What You Might Not Know About Ramadan

The beginning of Ramadan means millions of Muslims around the world begin praying and fasting from dawn to dusk. But for many non-Muslims, the fasting practice may be the extent of what they know about Islam's holy month. Author Vali Nasr explains that it's also a time of consumerism and "political skulduggery."

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TONY COX, host:

Right now, we're talking about Ramadan, specifically, what we don't know about the holy month. In what ways do you observe Ramadan? Call us and tell us here in Washington at 800-989-8255. The email address: talk@npr.org. And to join the conversation, go to our website, npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Well, as we said, Ramadan begins this week. And we are just now being joined by Vali Nasr who - Vali Nasr, correct - who joins me here in Studio 3A. He is a professor of international politics at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and author of "The Rise of Islamic Capitalism: Why the New Muslim Middle Class is the Key to Defeating Extremism." Thank you for joining us.

Professor VALI NASR (Author, "The Rise of Islamic Capitalism: Why the New Muslim Middle Class is the Key to Defeating Extremism."): Thank you for inviting me.

COX: So let's start at the beginning.

Prof. NASR: Mm-hmm.

COX: Ramadan is what?

Prof. NASR: Ramadan is one of the articles of the Islamic faith, which means that one month in a year, Muslims are to fast from dawn to dusk and avoid eating, drinking, having sex, engaging in fighting, saying bad things, having bad thoughts. It's a period of its dedicated to God. It's a period of spiritual reflection. It's a period of imposing discipline on ones desire, most basic desires and wants, which is hunger and thirst. And it's an important part of the Muslim religious calendar. It rotates because it's counted by lunar -it's a lunar month. It's...

COX: It doesn't always start on the same calendar date.

Prof. NASR: Exactly. It moves by 11 days every year. So, throughout ones lifetime, it goes from summer to winter and passes through all the seasons.

COX: And when does it begin this year?

Prof. NASR: It begins actually tomorrow depending on observation of the new moon, because as I said, it's a lunar month, so it starts when the new moon is seen and then it ends also when a new moon is seen. So it's a 28-day...

COX: Twenty-eight days, four weeks.

Prof. NASR: Four weeks.

COX: The first thing that you note in your foreign policy piece about the holiday - is it correct to call it a holiday or holiday period or is that not right?

Prof. NASR: In American thinking, we think of it as a holiday because that's the way we associate religious - important religious dates as holidays. It's not a holiday in the sense that life goes on. The last day of the holy month, which is Eid ul-Fitr, is a holiday and there are periods in between that are holidays. But as a whole, it's not a holiday.

COX: Now, one of the things that you - the point I was trying to make was you say that Ramadan is not about quietly sitting at home in prayer, which people might think that that's what it is because of the fasting and because of the, you know, the change in behavior, but it's not necessarily that, is it?

Prof. NASR: No. But more people go to mosques more frequently, sometimes every afternoon or every day during this month because it's a month that Muslims believe that they're closer to God. So it's a month of reflection. It's a month of prayer and spirituality, but life goes on. So, you know, people are still supposed to be working, tending shops, going to offices, et cetera, even though in practice, because of the hunger and thirst and fatigue, they do less of -less work.

COX: Now, you mentioned though that in terms of the spending that takes place during Ramadan, it is second only to Christmas.

Prof. NASR: Well, first of all, we're talking about 1.3 billion Muslims the world over, literally, one-fifth of humanity and this is an important month to them. They fast during the day, but they also break the fast usually in large events. They get together with family, with friends. It's often a feast. They invite people to their homes, and they also go out a lot after the fast breaks and they spend, and they spend differently than they do the rest of the year.

COX: How so?

Prof. NASR: For instance, they eat, you know, the countries of New Zealand and Australia have a spike in their export of lamb, because thats a favorite dish, particularly in the Middle East. And more of it is consumed because a lot of events happened. If you live in an Arab country on any day in Ramadan, you may be invited to six or seven different breaking fast events, parties...

COX: Really?

Prof. NASR: ...get-togethers.

COX: All in the evenings, I'm assuming.

Prof. NASR: All in the evening.

COX: All right. Lets take a call. This is Soudik(ph), I believe Im saying that correctly, from Charlotte in North Carolina. Welcome.

SOUDIK (Caller): How are you doing, Tony? Thanks for taking my call. Yeah. Im a practicing Muslim. And I try to observe the holy month of Ramadan by - just by doing some reflecting and asking for forgiveness, and trying to better myself to be a better person for humanity. You know, because we believe that humanity is one and God is one. We're just trying to be better humans, working for the whole of humanity. And thats the essence of what a Muslim should be doing there this time of the year.

