Ramadan's peaceful roots
'Ramadan is big," a U.S. general said in Iraq last week, meaning that levels of violence during this year's Muslim holy month will be key. For the 30 days of the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, Muslims fast from dawn to dusk - a time of penitence, care for deeper things, including needs of the poor, and familial solidarity. But Ramadan has come to have less godly significance, as well.
In the four years of the Iraqi war, a so-called "Ramadan spike" has marked the period as among the most deadly. The assassination last week of the Sunni leader Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, who had recently welcomed President George W. Bush to Anbar Province, was doubly shocking for coming at the start of Ramadan. What began as a manifestation of devotion becomes, in periods of conflict, a prompt to zealotry that can include savage violence.
During the Algerian civil war in the 1990s Ramadan was the most dangerous period for the enemies of the radical Islamist rebels, with "lax" Muslims, like intellectuals, being especially targeted. In Egypt and Syria, what is known in Israel and the United States as the Yom Kippur War is called the Ramadan War, since it was launched at the start of the holy month. Again this year, Ramadan overlaps with Yom Kippur, which comes this week.
The Jewish observance, too, is a time of fasting and introspection, as well as communal solidarity. Among Christians, also, an analogous impulse expresses itself in periods of fasting and contemplation. Indeed, on the traditional liturgical calendar, this same week marks the so-called Ember Days, which, when I was a child, were defined as the time to "remember" the grounding fact of mortality.
There is no equivalence in contemporary Jewish or Christian penitential observance to the violent aspect of Ramadan zealotry, but a reflection on what the diverse impulses share can be useful, when religion undergirds political conflict. Ramadan has its origin, scholars tell us, in Mohammad's respect for the fasting traditions of the Jews he encountered in Arabia. Yom Kippur, the "Sabbath of Sabbaths," was a particular inspiration for the first Muslims, who affirmed that fasting began with the decree of Abraham.
As the Muslim observance evolved from emulation to replacement, so had the Christian. Moses is remembered as having undergone a 40-day period of abstaining from food and drink, and Jesus begins his ministry by replicating that. For Christians, Jesus became not so much an imitator of Moses, but a substitute for him - and so with the ritual fast.
The technical name for this dynamic is "supersessionism," which comes from the Latin for "to sit upon." A simple difference between religions becomes a source of conflict when one religion claims, on the basis of that difference, to have replaced another. The Harvard scholar Jon D. Levenson detects the root of exclusivist supersessionism in the Biblical theme of sibling rivalry, according to which "a late-born son dislodges his first-born brother." What happens between Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, and Jacob and Esau happens between the synagogue and the church. The late-born siblings assume not co-existence, but replacement.
This dynamic does not end when Islam replaces Christianity and Judaism as the fully realized religion of revelation, but continues within the traditions, with Protestantism, for example, claiming to supersede Roman Catholicism. Among Muslims, exclusivist sibling rivalry takes the form of the Sunni-Shiite argument over inheritance of the mantle of Mohammad.
The ubiquity of this theme suggests that something of the human condition is being laid bare. Indeed, the religious instinct to mark the autumnal season with a period of introspection has its roots in primeval attentiveness to effects of earth's rotation, cycles of the moon, and celebrations of the harvest. What was once pagan and became religious survives in the secular age. Cycles of nature inspire humans to take note of the passage of time and what it means.
Thus, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim observances all propose an interruption of the mundane, a rejection of consumption, a sensitivity to those in need, an awareness of the universal failure to live rightly, a refusal to domineer, and a readiness to face the truth of being doomed to die.
Even though conflict has become embedded in this impulse, it offers a way out of conflict. "Fast and pray" only means pay attention - not for the sake of private morality, but for the rescue of the public realm. The traditions are unanimous in telling us to take note of the world we are creating. Seasons change. So must we.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in The Boston Globe.