Spiritual oasis or consumer paradise?

 
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By Khaled Diab

Despite having acquired some 21st-century trappings, Eid al-Fitr’s mix of religion and revelry is hundreds of years old.

An Ottoman-era Eid procession.

An Ottoman-era Eid procession.

20 July 2016

For Muslims who have fasted the month of Ramadan, the festival which follows, Eid al-Fitr, is like finding an oasis after a long, thirsty, hungry trek through the desert.

Despite some national and regional variations, the basic form of Eid is surprisingly consistent across the Muslim world, when up to 30 days of fasting give away to (generally) three days of feasting.

Eid celebrations start early and piously, with a special public prayer shortly after sunrise. Mosques, public squares and parks resonate with the repeated, rhythmic, spontaneously coordinated chanting of the congregated worshippers, which is echoed by those still on their way, who sing along, as if, like bats, the faithful locate one another sonically.

Although I don’t pray and am a-religious, I am still moved by the beauty of this spiritual surround sound, the diffuse, deflected wave of repetitive and repeated rhythm which echoes all around, like swarms of migrating birds singing with joy.

Children are decked out in their Eid best, dressed in gleaming new clothes purchased (unless they can’t afford it) specially for the occasion in the frantic and frenetic last days of Ramadan, and sport new haircuts, with their skin scrubbed till it glows.

With varying degrees of patience or impatience, they tag along with the adults to the mosque, but their minds are usually elsewhere, on the explosion of fun that is to follow. And explosive it quite literally can be.

Although I remember little of my early childhood in Cairo, I recall how the silence following the prayers didn’t last long, and the streets of Cairo would erupt in a cacophony of bangs. It was like a juvenile war-playzone, as kids, including myself, threw “bomb” (with the final ‘b’ pronounced) on the pavement, streets and even against walls, littering the streets with the paper and gunpowder debris of fun.

I also loved going to funfairs, amusement parks or parks to play – a tradition that is still alive and well, judging by how all these facilities are heaving in metropolises like Cairo, where green space is now at such a premium that poor families make do with the grassy islands in the middle of busy roads.

In London, going to the Regents Park mosque was the only public place where I got a sense of Eid. And afterwards, we would either invite Arab friends round to our place or be invited round to theirs to enjoy festive delights and delicacies. When I used to fast Ramadan, it felt odd during Eid to be eating during daylight hours, and sometimes I would stop mid-chew in confusion, before recalling that it was okay to eat.

If anything sums up Eid, it is family and friends, with liberal, generous servings of food. People who live away from their families tend to head to their hometowns and villages for Eid, while urban dwellers often dedicate the first day to family and the subsequent two days are spent out of town, often at the beach.

In many countries, this festival is known as the “sweet Eid” because of the preponderance of desserts consumed. In Egypt, the seasonal favourite is “kahk”, a biscuit which can be stuffed with various fillings and is sprinkled with icing sugar.

In recent years, I have been hearing increasing lamentations and complaints about the “commercialisation” of Eid, how it is losing its “simplicity” and “spirit”, and how it is growing increasingly to resemble Western Christmas, a secular rather than spiritual season.

Although this holds some truth, I feel it is largely based on sentimentality for a fabled, storied past that never actually existed. Eid, like Ramadan and other religious festivals, has always been a mix of the spiritual and the commercial, the sacred and the profane.

And unlike Christmas in many Western countries, the religious aspect continues, with mosques full for Eid prayers, and the marathon tarawih praying sessions of Ramadan.

For instance, in Egypt, many of the festive, consumerist traditions we associate with Eid and Ramadan, from the special lamps called fawanies to kahk and other sweets, date back to the Fatimid caliphate (909-1171). The caliphs of the time would organise lavish public banquets and events, and shower the population with new clothes and a diverse range of sweet delights.

In late Ottoman Jerusalem, Eid el-Fitr was accompanied by a massive fair and feast outside the old city’s walls which featured food, merry-go-rounds, races and even peep shows, known as sanduq al-ajaib. This sounds considerably more festive than Eid in contemporary, conflict-ridden, isolated, besieged East Jerusalem.

The Palestinian musician and bon vivant Wasif Jawhariyyeh recalled with fondness in his memoirs how lively the Ramadan and Eid season were during the late Ottoman period, with late-night musical entertainment and, in the pre-television soap opera age, extremely popular puppet shows.