COX: Well, thank you for sharing that. I appreciate that. Lets get another call. This is Fatima(ph) in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Welcome.

FATIMA (Caller): Thank you. Asalamalakum. I greatly enjoy listening to your show, and I do thank you for having for explaining to the rest of the community in the United States, what Ramadan is and, you know, to actually tell the real truth about Ramadan. And that its not something that they may have just heard about over the media. But we celebrate it at the family every day, with the - your guest said get together over somebodys house within the family. I have a lot of extended family here.

And we try to show the kids that this is not only fasting about food and drinks, its also trying to be a good Muslim, like your previous caller said. Not to be not to lie, because lying also breaks your fast; to present a very good person, as a human being, to others in the community; to try to be a good Muslim and to explain what Ramadan is, because theres a lot of people that are non-Muslims that do not know what the month may represent.

COX: Thank you very much for that call. Vali, Im going to ask you about Western - people in the West - is celebrating Ramadan a correct expression?

Prof. NASR: Yes.

COX: Practicing it or some...

Prof. NASR: No.

COX: ...celebrating, is right?

Prof. NASR: Celebrating is right.

COX: Okay. Im going to ask you about that. But I want to take one more call and come back to that. This is Sam(ph) from Dearborn, Michigan. Sam, welcome TALK OF THE NATION.

SAM (Caller): Well, thank you. And to your Muslim guest speaker, Ramadan mubarak asalamalakum.

Prof. NASR: Thank you.

SAM: One of the ways that, I guess, I observe or commemorate Ramadan as a bachelor. And I'm in a kind of unique situation that Im not married at my age, and that is kind of a peculiar paradox, being in the Muslim community, because in our faith, marriage is considered half the faith. But I more typically observe the fast start the fast I will be starting it at dawn tomorrow - as a bachelor, and I do not have family around me. So I tend to observe the fast and break the fast every night of Ramadan on my own. And I know that is not as spiritually enriching as being around other Muslims or family members, but my situation just doesnt allow that, perhaps, for practical purposes.

But what I like to ask your guest is, when youre practicing the faith and youre observing the the reason Ramadan apply so much to me. Is number one, its an opportunity and its a thanksgiving, and its really a gift from God, because he's allowed you to observe and to live through another month of Ramadan - which is a month of blessing, a month of forgiveness, and a month of repentance.

What I like to ask your guest, as an expert or a teacher of Islam, is the fast really just as fulfilling or spiritually acceptable to God if youre doing it on your own and youre more or less breaking your fast in the evening, on your own, as a bachelor. And, you know, it is a month of reflection, and I really enjoy it in a sense that it offers me a chance to regain or reestablish some humility.

COX: Well, Sam, let me let him give you an answer to your question. Dont go away because he may have a follow up for you. What about what Sam is asking?

Prof. NASR: Well, its obviously very good to be able to share the blessings of the month, Muslims believe, with others. But there is no impact on the effect that it has on a person if its done alone. After all, the discipline, the introspection, the reflection that goes with Ramadan is suppose to enrich ones person, and to bring him to closer to God. And there and that is, first and foremost, an individual act, and then its a social act.

COX: Well, Sam, it sounds like youre on the right track.

SAM: Well, thank you. And one other point I like to bring up, is I think its important, too, for Muslims, during the month of Ramadan, to observe the fast, not only by not taking water or food during the day, but to also offer a fast of the eyes, a fast to the tongue. But in other words, to put your best foot forward really as an ambassador for Islam. So that those non-Muslims who do come in contact with them ,and they want to learn more about Ramadan or what its about, they observe a change in your behavior to the point where its better than what they have normally observed. And hopefully, its always good.

COX: All right, Sam. Thank you.

SAM: All right. Thank you.

COX: Thank you very much, Sam, for that. Sam and the other two callers before him bring up a point. And I want to ask you, Vali Nasr, about, and its this. Aspects of Ramadan can be challenging for Muslims living in Western countries. And Sam was just one example of trying to make it fit and therefore people are surrounded by people eating all of the time. How difficult is it to practice or to celebrate Ramadan if youre living in the United States or in another country where it is not wildly understood?

Prof. NASR: It clearly makes it more challenging, because you dont have the cultural milieu that you have in the Muslim world, where the entire country or the entire society is essentially observing the same thing. Nobody eats in front of you. You know, that youll be participating whether alone or with your family in the same activity. The West provides many challenges. One is this, that often, if you dont live in some place like Dearborn, Michigan, or in an area where you have a lot of Muslims, that you have to observe this on your own.

And its a lonely feeling. It puts more pressure. The weather is also a challenge. The hour of the day is a challenge. In the Muslim world, it's much more closer to the equator, so the difference of hours between night and day is not very long.

