U.S. Muslims who are preparing for the start of the holy month of Ramadan on Saturday (Sept. 23) say that despite living in the cradle of capitalism, they have managed to incorporate American holiday rituals without succumbing to excess and forgetting the spirit of Ramadan.
Ramadan emphasizes reflection on God, self-denial and service to the poor as Muslims abstain from food, drink, sex and other temptations from sunup to sundown. Ramadan is when Muslims believe God revealed the Quran to Muhammad and occurs on the ninth month of Islam's lunar calendar.
"There's no doubt that there's commercialization," said Mohammed Abdul Aleem, CEO of Islamicity.com, a mainly educational Web site that also sells a variety of Islamic-themed goods through its online "bazar." "But the nature of Ramadan forces you to focus on the spiritual aspect, and the commercial aspect is quite minimal because it's 30 days of fasting, and the prayer rituals that are within Ramadan, they are difficult to commercialize."
That's not to say it can't be done.
At Islamicity.com, shoppers can buy clocks priced between $30 and $60 that are programmed with the Muslim call to prayer and include a compass that points worshippers to Mecca. The Los Angeles-based company, owned by the nonprofit Human Assistance and Development International, also sells various Ramadan cards, organic dates--which Muslims traditionally eat to break their fast--and an Islamic pendant described on the site as the "perfect Ramadan gift."
Another site, Baltimore-based Islamicbookstore.com, sells Ramadan-themed plates, napkins and cups, as well as garlands for Eid (the feast that follows the end of Ramadan) and various Ramadan children's books, including an activity book with a "My Good Deed Chart" and a diary section called "My Ramadan Resolution."
"We're not taught to be austere in all aspects," said Adnan Khattak, a sales manger at www.islamicbookstore.com. "Having family-oriented fun is not discouraged."
Khattak and Aleem estimate that Ramadan accounts for about 20 percent and 17 percent of their annual business, respectively. Aleem stressed that Islamicity's profits go back into either the company's educational mission or development projects undertaken by its parent company.
Such indulgences hardly qualify as crass commercialism threatening to overshadow the original spirit of Ramadan, Muslims say; in fact, they may enhance the experience by bringing family and friends together.
"I don't think sending someone a card or hanging some lights means you're not reflecting on God or taking it seriously," said Jessica Livingston, a San Francisco Bay area resident and a Muslim convert. "A string or two of colored lights to spruce up your house to welcome your guests, there's nothing wrong with that," as long as there isn't "overkill."
Omar Ahmad, also a Bay Area Muslim, said such celebratory expressions can help Muslim Americans connect with their non-Muslim neighbors as well. "I think trying to be a visible example of what a Muslim life can be is important and ought to be encouraged. What a wonderful way to start a conversation: `what are you celebrating?' Because who doesn't like a celebration?"
Still, don't expect to see Ramadan reindeer anytime soon, Ahmad said.
The Web sites www.us2guntur.vom and www.indusmall.com, both based in India, which is home to about 15 million Muslims, are taking advantage of Ramadan to push anything from Rayban sunglasses and Biryani rice to saris and cell phones.
"May Allah shower you with his choicest blessings this Eid. In the true spirit of Ramadan, we present a collection of Ramzan (sic) gifts," us2guntur.com gushes. indusmall.com, meanwhile, declares "Ramadan gifts is best way to say you care for your loved ones."
Last year, the Daily Star newspaper of Bangladesh, under the headline "Eid Shopping Tips," wrote "Ramadan has begun, so has the shopping spree." It went on to warn that "the shopping experience in Dhaka isn't as pleasant as it used to be 20 years back when the number of street muggers was less and our security wasn't constantly at stake as it is today."
Many Muslim Americans, aware of the excesses of their co-religionists abroad and inspired by notions of Islamic social justice and American volunteerism, have for their part found ways to help others during the month.
Ahmad and Livingston, for example, belong to a group called American Muslims Intent on Activism and Learning, which started an Eid gift drive for Bosnian Muslim refugees about a dozen years ago. Last year, the group, with the help of Toys for Tots, collected 300 toys.
Muslims elsewhere across the nation come together during Ramadan to serve iftars (as the end-of-the-fast dinners are called) for the needy, hold blood drives and give to the poor during Ramadan.
If the satisfaction of a good deed is not incentive enough to perform one, Muslims might find added motivation in what Islam's Prophet Muhammad reportedly said about doing good acts during Ramadan.
"Whosoever will perform an obligatory good deed, it is as if he performed 70 obligatory good deeds," the prophet said. "In this month the believers' provision is increased. Whosoever will give food to a fasting person in this month, it will bring forgiveness for his sins, will save him from the hellfire and he shall have his reward."
As for motivation to celebrate Ramadan, Muslim Americans seem to have enough incentive.
"Ramadan is a blessed month and is a gift to Muslims, and the ability to celebrate it ought to be embraced. The Quran was delivered," Ahmad said. "We don't have to punish ourselves. God is smiling on us."