Of course, technology and greater affluence have made some changes. For instance, instead of the traditional hakawatee (storyteller) and puppeteers, people now watch specially made Eid and Ramadan TV programmes, albeit annoyingly interspersed with endless ads.

When I was a child, I remember the flurry of activity from early in the morning as my grandmother marshalled my aunts to bake trays of kahk. But for ease and convenience, my aunts, like millions of Egyptians, now buy their Eid sweets ready-made.

And as the economy nosedives, Eid is actually becoming more austere, not materialistic, for poorer Egyptians, who can’t afford the increasing prices of clothes, outings and festive delicacies. This is happening elsewhere in the Arab and Muslim world too.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 6 July 2016.

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The advantages of fast living

 
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By Khaled Diab

Many Muslims believe that fasting is good for their health, but is science on their side?

Wednesday 22 August 2012

For people who do not fast, the idea that starving yourself can improve your health sounds bonkers. Yet this is exactly what many Muslims who are have just finished fasting Ramadan believe. Over the years, I have met many people who swear by the benefits of fasting and the Arab TV menu during this holy month, in addition to the dangerous proliferation of corny soap operas, is not complete without some doctor or sheikh extolling the health virtues of fast living.

Muhammad is even believed to have said: “Fast so as to be healthy.” While for many believers the prophet’s pronouncement is all the evidence they need, others look for scientific confirmation.

“Fasting has several health benefits,” enthused one Saudi columnist. “It alleviates [the] pain caused by many illnesses. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates asked people to fast because it purifies the body and helps it get rid of toxins.”

But not all modern Muslim doctors agree. One Dutch-Moroccan doctor says that, because the Ramadan fast is poorly researched, there is scant medical evidence that it is physiologically beneficial. “Doctors are not religious scholars or preachers, they should always be aware of the limits of their profession,” he warns overenthusiastic physicians.

Though I gave up fasting years ago out of a lack of spiritual conviction, I’m curious to know what science has to say on the subject. Despite the lack of research on Ramadan specifically, there have been numerous studies on fasting in general. And, surprisingly, many of them seem to confirm the benefits of going without food.

Studies have found benefits in fasting for the heart, female fertility, recovery from spinal injury, and more. Perhaps most surprising of all is that a considerable body of research is being amassed which suggests that fasting helps people live in good health for longer.

One BBC journalist, Michael Mosley, even put this to the test recently, using his own body as a human laboratory. To start with, he was doubtful. “I’d always thought of fasting as something unpleasant, with no obvious long term benefits,” he admitted.

But he was surprised at the outcome. One method that worked for him involved fasting for a painful three days, though he was allowed to drink during that time. After this period of relative starvation, Mosley’s metabolism registered marked improvements, lowering his risk of contracting a number of age-related diseases, including diabetes and cancer.

However, there is a snag. For this approach to work requires fasting the three days every few weeks. A gentler method Mosley tried which delivered similar outcomes is known as intermittent fasting. There are two ways to go about this. The first is to fast on alternate days, restricting your intake to 500-600 calories on the fasting day. The other is known as 5:2 model, which involves five days of normal eating and two days of fasting (i.e. hugely restricted eating) per week. However, these models of fasting do come with a health warning: they should only be attempted by healthy people and only after they have sought medical advice.

But there is an apparent paradox here: though we need to eat to live, regularly not eating can help us live longer.

The scientific explanation relates to the growth hormone IGF-1 which drives our cells to reproduce themselves. However, as we get older, errors creep in during the reproduction process – and so long as this hormone is being produced, many of these errors go uncorrected. By reducing the production of IGF-1, fasting enables the body to enter into “repair mode” and fix these copying errors.

To my mind, the power of fasting could also have an evolutionary explanation. For most of our existence, food (especially high-protein meat matter) has been a scarce resource and a rare delight. So “fasting” was quite a common state in our evolutionary past, as was “feasting” when a store of (quickly perishable) food was found, such as the kill from a hunt. This not only helps explain the benefits of fasting, though, but also why, in our plentiful societies, many people finding it hard to switch off their hunger pangs and stop eating.

So does this prove that fasting Ramadan is good for you?

The scientific answer is no, not really – or, at best, we don’t know. The approaches to fasting above are different to the Ramadan model, in which people fast every day for one month per year, and not year round as is required for fasting to deliver its apparent benefits.

