Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Ramadan and the Mixed Couple/Family

By Chiara

Ramadan is being celebrated all over the Muslim world--and by Muslims everywhere. What about the mixed Saudi/non-Saudi (whether Muslim or not), or Muslim/non-Muslim couple? What about their children, and their extended families? How do they celebrate Ramadan? Does it depend on which country they are living in? Does it depend on how recently one (or more) is converted to Islam?

I thought that my comment below on Ellen’s blog “Steadily Emerging with Grace”, on her post “Ramadan for the half Muslims & the plane tickets”, might make a good starting point for discussion of these questions in relation to these themes during this month of Ramadan.

But first, a brief review of what the month is about, and some answers to common questions. Ramadan is the 9th month of the Islamic lunar calendar, and a holy month during which Muslims focus more directly on the teachings of Islam and enacting them through increased prayer, reading of the Quran, and hadith, charity, and visiting family and friends

Most notably to outsiders, seemingly, a part of this month of increased religiosity and spirituality involves fasting. Yet Ramadan is also a time of experiencing the deprivation of the less fortunate, including the poor, and of exercising self-discipline, in terms of physical fasting but also refraining from profanity, lying, backbiting, gossiping, and other all too common negative human behaviours. In this way it serves as a fortification and a reminder of good behaviours for the 11 months to come.

During Ramadan Muslims fast from sun-up to sun-down, according to precise times calculated by Islamic institutions. The day begins before sun-up and fajr prayer, with suhoor, the pre-dawn meal before fasting, and an important one to sustain health and the will to fast. During daylight hours, Muslims take no food, liquids, or substances like tobacco, and do not engage in sex, or similar temptations.

The daily fast is broken--in families, among friends, or in community events--when the sun dips below the horizon, and on a communal signal. Dates (often 3) and water, dates and milk, or dates and laban, are traditional to break the fast. After praying maghreb, the main meal, the iftar, follows.

Iftars vary throughout the Muslim world, but often start with a special soup, then sambousa, followed by a main dish accompanied by bread, salads, and vegetables, and ending with fruit. Evenings are spent in visiting, where tea and cakes are served, watching television or movies at home together, or enjoying communal festivities organized by the municipality, region, or community group. Ramadan is a joyous as well as a reverent time.

Children are not required to fast, nor is it recommended that they do so until after puberty. Many like to fast part of the time to share the experience, and to practise for when they are required to do so.

Travelers, the ill, the elderly, and menstrual, pregnant, and postpartum women are not required to fast either. Days are to be made up later in the year by anyone temporarily prevented from fasting (neither the elderly nor the chronically ill, who are asked to feed the poor instead).

Ramadan ends after 30 days with Eid-Al-Fitr--“The Festival of Breaking the Fast”-- which lasts 3 days.

In answer to Ellen’s post invitation to readers/ commentators, “If anyone is reading this, perhaps they could add their own comments about their experiences during their first Ramadan and the challenges that they overcame while doing it”, I commented:

“My first Ramadan we (then boyfriend and I) arrived for the final few days (by his design?) of Ramadan after travelling, so fasting wasn't an issue. Since we arrived by surprise at night, we were served the leftovers from the iftar (excellent), and it was a non-issue until mid-morning the next day. Then my sisters-in-law, with my mother-in-law in the background, came to ask if I wanted to fast or not, with MUCH only if you want, it's no problem, we are preparing food for the children anyway, whatever you want, we're used to preparing and serving, etc.

Some how it came up that I was "whatever euphemism you prefer" that day (and for the next few days), and they promptly said, "Oh, don't do it then". Word travelled up to the patriarch, my grandfather-in-law, who went out and bought me a packet of special biscuits, as a sign of his acceptance. The whole incident is one of my fondest memories of interactions with my in-laws, or anyone for that matter.

I did restrict as much as possible so as not to be offensive, and ate with the children, separate from the others. I also helped prepare the iftars, which are wonderful, beginning with the dates and milk, then the special soup, and moving through the full meal. Needless to say, everyone is more animated, and in better humour as the meal progresses.

The evenings of Ramadan after iftar are also wonderful in a Muslim country, and we went out and enjoyed the activities in the downtown, with all the families, young people, fun for the children, sunflower seeds, etc.

