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148, August 2010 Latest update 9 2014f August 2014, at 4.39 am
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Though modern in appearance my parents were very religious. Photo circa 1961
Author surrounded by Turkish Quran cantors in Suleimanieh Mosque
Reading the Quran is customary in Ramadan

Ramadan: Fasting of the Heart
By Dr. Ali Qleibo
“They ask thee concerning the New Moons. Say: They are but signs to mark fixed periods of time in (the affairs of) men and for pilgrimage...”

Qur’an, The Cow 2:189
The Prophet (peace be upon him) said, “Every good deed is rewarded from ten to seven hundred times over, but God says fasting is the exception; it is for Me, and My servant forgoes his eating and drinking for my sake, so I Myself will reward My servant for it. The breath of a fasting person is sweeter to Allah than the scent of musk. For the fasting person there are two joys: the joy of breaking the fast and the joy of meeting God.”

قال رسول الله(صلعم): كل عمل ابن آدم له، الحسنة بعشر أمثالها إلى سبعمائة ضعف، قال الله: إلا الصوم فهو لى وأنا أجزى به، يدع الطعام من أجلى ، ويدع الشراب من أجلى، ويدع لذته من أجلى، ويدع زوجته من أجلى، ولخلوف فم الصائم أطيب عند الله من ريح المسك، وللصائم فرحتان: فرحة حين يفطر، وفرحة حين يلقى ربــــه

Allah, Ramadan, and my father intertwine in my mind to evoke a feeling of religious sensibility from which my generation has been distanced. Throughout the holy month of Ramadan my father became an ascetic hermit and a total stranger. The daily costume of suit and tie were abandoned in favour of the deep brown camel hair abayah (the outer Bedouin mantle) in which he wrapped himself on top of his pyjama as he pored over the Qur’an. Ramadan would take over his entire being. Having renounced his arjeeleh, food, drink, and petty conversations, he would be transfigured into a reclusive saintly figure discoursing exclusively with Allah. To us as children he projected an image of stoic indifference to grief, pleasure, joy, or pain. His fast was not of a punitive self-disciplinary character but rather a personal inner struggle to create a space for Allah in his heart by disengaging from the material world. In fasting as in prayers he sought the love of Allah and His recognition. My father’s attitude was that of a supplicant overcome by both fear and hope. He feared Allah because of the great respect he had for Him and worried lest he would fall into disfavour. Yet the fervour with which he fulfilled all his religious duties reinforced in him the hope of winning the recognition of God in whose compassion and mercy he trusted; he loved God. Observing Ramadan was an act of sublime transcendence in which my father would break through traditional conventions to truth and the word of Allah.

Ramadan reminds me that I had grown up in an orthodox Muslim family. The phases of the moon and the Muslim lunar calendar punctuated my childhood. My father and mother would follow the waxing and waning of the moon and would count the lunar months as they progressed towards Ramadan. Beginning with Rajab, the seventh lunar month, the anticipation of Ramadan rises to reach its climax in the month of Sha’ban, when lunches (sha’bunieh) with special heavy-to-digest dishes would be prepared for family and friends because throughout the month of fasting they would not be eaten. Finally the ninth and most joyful month of the Hijri year would come. These were the happiest days of the year.

For my father Ramadan held a focal point between humanity and Allah. He would always quote Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him): “It is Allah’s Own month.” Ramadan is the month in which the Qur’an was revealed, and he would stress that fasting from sunrise to sunset throughout the month is one of the five pillars of Islam. He would recite to us God’s injunction from the Qur’an to confirm the importance of fasting: “Fasting has been written down (as obligatory) upon you, as it was upon those before you.” He would urge us to fast Ramadan. By fasting one is performing an obligation imposed upon Muslims by Allah and becomes entitled to a great reward in the hereafter. On the other hand, not observing Ramadan is a great sin amounting, according to some Muslim theologians, to heresy.

Irrespective of the season in which Ramadan took place, hot or cold, temperate spring or late autumn, my father dutifully observed the holy month in deep meditation, always wearing his abayeh. The name of the month itself came from the time before the Islamic calendar, when the month of Ramadan fell during the summer. The name “Ramadan” had been the name of the ninth month in pagan Arabia long before Islam; the word itself is derived from the Arabic root rmd, as in words such as ramida or ar-ramad denoting intense, heat-scorched ground and shortness of rations. The characteristics of Muslim fasting developed diachronically and in various revelations with the purpose of distinguishing it from fasting as practiced by the Sabaeans, Hanifs, Jews, and Christians. The once seasonal pagan lunar months, which amount to around 354 days, were corrected in the pagan taqweem (literally corrected calendar) through the addition of a month (alnasee’), every fourth year. The new Muslim calendar was instituted by Omar, the second Muslim Caliph, using the pre Muslim pagan months. In the first twenty years of Islam and following the Battle of Siffin and the shifting of the Caliphate from Mecca to the Umayyad Dynasty in Damascus, the lunar months became free-floating through the polemic removal of the month of alnasee’ (the forgotten month). Henceforth Ramadan was no longer related to the seasonal cycle. Similarly the pilgrimage no longer corresponded to springtime in Mecca.

