Sacred month for Muslims
Although I am an anthropologist, people who study culture, Ramadan never figured in my mind until maybe about 15 years ago.
Ramadan was never discussed in any of the anthropology subjects I took although that should not be surprising because I did my anthropology in Texas in the early 1980s. When I did my Ph.D. in Amsterdam, which is much more multicultural, I actually lived for a time in a neighborhood with many Moroccan migrants, but again, Ramadan, which I probably heard about, did not have any particular meaning for me.
All this just shows how multicultural awareness needs to be worked on, and how we set up invisible walls between “us” and “them.”
Ironically, it was 9/11 (the bombing of Twin Towers in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001) and the rise of Islamophobia, or the irrational fear, even a hatred of Islam and Muslims, that made me want to learn more about Islam. That meant reading up and talking with Muslim friends about a wide range of topics from the Quran and the Hadith (sayings attributed to Mohammad), to the great and little jihad (more on this later in the column), to history … and to Ramadan.
It helped that our anthropology department in UP Diliman was part of a consortium of Southeast Asian universities looking into gender and sexuality that we organized international workshops and conferences. One of the first workshops we had overlapped with Ramadan, and Muslim participants would ask to be excused for prayers, and for their “iftar,” the meal to break the day’s fasting, which would be around sunset.
Muslims who are traveling are actually exempt from fasting but we often had very devout Muslims who insisted on pushing through. Our consortium members realized that having workshops during the Ramadan was being somewhat unfair to Muslims because for the devout ones, the fasting would be more taxing.
Now I’m always conscious, whenever consulted on dates for international workshops, about Ramadan, which is based on the Islamic lunar calendar and therefore changes each year on the Gregorian calendar. This year it is from May 14 to June 14, next year it will be May 5 to June 4, give or take a day.
Similarly, I always check when the Easter holidays are if a workshop is going to be in the Philippines, not because of religious solemnities but because all the hotels are full as Filipinos take to the beaches and other vacation sites!
As a medical anthropologist, I had to research as well on the effects of the monthlong fast. Children, the elderly, people who are ill, and people with conditions like diabetes are actually exempted from fasting but there will always be the more devout Muslims who will insist on observing the fast. Health professionals, as well as hospitals, should be aware of this, and should find a Muslim physician or nurse who can assure their coreligionist patients that it is all right not to fast, or at least to take medicines, especially maintenance drugs.
Ramadan observance also means not smoking, so this can be a good time to motivate people who are trying to quit smoking to just stop during Ramadan, especially because it is a season for reflection, sacrifice and prayer, ideal “ingredients” for an anti-smoking personal “jihad.”
This is a good time as well for Muslims to remind each other that the idea of jihad as a “holy war” is a corruption. Jihad is to struggle or to strive. Fighting against “infidels” or enemies of Islam is the external or lesser jihad. The greater jihad is the internal one, the personal struggle against sin.
I was glad when the Philippine government declared the beginning and end of Ramadan as holidays, actually happier than when they made Chinese New Year a holiday. The latter has become a commercial gimmick; Ramadan, on the other hand, respects the beliefs and practices of a much larger group than ethnic Chinese in the Philippines.
Despite these holidays, we do have a long way to go to educate Filipinos about what Ramadan means. (I asked young public school students a few years back what Ramadan was and most
answered “Muslim Christmas.”)
Knowing about the fasting means non-Muslims need to be more considerate of Muslim’s needs during the month. At UP Diliman, we don’t allow cooking in the dorms because of the risk of fires but when I started my term as chancellor, I gave permission to Muslim dorm residents to cook early in the morning during the month of Ramadan, right before fasting, because it was difficult to get food outside.
Having said all that, it’s important to stress too that it is not part of Islam to stop work or close offices and schools during Ramadan.
We non-Muslims also stand to learn from the spirit of Ramadan, including charity. The emphasis is on giving of alms and sharing of food but charity can be extended to kindness and compassion for all. It is a season where we might want to recall the many instances during the war in Marawi when Muslims protected Christians, offering sanctuary as well as lending the women hijab (head veils) and teaching both women and men greetings like “As-Salaam-Alaikum” (peace be upon you) and prayers. Lives were saved by those courageous acts.
(Look up last Sunday’s Inquirer and read Yara Lukman’s “Civilian ‘suicide squad’ finds Moro pride in saving Marawi lives.”)
Ramadan is also a time to control one’s tongue, and emotions. One of my Muslim faculty friends told me recently about how another faculty, a Christian, had tried to pick a fight with her. She very gently told him, “It’s Ramadan” and the faculty member quickly apologized. (I hope he will not pick another fight after Ramadan.)
During Ramadan, Muslims take greater effort to avoid gossip or to lose one’s temper. In our age of social media, I hope that’s extended toward thinking twice about posting rants on Facebook or Twitter.
The best way to learn more about Ramadan is to ask your Muslim friends. If you still don’t have Muslim friends, don’t you think it’s time now to do so, and not in a contrived way?
One gesture that Muslims will appreciate — maybe your cell phone vendor, or the people selling ceramic vases in Mandaluyong — is to greet, or say goodbye, with “Ramadan kareem” (may Ramadan be generous) but some of the older, more orthodox Muslims do not like the term, maybe because it tends to suggest an attachment to the material. Safer to just say “Mubarak Ramadan,” a blessed Ramadan, which is what I’m extending now, to my Muslim readers.
Yes, mayors and other officials with large Muslim constituencies should put up tarps for Ramadan, and for Eid al-Fitr … even as they find ways to better educate non-Muslims on what the month is all about.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.