Moreover, fasting aids good health by restricting calories to suppress growth hormones. But contemporary Ramadan fasting for many actually involves people consuming more calories than they usually do because, after a long day of going without, they feel they have deserved a treat, and veritable banquets are a common sight in many Muslim homes once the sun goes down.

This is, as any devout Muslim will tell you, at odds with the frugal spirit of Ramadan, whose spiritual purpose is to enable people not only to get closer to God but also to learn self-discipline and empathise with less-privileged members of society by learning what it is like to live without.

And herein lies the rub. It does not really matter for the pious whether fasting Ramadan is good for you or not. Ramadan, like any other religious rite, is an act which is performed for spiritual and ritualistic reasons.

However, in an age of increased rationality in which science is eclipsing religion, many religious people try to rationalise their faith with pseudo-scientific theories. An example of this, which one Jewish friend cited, is how many religious Jews will extol the health benefits of the kosher practice of separating dairy and milk products.

In fact, for “true believers”, even if science proved an important religious rite was harmful (or at the very least painful or non-beneficial), that would not stop them from following the diktats of their faith.

Religion is about obedience to a greater power, and is founded on the notion that even if something that religion prescribes or proscribes appears harmful, it must be ultimately good, and God, in his infinite wisdom, must have a good reason for it.

A believer’s role is ultimately not to reason why – or only to reason up to the point where it does not conflict with religion. So if there is a contradiction between the two, then faith must trump rationality. And being of an independent mind and spirit, I cannot abide autocracy, even if it is supposedly heaven sent.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Jerusalem Post on 15 August 2012.

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Ramadan for all

 
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By Khaled Diab

Ramadan is when Muslims fast and feast, but the holy month has something to offer those of other faiths, or none.

Wednesday 10 August 2011 

Ramadan has something of a tendency to bend space and time. For those participating in the fast, especially now that it is summer, the daytime hours crawl by like a snail on tranquilisers, while engaging in daily routines is like running a marathon through a desert of thirst. In contrast, nights are transformed into veritable days, with cafes and restaurants bursting at the seams with patrons late into the night, especially in my hometown Cairo, the world’s top ‘city that never sleeps’, according to a recent survey.

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 figuratively 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. Towards 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 provided one another with food for thought as they chewed over questions of tolerance and mutual respect against the backdrop of conflict.

Even Israel’s hard-line prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, who has been a harsh critic of Islam over the years and who warned of an Islamist takeover in Egypt during the early days of the revolution, also tried to get into the spirit of the season with a video in which he wished Palestinian Muslims and 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 allow Palestinians some extra mobility to visit their families during Ramadan. However, the restrictions on men under the age of 45 praying at the al-Aqsa 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 more or less the only young man on the streets.

Ramadan also illustrates that, despite current political differences, Israelis and Palestinians share a lot of common religious ground. Fasting is common, despite variations, to the three Abrahamic faiths, as well as to other religions around the world.

Although observant Jews only fast a maximum of six days a year, the central fast, on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), the holiest day in Judaism, is a gruelling 25-hour affair. Although even at its toughest, the Ramadan fast last for about 20 hours, it 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 Muslims and Jews generally refraining from eating in public, though Muslims do continue to drive. Moreover, though the pace of life slows considerably during Ramadan, it does not come to a grinding 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 actually 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 the first few days, but then your body gets the message and adjusts.”

And seeing others eat and drink around him did not bother Ya’qub 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.”

Ya’qub 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 spiritual cross-over or ‘fusion spiritualism’, if you like.

Sufism is a generally inclusive, esoteric form of Islam which 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, the son of the Jewish philosopher Maimonides, believed that Sufi practices and doctrines were in the lost tradition of the Biblical prophets and so introduced into Jewish prayer the Sufi dhikr/zikr (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 and the a-religious, like myself. Fasting Ramadan was the only pillar of Islam I ever practised 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 self-discipline, exercising control over your physical urges and empathising with the predicament of the less fortunate.

But 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 displays, 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 which I miss the most when I am in Europe: the delicious delicacies at communal iftars, sentimental soaps and corny comedies on TV, socialising in smoky cafes late into the night, pre-dawn 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 nights 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 to savour.

This article first appeared in The Jerusalem Post on 7 July 2011.

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Ramadan for drinkers

 
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By Khaled Diab

With booze in short supply, the month of fasting can be a thirsty wait for some Muslims.