For a long time I was puzzled by my father’s fear of God مخافة الله and hope الرجاء as he worshipped Allah. This ambivalence was manifest in fasting as well as in the five daily prayers. In fact, I grew up in a society where the fear of God as the righteous sense of piety and an upright social religious moral value was a central theme. The admonition is encapsulated in a saying attributed to the Prophet of Islam, which was written in beautiful cursive calligraphy, framed elegantly, and hung prominently high up in every house and shop (now supplanted by the photo of the Dome of the Rock from the Mount of Olives).

 رأس الحكمة مخافة الله which may be translated, “Wisdom lies in the fear of God.”
Having attended a missionary school years before Muslim religious education was instituted as part of the Jordanian curriculum, I could not relate to God as someone to fear. One trusted in God’s unconditional love. This premise made the concept of hope (الرجاء) redundant. I knew I lived in His grace. He did not need my recognition for He existed in a plane that was discontinuous with my level of reality. To accept God as part and parcel of my daily life was a personal decision, a choice. For my father and his generation, God is not an option. He is a full presence.

In my recent visit to Konya and Istanbul my father’s faith came to life in the contemporary Turkish religious sensibility. Upon hearing the call to prayer, people readily, eagerly, and casually rushed in flocks to the mosques. At the times of prayers all mosques were packed with supplicants: in the mosques and Sufi sanctuaries in Konya, in Istanbul’s Kumkapi neighbourhood, in the Egyptian bazaar, Sultan Ahmad Mosque… Everywhere one sees men hurry their pace to pray in response to the call to prayer. I was awestruck by Turkish spirituality. For Turks, praying is second nature, performed at ease and spontaneously. The presence of God in daily life is as natural as eating, drinking, and breathing. Neither the element of choice nor reason mediates between the faithful and their God as they stand “in the hands of Allah,” their faces and comportment reflecting love, fear, respect, and hope.

The Turkish joy in prayers reminded me of my father’s joy when breaking the fast. A sense of joy accompanied by a great sense of gratification radiated from his face as he drank the first glass of water preceded by the traditional declaration of the intention to break the fast. His face glowed with gratitude as he had followed God’s injunctions, joyful that he had accomplished his duty in the best way, and joyful since he had legitimate hope in keeping God’s favour.

Muslim theologians distinguish between plebeian fasting and prayers during Ramadan and the fasting and prayers of the more refined and cultured who observe the holy month. Whereas fasting for the plebeians refers to abstaining from food, drink, or any carnal pleasure from sunrise to sunset, observing Ramadan for the cultured has its spiritual-mystical dimension. Two Arabic words summarise the essential underpinnings of the spiritual aspect of fasting. The first word, al-Samad الصمد, is one of the main distinctive qualities of Allah; Samad refers to Allah as being beyond and above desire, transcending needs and sufficient unto himself but to whom all creatures revert in order to fulfil all their needs. In Arabic usage it denotes the ability to rise to the challenge to withstand all adversity, as in the word sumud. Samad is also used to refer to an entity that has no interior organs and thus does not have the need to eat or drink. It is used only one time in the Qur’an, in Suret al-Ikhlas. The polemic word Samad refers to Allah’s absolute transcendence from the material world. In fasting the observer disengages from his body and transcends his material needs in emulation of God. Through the sublimation of the need for food or drink, in fasting one assumes the quality of samad; a divine space is carved in the heart of the faithful. Observing Ramadan as such modulates to an inner religious experience; Ramadan is the fast of the heart.

This renunciation of pleasure, the fast of the heart, is to be understood as an act of love and as a personal offering to Allah himself. The word in Arabic that describes the deference of the self in favour of the other is ايثار (’eethar) and has no parallel in English. In daily usage, in the context of charity, ’eethar refers to the act of giving to the needy not from one’s surplus but from one’s own basic needs. Whereas in Christianity, one would say, “Love your neighbour as yourself,” in Islam the adage, had it been written, would be, “Love your neighbour more than you love yourself.” In the context of fasting ’eethar refers to renouncing one’s own material pleasures - i.e., sublimating the desire and need for food, drink, and all pleasures - out of preference for Allah; thus carving a space for Allah in one’s heart. In observing Ramadan the faithful are transfigured into an angel-like state. Fasting is an act of love, a personal homage, and an immolation of the self to win God’s favour.