Ah, but then we went out with our peers, and since we were not married and the boyfriend was fair game, all the men were nice to me, and the women went ON and ON about whether I was fasting, or NOT, with a great deal of smug superiority, despite my saying repeatedly, "The Quran recommends I don't", and "I would, except that it is not the right time", etc., short of referencing my "condition" directly. One more question and I probably would have, in a loud, confident statement of medical fact. Fortunately boyfriend, and future husband, was spared that bit of cross-cultural, same-gender adventure!

Eid was also wonderful, and I am always glad that my in-laws include me fully in everything but the religious part of any celebration, and make sure I have company and activities when I am not able to be included, for example, when the women visited a marabout*, I stayed at the beach with the men and boys of the family, and my mother-in-law brought me back a small gift--very thoughtful.

BTW I am an Islamophilic Daughter of the Book--NEVER under any pressure to convert.”

*A marabout in this case is the tomb of a Muslim holy man, where believers go to pray and have a spiritual experience.

What are your thoughts and experiences of Ramadan? Are you, or have you been, in a mixed couple or family? How do you/did you celebrate Ramadan? Is your experience or practice different depending on where you are living? What do you do when travelling, studying, or working abroad? If you are a non-Muslim, have you thought about fasting or fasted? What was the experience like for you?

How does Ramadan in a non-Muslim country compare to Ramadan in a Muslim country? Do festivities detract from, or enhance, the spiritual and religious meaning of Ramadan? Are Ramadan festivities different in different regions or cities of Saudi?

Enough questions! On to your comments!


Chiara said...

caraboska said...
PS When I fasted for the first time, it was an experiment, I figured that I'd find out by doing it what it would mean for me personally. It's become a sort of annual 'get back on track' time. And the longer the fast becomes, the more it is a reminder that we are accountable to God for how we take care of our bodies. If we have few hours a day when we can eat, we cannot put junk down the hatch and expect there will be no consequences. Both not eating and eating can thus become holy acts of worship. And furthermore, this all inclines one to reflect that it is not just at the dinner table that we are accountable to God, but at all times and in all things...
August 24, 2009 12:51 PM

Chiara said...

Yoli said...
Gorgeous images and beautiful explanation of the meaning of Ramadan.
August 24, 2009 6:03 PM

Chiara said...

Caraboska--thank you for contributing to the discussion. If I understood you correctly you are fasting for Ramadan out of interest in the Muslim experience, and yet observe some Christian fasting rules within that in deference to your Christian faith and community. Is that correct? Christian fasting to me means giving up a beloved food for the month of Lent, as Hindus fast sometimes by giving up certain foods. Are you referencing a different type of Christian fast.

Yoli--Thank you very much! I look forward to further comments you may have as others come forward to comment too!
August 24, 2009 8:32 PM

Chiara said...

caraboska said...
Chiara, That sounds like Catholic fasting to me. For Protestants, fasting normally means no food or drink for a specified time. Normally it would be for a full 24 hours, similarly to the fast Jews engage in for Yom Kippur. But there are variations, particularly among folks who practice fasting for extended periods of time - even up to a month.

So that there is precedent for a fast of this length in a Protestant context. However, the variants I have come across limit the products that may be consumed (e.g. only water) rather than the times of day when one may take nourishment.

My fasting for Ramadan started with interest in the Muslim experience, trying it and seeing what personal meaning I would find in it, but it's quite a bit more than that now, because I found it meaningful the first time. Otherwise I would no doubt have done it only once = but now, as far as I can tell from my records, it's probably the fifth time.

And yes, when I consider engaging in a given practice, such as fasting during Ramadan, I first of all ask whether the principles of my faith permit me to do so. And then if I find that it is permissible, then I think about whether there are any specific principles that are applicable, especially those that might induce me to modify the typical Islamic practice or give it a different meaning than it would have for a Muslim.
August 24, 2009 10:28 PM

Chiara said...

Sarah the Seeker said...
I am a non-Muslim, married to a Muslim for 6 years. We live in the UK. I always got the impression Ramadan was a special and joyful time of year. My husband often meets friends from his home country for iftar and together they create something of the same celebratory atmosphere that they miss from back home. This actually doesn't happen in his home country - people just eat with their families there - but in the west, immigrants who are single or married to non-fasters will meet up in this way to have people to break the fast with.

