11 November 2004
We’re in the final week of Ramadan. This is the time of year when Muslims the world over remember their Creator in part by abstaining from food, water, sex, and cigarettes from sun up to sun down. In the evenings, people break their fast by having a big, celebratory “iftar” meal with family and friends. Ramadan lasts for a month and is based on the lunar calendar. This means that it falls progressively at different times each year. In the winter, the days are mercifully short, so the fasting is presumably not too painful. In the long summer months, each day must feel like an eternity. As this year’s Ramadan falls in October/November, the sacrifice is of a medium intensity.
The devotion of even the most moderate Muslim during Ramadan is impressive. No equivalent enthusiasm exists in America; at least not in the blue states. It is one thing to celebrate the birth of Santa Claus every year by opening presents and drinking egg nog; it is entirely another thing to make a daily, physically uncomfortable sacrifice for God for an whole month. That so many do, and do so gladly, is not only remarkable, it speaks to a piety completely absent many quarters of the West.
This is not to say that everyone around here behaves in a saintly way. During Ramadan, drivers are more aggressive and less forgiving than in regular months. The call of the car horn is far more frequent than the call to prayer. Smokers, whose numbers are many, are rather fidgety. No nicotine gum for these guys. Nothing can go into the mouth or digestive system during the day. So the prayer beads get a good nervous workout. Some of my married Muslim friends complain about not being able to have sex during the daytime. (Then again, how many working people really do that anyway?)
So Ramadan produces a population of hungry, angry, horny people walking around waiting for the evening call to prayer to come so that they can chow down at their evening iftar, fire up a cigarette, and get funky with their mate. Yet year after year, a billion people throughout the Muslim world observe tradition and practice this ritual of personal sacrifice out of a sense of duty, and more thoughtfully, a genuine love for God.
My country doesn’t strike me as a place where people like to sacrifice all that much. Not that that means we’re worse or better, just different from the folks in these parts. In a land of plenty, I guess denying oneself anything is kind of silly. The closest most of us in America come to fasting is the South Beach Diet, and even that’s not that difficult.
The most striking demonstration of faith—and it still amazes me though I’ve seen it a zillion times---is the practice of daily prayer. This isn’t simply a matter of closing your eyes on the subway and asking God to help a sick relative or assist with an upcoming exam. Muslim prayer is quite an ordeal. Throughout the year—not just during Ramadan—people stop whatever they are doing five times each day to ritually clean themselves, roll out their prayer rugs, and prostrate themselves before God. It takes quite an effort and strong willpower to put aside even the most important of earthly concerns, go through the ablutions, and get down on one’s knees before God. Stand up, kneel down, put your head to the ground, sit back up, turn your side to side, pray, stand up, repeat. All the while the believer is blocking out the outside world. (This has made for some awkward moments for me in the corner grocery store while I wait five minutes for the shopkeeper to finish.) When it is over, he or she emerges from their rapture mentally refreshed and, as a bonus, physically a lot more limber. (I lack the necessary flexibility to ever be a Muslim.)
If Jordan were part of the U.S., it would definitely be a red state. Dark red. People here pray everyday and go to their houses of worship regularly. They see the hand of God in every event great and small. They believe in chastity and sobriety. They think abortions and homosexuality are sins. They believe that there are certain roles for men and women, parents and children. They see the threat of a moral collapse in their country and fight it via peer pressure, and on rare occasions, using more extreme measures. It’s not that these are boring, unfunny people. Far from it. I’ve had many a good time with my Muslim friends. But religion is definitely an integral part of their life and they make time for God as much as they make time for socializing.
From reading the papers and watching TV—and judging by recent election results--it seems to me that the morality and worldview held by most Muslims is the same as that held by the majority of Americans. (An Arab friend of mine who frequently watches American television asked me if his understanding of English was bad, or did he really view a debate about same-sex marriages?) That there is this clash of civilizations going on between red state America and Islam is a bit puzzling to the well-traveled observer. In many respects both sides seem to have a whole lot in common.
The other day I was watching a live broadcast of the evening call to prayer in Mecca on the Saudi Arabian TV channel I get in my room. Thousands of Muslims, all dressed in white, were assembled around the holy ‘Kaba black cube going through the prayer ritual as one. Aside from the two mezzuins calling out “Allah Hu Akbar” (God Is Great), everyone was silent. It was eerie. Then I flipped the channel and saw a SKY News report about Oral Roberts University in Tulsa. It showed a mega-church filled with a congregation of young fundamentalists standing with arms raised to God singing and swaying in unison. The look on their faces was one of complete surrender (or “Islam” as they say in Arabic). Aside from the choice of attire and the fact that one group was singing before God and the other silent before Him, it’s hard for me to see the differences between these two groups of true believers half a world apart. As we approach the peaceful celebrations of Eid and Christmas, maybe we shouldn’t be so eager to find the subtleties that divide us and look instead to all that we have common.