The Meaning of Ramadan

Ramadan is a month of fasting. Muslims are bidden not to eat or drink from sunrise to sunset every day, and to use the pang of hunger to remind themselves of the presence of Allah in their daily lives. Ingrid Mattson, a professor of Islamic theology, offers thoughts on the meaning of the holiday.

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This past Thursday was Rosh Hashanah, the start of the Jewish New Year and also the beginning of Ramadan, the holiest month of the year in Islam. Ramadan is month of fasting. Muslims are bidden not to eat or drink from sunrise to sunset every day, and to use the pang of hunger to remind themselves of the presence of Allah in their daily lives.

Ingrid Mattson is president of the Islamic Society of North America, the largest Muslim organization in United States. She grew up as a Roman Catholic and converted to Islam when she was 23. Today, she's also a professor of Islamic Theology and Muslim-Christian Relations at Hartford Seminary. She joins us from the studios of member station WNPR in Hartford.

Dr. Mattson, thanks very much for being with us.

Dr. INGRID MATTSON (President, Islamic Society of North America): Oh, it's nice to be here, Scott.

SIMON: And do you mind me asking, is it a chore to fast every day for a month?

Dr. MATTSON: It's not a chore, but it is a discipline. And what I mean by that is it takes self-control, it takes some willpower, but it's a great pleasure and a joy.

SIMON: I understand the idea to remind you of the everyday, every-hour presence of God, but if I can ask this respectfully when you get a pang of hunger, do you think of God or peanut butter?

Dr. MATTSON: Well, what happen is you think of peanut butter and then realizing that you can't eat it, you become aware of the reason for that, which is that you're trying to live your life in obedience to God's will. And also you become aware that some other people right now, either because of illness they physically cannot chew and swallow food, or they may be poor and they don't have food available. So it's that idea that we're dependent upon God to provide us with all of the means, even to eat the simplest of meals.

SIMON: I understand, reading a bit about your biography, you spent a year working in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan.

Dr. MATTSON: That's right.

SIMON: And what was Ramadan like there?

Dr. MATTSON: It was an extraordinary time for me to see how these people who had been deprived of pretty much everything - their homes, many of them had lost family members - they were utterly impoverished. Yet, at the same time, they had such a sense of generosity towards me, who was in a much more privileged position because I was a guest. And they were always willing to offer me first any little food they had, any small aspect of their life that gave joy. They wanted to share that with me, and then the others who came to visit them. So that was a beautiful lesson in gratitude.

SIMON: I have to ask you while we have the occasion, Dr. Mattson. Are women treated equally in Islam?

Dr. MATTSON: Islam treats women equally and with respect and dignity. It doesn't mean that all Muslims do. Unfortunately, there are some Muslims who have misogynistic views of women. There are Muslims who is in highly patriarchal cultures. And there are Muslims who have distorted readings of the Koran. But my view and the view of so many other Muslim women, who embraced this religion and love it and are not compelled by anyone to practice it, believes that it is a great source of dignity.

SIMON: We want to note that you are the first woman to head the Islamic Society of North America. Has anybody got a problem with that?

Dr. MATTSON: Well, I've heard that there are few people who have problems with it. But what's interesting is that most people seemed to be too polite to tell me that. So more than anything I've had an overwhelmingly positive reception. The leadership of some more conservative organizations have reached out and have consulted me on some issues that we needed to make decisions on collectively. So it's been a very positive experience.

SIMON: Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America. Thanks for being with us, and good Ramadan.

Dr. MATTSON: Thank you very much.

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