One of the restrictions during Ramadan, aside from the obvious food/drink/sexual relations, is smoking. And one of the saddest things I have seen in my life is the group of smokers gathering just outside the mosque, craning their necks to hear the adhan (call to prayer) that signifies the end of the fast, waiting to break their fast not with a date, or a glass of water, but with a cigarette.
Smoking has always been a questionable practice from an Islamic perspective — some scholars deem it to be forbidden because it harms the body, while others find it allowable if distasteful. But you wouldn’t know it from walking down the street in any Muslim-majority country. As the pool of customers for cigarettes dries up in the West, the tobacco industry has targeted the developing world, including the Muslim world. In some of these countries, cigarette smoking among men has reached reached alarming proportions.
Also, it’s not just cigarettes. The Middle East has a long tradition of shisha (or hookah) pipe smoking. With the more explicit prohibition on alcohol, shisha pipes are seen as a lesser evil in the context of social activities. Even today in Western countries, the practice has caught on with young people seeking a cultural alternative to bars and clubs where alcohol is served.
With Eid-ul-Fitr — the three-day holiday signifying the end of Ramadan — approaching soon, many Muslims are getting ready to send Eid greeting cards to their friends and family. And what better way to send them than with the official Eid stamp issued by the US Postal Service (USPS) adorning the corner of the envelope? The stamp, which has been in circulation since 2001, was reissued last week at the new $0.41 rate, just in time for the Eid holidays (the other Eid being Eid-ul-Adha, which occurs later this year and commemorates the hajj).
For those who aren’t familiar with the history of this stamp, it is an intriguing one. It all started ten years ago, when Cincinnati housewife Aminah Assilmi started a campaign to have the stamp issued, after a friend’s son saw a Hanukkah stamp and asked what the Muslim equivalent looked like.
For the next several years, Muslim children and women’s groups sent thousands of postcards and drawings to the USPS in an effort to push the stamp forward. After all, each year the USPS receives 50,000 stamp recommendations, of which only 30-40 become stamps. For years, the campaign seemed like an uphill struggle.
Muslims have spent two-thirds of the month of Ramadan in physical restraint and silent contemplation, and it is in the last third – the last ten days of Ramadan – where the remembrance of God approaches its peak. It is during this time that the practice of fasting and prayer is perfected, and the uninhibited communication between God and His servants takes place. This is the time for the most heartfelt prayers for forgiveness, for deep soul-searching, making amends to friends, and spending freely in charity.
One of the mysteries of this part of the month is Laylat al-Qadr, the Night of Power/Majesty/Destiny (translation varies), which is said to occur on one of the odd numbered days during the last third of the month. It is on this night — which the Qur’an says is better than 1,000 months — where sincere prayer wipes one’s sins clean. It is also during this period when it is encouraged to spend time in spiritual retreat (i’tikaf in Arabic), praying throughout the night.
One of the best things about Ramadan in America is that it is still under-the-radar. After all, it doesn’t take long for entrepreneurs to realize the commercial potential around religious holidays, as the “holiday season” can attest to. And even as Ramadan’s visibility increases, it would seem odd that a religious holiday centered around self-restraint and denial of impulse could be seen as an opportunity to promote consumerism.
But in some parts of the Muslim world, that’s exactly what is happening. There are indeed aspects of Ramadan that involve consumption–gifts for children at the end of the month, dressing up for the Eid holiday in your finest clothes, and of course going out for dinner during the month–and which open the door for enterprising business to move it. Hence advertising like this Ramadan greetings ad from Burger King, which implies that you should be breaking your fast with a Whopper.