[Note: Ramadan is long over, but due to some technical difficulties, our weekly entries were interrupted. With this entry on not fasting during Ramadan, we pick up where we left off.]
Ramadan Diaries takes you into the Ramadan experience of two students of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, Oguz Alyanak and Dick Powis. They will be fasting amongst Muslims in two Francophone contexts, Strasbourg, France and Dakar, Senegal, respectively. By sharing brief notes on the fasting experience, the aim is to provide a reflexive account of participant observation as it is undertaken by two scholars with distinct backgrounds and field sites. This is the fourth entry in the series, you can read the Introduction, Week One, and Week Two here.
Oguz Alyanak: Last week, I took the overnight bus from Strasbourg to Paris to attend a two-day conference. The six-hour bus trip, on Wednesday (to Paris) and Friday (back to Strasbourg), started at midnight. I boarded the bus less than two hours after breaking fast, and skipped my last meal of the day (sahur) because I fell asleep during both legs of the trip. So far, fasting has not been physically demanding. However, I was not sure whether my body would handle it while attending a conference tired and sleep-deprived. Hence, for the first time, I thought about skipping. The idea led me to think of my Ramadan experience, and particularly of its purpose, and what I made of it as part of my fieldwork.
On the one hand, as someone who is on the road (seferi), I knew that I could be exempt from fasting. Suras from the Qur’an (e.g. Bakara: 185), and various hadiths leave that decision to Muslims, highlighting that although fasting, under all circumstances, is encouraged, not fasting while on the road is not a sin as long as it is compensated at a later date. And those for who cannot fast at a later date or at all—because it is detrimental to their health (e.g. diabetes)—are asked to pay a sum (fidye/fidya) for each day (for Strasbourg, the amount is 10 Euro/day).
On the other hand, the idea of compensating for that day or two after Ramadan was not something that seemed appealing. I wanted Ramadan to be over in its designated time because I wanted to return to my pre-Ramadan everyday routine (See my Week One entry on this). This left me with a sense of unease, as I came to realize that fasting had become a checklist item: fast during the month of Ramadan, no more, or less, and the task is complete. But was I really sincere in fasting while counting down days, or thinking about what I would eat and drink while wandering around the streets of Strasbourg during the day on the 5th of July, that is, the first day of Eid al-Fitr? Was I not prioritizing life in this world over life in the “other world” [ahiret/akhirah], hence going against one of the purposes of Ramadan? In some of the Islamic conversation circles [sohbet] that I attend, the imams speak of the importance of being sincere in one’s intentions. Although only Allah can evaluate one’s sincerity, the qualms that I was facing made me question how candid I was in fasting, especially when I thought more about the materials goods that would appease my ego [nefs].
I am not sure to what extent others share this kind of anxiety, which takes the form of self-questioning and criticism. The more visible anxiety that I can read in the community pertains to not fasting. Some Muslim Turks in Strasbourg skip fast, or do not fast at all either because they are sick or more often because they have to work in hard conditions, such as doing manual labor under the scorching sun. In addition to having to live with that decision, and coming to terms with a guilty conscience, they also have to maintain a public face. As fasting is one of those performances through which Muslims prove to each other their moral worth, those who are caught in the act of eating, drinking or smoking during the day are not looked favorably even when they can provide valid excuses. At a context where the words “I want to fast, but I cannot, because…” hold little leverage, to escape the public gaze, some simply lie about fasting. Most, however, chose not to talk about it for the fear of breaking each other’s heart. (You do not usually get a peaceful response from someone who does not fast). Rather, a vague sense of moral deterioration lingers: “Times have changed, and so have morals and manners.” The rhetoric is not only pervasive, but also soothing for it is not us, but the times, that force us into living such lives. Would we not want to fast, otherwise?
Dick Powis: Oguz reminds me that, while I’ve been saying I fasted for 30 days in 2015, I have a confession: I actually did not. One year ago, on July Fourth (which was also during Ramadan – remember, its timing is based on a lunar cycle, so that isn’t always true), the US Embassy in Dakar threw an Independence Day party for American citizens. Because I am not, as I have mentioned, fasting for spiritual purposes, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to toss back a few beers with some expats. My Senegalese friends, not bothered by the fact that I would not be fasting that day, simply informed me that I would either need to make it up after Ramadan or “feed a poor person.” I did both for good measure.
As it will become apparent next week when we discuss the end of Ramadan (and how I emerged with renewed energy), it is not easy fasting when no one else is. In fact, it’s far more difficult for me to fast without the social support. This is why I’m skeptical of those here and in Senegal who tell me that Ramadan is purely for an individual’s spiritual growth and renewal, and it’s one reason that I feel comfortable ignoring that component; Ramadan is at least as much about social bonding. Of course, if eating and drinking together brings people closer, so would not eating and drinking together. Misery loves company, after all. Therefore, to give in to hunger or cravings is akin to betraying one’s fast-mates. After Ramadan, when routines, work, nightlife, and sleep schedules return to normal, being a lone observant is anything but. Likewise, not fasting during Ramadan is just as alienating.
It make sense, then, that, when on the first day of Ramadan this year I was too sick to fast, I found camaraderie in someone I did not know – a friend of a friend – who could not fast for her own medical reasons. We hid ourselves away to eat, out of sight and out of consideration to our fasting peers. Having never met before, we were fast-friends (no pun intended) united by common, if trivial conditions: eating together, hidden away, with broken bodies, and our considerable love for shawarma and norvegien wraps. And while we were both the subject of light heckling or playful ridicule, the kind of heart-break or disappointment that Oguz describes is not apparent in my community.