This year I decided to fast, having become slowly more interested in Islam. It is easier on both of us to do it together. I think it's a fantastic thing to do and I wanted to test myself and see if I can do it!

Re Christian fasting, there is a tradition of fasting in the form of abstaining from food (but not water) for one or more days continuously. I have done this in the past for one day at a time. It is different from Muslim fasting because, assuming you do it for several days, you would not break the fast at the end of each day. This requires preparation in terms of modifying one's diet prior to the fast to ensure that the intestines will be clear of food, since the digestive system will stop. I'm not sure what the Biblical basis for this fasting is, but it might be Jesus' 40 days fasting in the desert? In any case, fasting is not prescribed in detail for Christians so doing it the Muslim way would not seem to be a problem. In a Christian-Muslim marriage the couple could therefore experience Ramadan together to some extent. But there aren't many Christians who would ever choose to fast for 30 consecutive days, whereas it's expected of almost all Muslims!
August 25, 2009 12:24 AM

Chiara said...

Caraboska--thank you for responding and providing further information about Protestant fasting. My nonni (grandparents) would be proud at my unconscious Catholicism! LOL :) I am glad for you that fasting has become a spiritually fulfilling experience.

Sarah the Seeker--Thank you for sharing your experience, and that of your husband. If you don't mind sharing, what country is he from?

It is true that communities outside of Muslim countries seem to make an extra effort to have iftars that will include everyone, provide solidarity and support for fasting, and reproduce the spirit of the month in a Muslim country. We attended an iftar for the local Palestinian community, held in a community centre, at the invitation of a friend who is a leader in the community. It was a wonderful time for local families, students, single working people, etc. I felt most comfortable and welcome.

Thank you also for the tip about Christian fasting, and the ways in which it might facilitate shared fasting for a Christian/Muslim, couple. Your choice would seem to be the most compatible way.

Medically a fluids only regime for 30 days would be difficult to do safely.
August 25, 2009 1:16 AM

Chiara said...

Sarah the Seeker said...
He's from Algeria.

"Medically a fluids only regime for 30 days would be difficult to do safely."
Yes, I think doing it the Muslim way would be much safer! And should be OK for a Christian, beliefs-wise, as caraboska says. But there are people that do fluids-only fasts for that long!
August 25, 2009 1:55 AM

Chiara said...

ellen557 said...
Awww sis thanks for referring to my post! ^_^
To answer some questions that I haven't answered before...
Ramadan in a non-Muslim country is sometimes so hard! I think that a lot of the time, you don't really get to experience the excitement that takes place in a Muslim country. That's why M & I went to Sydney last night (Arabic areas), just so we could join in on the feeling, you know?
And speaking re festivities... This can only be from a Qatif perspective, but no I don't think it detracts from the spiritual part, purely because in Qatif all the celebrations are so interwoven with religion. I think some people get more excited about the festivities rather than the religious side but the festivities themselves are all religious.

For the studying thing... M's friends usually invite people around almost every night to break the fast. They also have Qur'an readings many nights. I think this is more so to recreate the Ramadan they remember though, because only the organiser of these gatherings is particularly religious hahah.

Again, thank you so much! And the photos for this post were absolutely beautiful.
August 25, 2009 7:08 AM

Chiara said...

Susanne said...
I thought the fast partly was to feel what the poor feel, but then I see Muslims are able to eat HUGE meals afterwards. So all day while they are fasting (and I'm sure it's a struggle to have NO water especially in the hotter climates), at least they can think about the yummy meal coming up after sunset. Too bad the poor cannot do this. They have to look forward to another night of going to bed hungry ... or what they will serve at the soup kitchen. :-/

And to me if you refrain from gossip and saying bad words for just one month and then after Ramadan you pick up your old habits what good has a month of fasting done in reality?

I like what someone in a Muslim country wrote on Twitter the other day: "Whats the point of refusing to allow food and drink to touch ur lips meanwhile the gossip, lies and hypocrisy keep your mouth full?"

But it sounds like some people do get much benefit from it so that's good.

Nice post!
August 25, 2009 3:21 PM

Chiara said...

Sarah the Seeker--thank you for your response. Algeria is on my list of must see countries! I am working on a combo career enhancing research topic/ pleasure trip right now!
Yes, a carefully balanced nutritional diet of fluids to include protein supplements would be important if taking fluids only for any length of time.
BTW if this is your first time to Tara's blog, welcome to Future Husbands and Wives of Saudis! Tara is very generous in welcoming husbands and wives of North Africans LOL :) !