September 2008

In Europe, Ramadan creeps up on you with none of the fanfare associated with the fasting season in the Muslim world, where it is a unique time of year. It is a month of fasting and feasting, frugalness and greed, night turning into day, spirituality and commercialism. When it started this year, we’d arranged, by chance, to go out for drinks with some friends, where we, blasphemously, drank an impromptu seasonal toast.

While the majority of people go without food or drink from dawn to dusk, some Muslims suffer a special kind of thirst. For those who drink alcohol, the holy month can be a very dry spell.

Many do this voluntarily, much like Christians give up certain ‘bad habits’ for Lent. One Bosnian woman describes people who practice this temporary abstention as being “Muslims on batteries”. In Bosnia, the majority of Muslims still drink alcohol, despite the growing religiosity of society there since the traumas of the Balkans conflict in the 1990s.

When I used to fast, I would have ‘one for the road’ just before the holy month began, try to keep on the Ramadan wagon for the fasting season, and join friends for a new season of drinking after the Eid festival.

Curiously, Ramadan was the only facet of Islam I stuck to religiously. Long after I’d stopped entering mosques except to admire their architecture, I still continued to fast. This may have had something to do with the periodic and festive nature of the season, rather like becoming a football fan for the duration of the World Cup. The discipline, humility and endurance required may have played a role because it made it a ‘cleansing’ personal challenge, as opposed to an empty a religious ritual.

While it’s okay for Muslims to stop drinking during Ramadan out of choice, society often takes a paternalistic attitude towards drinkers. Egypt, for instance, has a booming alcohol industry, which comes to a virtual grinding halt during the holy month.

During Ramadan, Egyptians are barred from purchasing alcohol and all alcoholic outlets besides ones catering to foreigners close down. The first time I became aware of this peculiar legislation was when I was out with some foreign friends and we ordered drinks at the bar, only to be told by the waiter that I wasn’t allowed to.

Feeling humiliated, I complained to the manager who made sympathetic noises and admitted that he would love to serve Egyptians, who made up the bulk of his clientele, but he would face an enormous fine if an inspector walked in. In fact, Ramadan is a month of major losses for bars and restaurants that serve alcohol.

This law is patently unfair because it forces Egyptian Christians to live by an Islamic rule, and it casts the state in the role of moral guardian. If alcohol is legal, what right does the government then have to force its citizens to behave temporarily like ‘good Muslims’?

It also leads to some absurd situations. Egyptians who do not wish to stop drinking clean out the off-licences just before they shut. Sometimes in mixed groups of expats and Egyptians, the foreigners will order binge quantities of booze, while the Egyptians will order a token soft drink and, with one eye on the door, they will all make merry.

The first Ramadan I was in Egypt after I acquired Belgian citizenship, I seized the opportunity to order a stiffer drink that previously permitted, and surreptitiously poured beer into an Egyptian friend’s coke as we moaned about the injustice of it all.

Well, I shouldn’t complain too much, at least drinking in Egypt is not a punishable offence like it is in the Islamic theocracies of Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan, and the law is more honest than in, say, Morocco, where Muslims are officially not allowed to consume alcohol, but everyone turns a blind eye – except during Ramadan.

In some countries, a veritable ‘alcohol war’ is brewing between alcohol-free puritans and the booze brigade. Despite having licences to operate during Ramadan, several restaurants and bars in the Jordanian capital, Amman, have been shut down by over-zealous health inspectors on questionable pretexts.

The owner of Books@Cafe, a popular Amman hangout, summed up the situation by saying: “This is about where we stand in hypocrisy and bigotry…and where we will be if we remain quiet.” His article drew more than 200 outraged responses, with one poster describing the closures as “the pinnacle in state-sponsored stupidity”.

In Turkey, which normally has a relaxed attitude to drinking, a shop owner was attacked for selling alcohol during Ramadan in an upmarket Ankara neighbourhood.

Turkish revellers have been organising a campaign of boozy civil disobedience – which has continued into Ramadan – to defend their right to drink at a popular Istanbul quay. Meanwhile, life goes on as normal in Istanbul’s Kadıköy district, where some restaurants serve traditional iftar for the pious and others offer alcohol for the secular punters.

Hundreds of millions of Muslims will be looking forward to the post-fasting festivities of Eid el-Fitr, which will be around 1 October, where I will get to observe the Indian version in Delhi. For Muslim drinkers, they will be eager to fall off the Ramadan wagon and head for their nearest watering hole.

 

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 27 September 2008. Read the related discussion.

This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest

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