After the fast has been broken, the heart should swing like a pendulum between fear and hope. For one does not know if one’s fast will be accepted, thus leading one to find favour with God, or whether it will be rejected. The fear of God is a decisive element in curbing human arrogance and hubris. Humans must follow the law but God is not bound by our actions, and it would be presumptuous to take God’s approval for granted. Allah has His own unfathomable logic. Yet the Prophet of Allah constantly underlines the fact that fasting is a highly meritorious action. In one of the most quoted forty divinely inspired sayings of Prophet Mohammad, heaven is promised to those who fast.

The Prophet (peace be upon him) said, “Every good deed is rewarded from ten to seven hundred times over, but God says fasting is the exception; it is for Me, and My servant forgoes his eating and drinking for my sake, so I Myself will reward My servant for it. The breath of a fasting person is sweeter to Allah than the scent of musk. For the fasting person there are two joys: the joy of breaking the fast and the joy of meeting God.”

As the Ramadan moon waxed, my grandmother, grandfather, uncles, and aunts grew melancholic. By the tenth of Ramadan they would nostalgically say that Ramadan is almost over, In ash-sharat dash-sharat (By the tenth of the month Ramadan is already leaving us). As the full moon waned heralding the end of our favourite month of the year, they would express their wish for the beloved month’s return as soon as possible. At the threshold of the house as they exchanged the goodbye greetings (Salaam atabet el daar), they would observe the waning moon, see it is coming to a fast end, and wistfully wish that Ramadan not stay away too long.


لا اوحش الله منك يا رمضان
My father passed away over twenty years ago. His joy in listening with my mother to the morning prayers celebrating the end of the month of Ramadan, Salat el Eid, still shines in my memory. I still see him in my mind’s eyes as we sat to eat the festal food, the traditional stuffed lamb. A deep inner tranquillity radiated from their faces. My father would say a prayer of thanks and ask God to give him the health to be able to observe next year’s Ramadan. My mother and father were happy, confirmed in their faith that their labour was not lost, that they had accomplished their duties, that they had won the favour of God and stayed in His grace.

For an extensive ethnographic description of the customs and manners in celebrating Ramadan, see Dr. Qleibo’s article, “Jerusalem Rejoices in the Welcome of Ramadan” in This Week in Palestine, issue 114, October 2007.

Dr. Ali Qleibo is an anthropologist, author, and artist. A specialist in the social history of Jerusalem and Palestinian peasant culture, he is the author of Before the Mountains Disappear, Jerusalem in the Heart, and the recently published Surviving the Wall, an ethnographic chronicle of contemporary Palestinians and their roots in ancient Semitic civilizations. His filmic documentary about French cultural identity, Le Regard de L’Autre was shown at the Jerusalem International Film Festival. Dr. Qleibo lectures at Al-Quds University. He can be reached at  aqleibo@yahoo.com.
My father passed away over twenty years ago. His joy in listening with my mother to the morning prayers celebrating the end of the month of Ramadan, Salat el Eid, still shines in my memory. I still see him in my mind’s eyes as we sat to eat the festal food, the traditional stuffed lamb. A deep inner tranquillity radiated from their faces. My father would say a prayer of thanks and ask God to give him the health to be able to observe next year’s Ramadan. My mother and father were happy, confirmed in their faith that their labour was not lost, that they had accomplished their duties, that they had won the favour of God and stayed in His grace.

For an extensive ethnographic description of the customs and manners in celebrating Ramadan, see Dr. Qleibo’s article, “Jerusalem Rejoices in the Welcome of Ramadan” in This Week in Palestine, issue 114, October 2007.

Dr. Ali Qleibo is an anthropologist, author, and artist. A specialist in the social history of Jerusalem and Palestinian peasant culture, he is the author of Before the Mountains Disappear, Jerusalem in the Heart, and the recently published Surviving the Wall, an ethnographic chronicle of contemporary Palestinians and their roots in ancient Semitic civilizations. His filmic documentary about French cultural identity, Le Regard de L’Autre was shown at the Jerusalem International Film Festival. Dr. Qleibo lectures at Al-Quds University. He can be reached at  aqleibo@yahoo.com.
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