Ellen--You are welcome! And thanks again for the inspiration! I'm glad you shared your further thoughts here, along with continuing to post on your own cross-cultural Ramadan, on your excellent blog.
I agree that Ramadan in a non-Muslim country is a lot harder than in a Muslim one, and a big part of that is the spirit of the Iftar and celebrations in the evening. That is part of why the Muslim Students Association puts on iftars and events. It sounds as though you and M have great solutions too, including reminders of the religious aspect.
I do think the festivities, which are about family, friends, neighbours, and communities, add to the spirituality, even when they are less obviously interwoven with religion.
Thanks for the kind words about this post and the pics.
Would M like to share his impressions of Ramadan in Qatif vs Australia, and with a non-Muslim wife?
August 25, 2009 3:43 PM

Chiara said...

Susanne--Thank you for your comment and kind words which just appeared!?!

It is true that the fast is in part to feel the deprivations of the unfortunate, but it is recognized as being only a temporary glimpse and a well mitigated one. Part of the special role of charity in this month is to recognize one's abundance and duty to the less fortunate.

Since psychology recognizes that it takes 21 days to change a habit, Ramadan should be a good time to reform some bad habits. However, a return to normal routines often triggers a relapse to old habits. Otherwise Ramadan would be the perfect time to give up caffeine and tobacco for good, as well as the bad moral habits of gossip and back biting (nice twitter quote). At least Ramadan serves as a reminder and an extra chance to practice good behaviours.

There is a fair bit written in the psychiatric literature on Ramadan and mood changes (one American friend says if everyone in her Moroccan city is going to be so cranky and in such road rage, they shouldn't fast) and the problems of the nicotine addicted.

I always think people who have to give up smoking for Ramadan should start decreasing their number of cigarettes/per day a month or 2 before and then use it to quit entirely. Same with caffeine.

Some links on the mental health aspect of Ramadan:

Irritability During the Month of Ramadan [including caffeine and tobacco withdrawal]

Daytime sleepiness during Ramadan intermittent fasting: polysomnographic and quantitative waking EEG study

WPA Bulletin on Depression [and Circadian rhythms--45% of bipolar patients relapse during Ramada]

Cultural Issues in the Diagnosis and Treatment of Bipolar Disorder

Probably those with chronic serious psychiatric disorders like recurrent depression, manic-depression (bipolar), schizophrenia, or schizoaffective disorders should be exempt from Ramadan since changes in sleep pattern alone cause relapse, often into psychosis. Similarly those with eating disorders are at risk of decompensation when food is such a focus and is taken in an unusual pattern (2 meals a day)--although as one Saudi pointed out elsewhere, you could have more than one small meal after breaking the fast, and before suhoor (especially if you are reversing night and day). Still Ramadan is known to trigger and maintain eating disorders, especially in adolescents.

Anyone with any thoughts, esperiences, or observations on the impact of Ramadan on mood, sleep and eating disorders, other mental health disordes including addictions?
August 25, 2009 5:01 PM

Chiara said...


Anyone with any thoughts, experiences, or observations on the impact of Ramadan on mood, sleep, and eating disorders, or other mental health disorders, including addictions?

Chiara said...

Salma said...
Hi Chiara,

This is my second year fasting and it is so much easier than last. One thing that seems weird to some of mine and my hubby's friends is that we don't eat in the mornings. Well, this is combined eating and sleeping experience.

In Toronto we break the fast quite late in the evening, then just go to sleep felling kind of sick and tired from a long day at work. I am careful not to prepare very heavy foods but it's still a challenge to have the energy to do anything else but sleep right after.

Then I find I can't sleep because all I think about is starting over the day again (early), and so we don't even bother to eat in the morning for lack of energy, which in reality would probably give us more energy. But it has become a norm for us.

Speaking to family in Egypt it is hotter there and they don't seem as distracted with time, so I think it is the long work days in Toronto and lack of time to truly reflect...I can't be sure though.


I don't know if I agree or disagree fully that fasting in a Muslim/non-Muslim country is easier/ depends on the people.