COX: So the daytime is not as long is what you're saying?

Prof. NASR: It's not as long. If you live in Sweden or if you live in Nova Scotia or in parts of Canada, you can have, at this time of the year, essentially white nights, which means the hours of the night are very short. When you have, like, days in summer in the west, in the United States where you have 100-plus degree heat, and you still have to work like everybody else. It's not like in the Middle East where at least people take the afternoon off, and it's fairly accepted. It is challenging.

COX: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Another question about Ramadan. Are there symbols? Christmas has a symbol in America: the tree, decorations. Easter has a symbol. Does Ramadan have any materialistic symbols associated with it?

Prof. NASR: No, it doesn't have any specific symbol as such largely because the month is characterized by practices rather than a certain symbol. The regiment of the day, that is really the symbol.

COX: What would you say - and we have another caller we're going to get to. In fact, let's that that call...

Prof. NASR: Sure.

COX: ...then I'm going to ask you another question. Michael(ph) joins us from Sunset Beach, North Carolina. Hello, Michael.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hi. How are you doing today? Thanks for taking my call.

COX: You're welcome.

MICHAEL: I just have a question about Ramadan and its fasting practices. I lived in West Africa for three years in a 95 percent Muslim country. And I noticed - I was working there for a year when it came to that period of time, the workforce or the work, I guess, leveled - really diminished. People, you know, because of the fasting, were tired, very lethargic, didn't really want to do anything. A lot of the times, you know, with this fasting, people aren't even swallowing their spit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MICHAEL: So I was wondering if that's the same type of - excuse me, extreme fasting that takes place through most countries or was this just unique, this one country that I lived in?

COX: Michael, thank you very much for that. So, Vali, what's the answer?

Prof. NASR: Well, the fasting does tax the body, and it's customary. Most Muslim countries that probably - the time period between the afternoon and the evening, people rest. They don't go out. They pray. And then life comes alive at nighttime. I mean, you go out in nighttime in Cairo or Beirut or Damascus, until late hours of the evening, the entire cities come alive with cafes, shops open. There's a lot of activity happens.

But, you know, if you're in southern Africa when the weather is extremely hot and Ramadan happens to be during the summer, it is taxing.

COX: Here's an email, and there's another question also. The email: what do diabetics do for the celebration? How about competitive Islamic athletes? Changes in dietary habits of elite athletes can have severe impact on - in - on performance. This comes from Daniel(ph) in Ithaca.

And, as a matter of fact, to Daniel's point, there is a player in the National Football League, Husain Abdullah, who just announced that he will continue with pre-season practice without drinking water during the day. Does anyone get a complete pass from fasting?

Prof. NASR: Well, the fasting is incumbent, first of all, on people of a certain age and above who are not sick, who are not infirm and also who are not traveling beyond a certain distance. In other words, the idea is not to put physical pressure on people who cannot handle fasting. So, you know, in the old times, people - whenever you went beyond six, seven miles, you were forbidden from fasting. If you're sick, like you're a diabetic person, you're not supposed to be fasting. If you're very old, if fasting in any way is a threat to your health, you're not supposed to be fasting.

COX: Let me ask you this because this is an interesting question that we got. What if you slip up? Okay, you make a mistake and you eat during the day or you drink during the day, which I'm assuming is a sin, then are you able to atone in any way? Do you have to start over again? What do you do?

Prof. NASR: Well, it's not a sin. It's that your fast is broken. So, you know, there's - you can always make up for it. You can do additional days of fasting outside of the month. And even sometimes people who happen to be sick during Ramadan, for instance, they have the influenza or they're sick and they can't fast, say, for six, seven days, they often try to make it up after - at other times in the year. The only day in the year that you really are forbidden from fasting is the last day of Ramadan, which is the Eid ul-Fitr. Any other day of the year, you can make up for what you lost during Ramadan.

COX: Our time is up. And I'm - I wanted to know what the word Ramadan means, but I don't know if there's enough time for you to answer it really quickly.

Prof. NASR: It's the name of the month, essentially.

COX: Ramadan.

Prof. NASR: Ramadan is the name of the month.

COX: Vali Nasr is a professor of international politics at Tufts University and author of "The Rise of Islamic Capitalism: Why the New Muslim Middle Class is the Key to Defeating Extremism." You can find a link to his article, "Ramadan: The Geopolitics of the World's Other Biggest Holiday" on our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Vali, thank you very much. It was interesting.

Prof. NASR: Thank you for inviting me.

COX: A plane carrying nine people crashed in a remote area of Alaska last night, killing five people onboard, including former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens. Stay tuned on NPR for NPR News to get more on that story.

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