity in Ramadan.
Further, if people could chose a month to die in, many would choose Ramadan – a month when sins are forgivven and prayers granted. The anniversary of the battle of Badr may play a role. Sectarian violence in Iraq may also be spurred by the death anniversaries of Sayyida Fatima (`ala abiha wa `alaiha al-salat wal-salam) and Sayyida Khadija (radi Allah `anha) and the anniversary of the martyrdom of Sayyiduna `Ali (karram Allah wajhah wa radi Allah `anh).
Back to the bright side, Chapati Mystery has one of the sweetest Proustian Ramadan descriptions I’ve read in a while. Ramadanish also promises to shed some soft light on what’s sweet about life in Ramadan.