A sister was pregnant in Ramadan last year but wasn't showing as yet, thus, she wasn't fasting. While out at the mall she had nausea and ordered a cup of mint one gave her a hard time or looked at her in a strange way or pointed a finger. I noted this, and I liked it.I would say there are pros and cons.

Sorry for the long response.

Chiara said...

Salma--thank you for your interesting comment!

I really appreciate your sharing your international experiences, and those of your sister. In my limited experience there is good understanding among Muslims about the requirements to fast or not, and benevolence toward those who are not fasting, or who break the fast for whatever reason. There are also good newspaper articles sharing tips on healthy fasting and blood sugar levels, including the role of protein in foods in maintaining longer released energy levels, light meals, proper sleep etc.

When in Morocco, the shortened work hours seem to help those who are fasting and give help to the women who have to prepare the iftar.

It is probably worth mentioning that women fast while preparing meals for everyone who isn't (small children, elderly, ill, pregnant, post-partum), and are only allowed to taste a dish by putting a small amount on the middle of their tongue.

I was once visiting a family in Morocco, and helping prepare the children's lunch, when one of the men in the family came in a served himself a full glass of cold water and drank it while standing in the fridge door. No one said a word. I believe the assumption was that he had decided he needed it for health reasons, and would make it up later.

In public places in Morocco, the attitude is generally to assume that if you look like a Moroccan or a Muslim you are fasting, and if you don't you aren't. Food and drink are served on open terrasses but it is preferable to eat and drink in private, even if it is a terrasse that is private, for example, facing the ocean, or in a couryard. Alcohol is served to non-Muslims (and insistent Muslims) but the privacy preferences about this are even greater.

Fasting in summer months in hot countries with long days would be particularly difficult, but so is fasting in more temperate climates where the work day is not shortened. I worked with a Pakistani ER physician in Canada who alternated 10 and 14 hr shifts, and yet fasted. We didn't even notice until the issue came up with a Muslim patient.

As you said and illustrated so well, it probably depends on the person and their community. I assume you are Egyptian and your sister is in Egypt?

Thanks again for the interesting, and inspiring (! LOL :) ) comment. I look forward to any comments you may have on other posts old or new.
September 2, 2009 6:11 PM

Caraboska said...

I am a Christian and single, living in a 95% Catholic country in Europe, fasted for the first time in 2002; this is probably the fifth time now. Normally, the closest thing I get to celebrating with others is chatting on the Internet with other people who are fasting.

My first Ramadan... It was easy because it started in November. Right around my birthday, in fact. And I live pretty far north so the days are short at that time of year. It was an experiment, to bring that 'little bit of the world' to my apartment, since moving or otherwise traveling elsewhere was not an option. And I happened to have a couple of Egyptian e-friends at the time...

I should also point out that in Christianity, there is no concept of ritual purity, so I don't get an exemption for having my period. I happened to get mine right around the beginning of Ramadan. And since it was the first one in nearly a year, my having had chemotherapy which temporarily shut down my ovaries, it lasted almost all the way through Ramadan. But I did fine alhamdulillah :)

Now that I have a housekeeper in once a week, whom I feed an evening meal after she finishes work, it has been a little more complicated to fast, because among Christians, you're supposed to be really discreet if you're fasting, to guard against any kind of spiritual one-upsmanship. But later the subject of fasting came up in conversation, now the cat is out of the bag. But fortunately the fast ends more or less when she gets off work this year :)

Yesterday I had a really nice time. First of all, I put on hijab. Then I went out to a friend's place for dinner. She was surprised by the change in my appearance, but positive. Even asked me how I tie it. She did inquire if I wanted to take it off while there, which if the context had been Muslim would have been more than permissible because the only male present was her cat. But since for Christians, the head covering has more the connotation of a prayer garment, and the idea or goal of 'praying without ceasing' (verbally or otherwise) can translate into covering full-time. Probably most Christians who cover full-time are doing it for that kind of reasons. So I didn't take it off.

But then, yes, evening prayer time came, she left me alone in her room to say prayers. I'd warned her in advance not to offer me anything until 'the right time', she was cool with it. So we had Iftar after prayers were over, and spent the rest of the evening talking.

Another thing: my cats have 'gotten' the schedule pretty quickly and often wake me up for Suhuur. Sometimes a little too early though, which is annoying. But one of them has even been known to fast with me a day or two here or there!
August 24, 2009 12:46 PM


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