Balloons, banners, greeting cards -- the trappings of a holiday. This year the Muslim holy month of Ramadan wades even further into the ocean of popular culture with the appearance of greeting cards produced by industry giant Hallmark Cards, which joins the ever-growing Internet Ramadan products industry.

The cards do not mark the entire month of Ramadan, which is expected to begin this year on Oct. 27 with the sighting of the new moon, but are for the celebratory day at the end of the sober period -- Eid al Fitr, on Nov. 25. The cards are new for Hallmark, but greeting cards and other Ramadan-oriented products are increasingly common.

"Ramadan, in particular, has through most of the 20th century been getting more and more attached to secular rituals" like gift-giving, card-sending and festive meals to break each day's traditional dawn-to-dusk fast, said Walter Armbrust, a professor at St. Anthony's College, University of Oxford. Armbrust is researching trends in Ramadan celebrations in Egypt.

Armbrust, who spoke to Religion News Service from Cairo, said he has seen a trend in the Muslim world toward observing Ramadan in a more commercialized fashion, a development which he says runs counter in some ways to the original purpose of the observance.

"Ramadan is not supposed to be a holiday in which you consume more than you do in the rest of the year," he said. "In some ways, Ramadan has been adopted as a local variation of Christmas."

Likewise in America, an industry of Muslim products -- Ramadan-oriented and otherwise -- is growing.

Several Internet Muslim communities have built up commercial components that include Muslim artwork and books in addition to Ramadan gifts, greetings and decorations. Secular greeting card companies like American Greetings have offered online Eid greetings for several years now.

Muslim business owners say that the commercial element of Ramadan represents not a departure from traditional Islam, but a higher degree of acknowledgment and acceptance in American culture.

Abdul Malik Mujahid, president of Soundvision.com, an online Muslim store that also has two showrooms in the Chicago area, said that on a recent trip to the bank he was surprised to see a banner -- one of his company's -- hanging in the branch wishing Muslim patrons a blessed Ramadan.

Mujahid said some of his patrons are non-Muslims who want to express warm wishes to Muslims in their neighborhood, a phenomenon that peaked in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Ramadan, which migrates throughout the year because Muslims follow a lunar calendar and not a solar one, fell in December in 2001, and Mujahid said that year was the "best ever" for his business. Last year business returned to normal pre-Sept. 11 levels, and the past six months have brought the worst sales figures in the past half-dozen years, he said.

"Negativity toward Islam is very high at the present moment," postulates Mujahid in accounting for the drop. Soundvision receives more hate mail today than it did in all the past 10 years, he said.

Citing talk radio and other media personalities who he says paint a negative picture of Muslims in America, he said many of his Muslim customers are more reluctant to publicly display their faith during the holiday.

"There is a general feeling that Muslims are the last to be hired and the first to be fired," he said. "A lot of people don't share about Ramadan."

Other Muslim business leaders say any drop in business has more to do with general economic trends than anti-Muslim sentiment.

In fact, some report a growing demand for their products as the Muslim American population grows and feels more comfortable in mainstream culture.

"As a growing community here in the United States, I see that there is a growing demand," said Mohammed Abdul Aleem, president and CEO of Islamicity, an online Muslim community with a commercial "bazaar."

The site, which hosts 1 million visitors per month, offers books, games and other products for Ramadan and is developing MP3 files to download Islamic and holiday music. It sells California dates to people around the country to use as the traditional way to break the daily fast.

The site also offers "Race to the Kaba," a question-and-answer board game leading to Islam's most holy site in Mecca. It even sells a clock that is programmed with a voice-activated call to prayer for the five daily prayers required of Muslims.

But the commercialization of Ramadan, Aleem said, does not represent an "Americanization" of Islam.

"We have to get out of that thinking, because materialism is everywhere. There is a need, and if people can afford it, people will buy it," he said.

Aleem, whose business is based in Los Angeles County, was pleased with Hallmark's decision to offer Eid cards.

"Providing Islamic greeting cards is going to be very positive for them and the community," he said, adding that Muslims in his area are eager to practice their faith and be accepted in greater society. "For the Muslim community here, they are going to feel they are part of the community also, when you have businesses catering to them."

A spokesperson for Hallmark said the Eid cards resulted from "a sound business decision" to cater to a growing community. The company, which also released cards for the Hindu holiday Diwali this year for the first time, had received phone calls and letters asking for acknowledgment of the major holidays of these established but minority religions.

Deidre Parkes, of Hallmark Public Relations, said the cards were produced in small numbers and "are almost sold out almost everywhere they were originally offered."

Meanwhile, Aleem said having tangible evidence of Ramadan and Islam in public helps interfaith relations.

He said a Christian couple from Seattle called Islamicity recently to purchase the prayer clock -- they wanted to fast during Ramadan to show solidarity with Muslims. And a local Catholic priest wanted to use Islamicity's books on the biblical prophets in his Sunday school classroom.

Armbrust, who is in the early phases of his study of Ramadan observances in Muslim countries, said Egypt has been the leader in the Muslim world in making Ramadan a "carnivalesque" holiday. The tradition of sending greeting cards began in Egypt in the 1950s and has spread throughout the popular culture there.

In America, the presence of Ramadan products is less a new phenomenon and more an expansion of a Middle Eastern trend as the American Muslim population continues to grow, he said.

"They're just adapting things to the United States that they're bringing from home," Armbrust said.

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