It is Ramadan once again. It is the measure of the year, a movable cycle that is both feast and beast. I met a Welsh convert the Ramadan other day and I asked him how long he had been a Muslim? He replied that this was his fourth Ramadan. I compared it to Christmas in conversation with my closest Muslim friend.
Why? Because I am always looking for similarities, patterns shared between people, groups or even history. So what was Ramadan I keep asking myself? I didn’t feel that it related to Lent in any sense. Lent is both watered down and also celebrated by so few people and a prime function of Ramadan is that it is celebrated by nearly everybody, from the outside it appears that all Muslim people are actively fasting throughout Ramadan.
So searching further for some space of parallel I found myself thinking about Christmas. Partly this is because Christmas appears to demonstrate the exact opposite to Ramadan. Christmas is about eating too much, overeating, about drinking, about gorging, almost about gluttony and some sense. It is about giving things away but also about anxiously receiving things, getting things from other people, spending money. I think Christmas looks strange through the eyes of Ramadan and it was this strangeness, the uncomfortable parallel which started to form a new thought in my mind.
Ramadan carries denial. I’m not suggesting that people are living in a state of denial whilst waiting for food but they are denying themselves food, something they do not do in the formal day-to-day pattern of the annual cycle outside of Ramadan. Ramadan is about celebration around food, the eating of food every evening, the waiting expectantly for food and the gathering together in families, amongst friends, sharing, giving and taking food. There is also some element of suffering and Ramadan, born of the denial there is a necessary privation in Ramadan.
So how do the two relate? Well at Christmas we celebrate. We don’t need to ask questions about the religious context of the event we simply celebrate it. We as a people, the Judaeo-Christian people, take part in Christmas even though the religious events have receded into what becomes effectively a cultural memory of what we did believe, of what somebody else might have believed, whereby we count on other people, possibly, to believe on our behalf. Ramadan is not like this but Ramadan does include everybody. The doubter, smoker, the adulterer, the person who little attends mosque during the year and perhaps not at all even doing Ramadan. It is inclusive and sits as a form of definition of who you are. Whilst God sits there somewhere in the background it is a demonstration to each other and to other people. Christmas similarly doesn’t require God any longer; it has a life of its own.
Beyond that Christmas also evades happiness and includes suffering in a profound way. Western civilisation is rife with notions of the lonely individual, isolated, unable to relate to other people at Christmas. Perhaps at Christmas more than any other time of the year it is considered appropriate to offer solace, to open a soup kitchen, to give and to be generous to other people, the knowledge being clear that people are at their most lonely and at their most vulnerable during a period of intense festivity.
So the three points of comparison which I draw are:
1) They are great festive moments of the year around which the year turns.
2) They are feasts kept by everybody who wishes to be identified and identifies themselves within their cultural religious tradition and which seem undoable to others.
3) They are periods of both privation and denial as well as great festive moments, periods of intense isolation, the giving of gifts, and of a very visceral love of the physical, the flipside of waiting to eat and drink.