A Time for Spiritual Reflection and Self-Restraint
An anxious, reflective atmosphere prevails inside the large Ramadan tent of the "Turkish Directorate for Religious Affairs" in the Cologne neighborhood of Ehrenfeld. At 7:30 p.m., the Muezzin's call ends the day's fast.
Around 500 Muslims are gathered on long benches; the room is filled to capacity, and decorated with colorful balloons of black, red and gold and with the Turkish crescent moon. Together, the faithful recite a short prayer before beginning the so-called "Iftar," or breaking of the fast.
Dr. Ismail Altintas is a theological instructor from the Turkish Directorate for Religious Affairs, known also by the acronym for its Turkish name, DITIB. Altintas says that the holy month of Ramadan is the most important time for Muslims:
"It is crucial to our religious belief. Before Ramadan, we prepare ourselves mentally and physically. A lot of people come to pray after the breaking of the fast. Both men and women hear the recitation from the Koran, which is also very important. During the entire month, the Imam reads aloud from the Koran. One section of 20 pages each day."
The socioeconomic aspect of Ramadan
With about 130,000 members DITIB it is one of the largest Islamic associations in Germany. Dr. Altintas explains that one of the fundamental aspects of Ramadan is to strengthen the sense of community amongst Muslims: According to him, fasting brings together young and old, rich and poor, the healthy and the sick. Above all, it is meant to convey charity toward those who often have to suffer from hunger.
"Actually, the socioeconomic and socio-psychological aspects are very important," Altintas says. "When we feel hungry during Ramadan, we remember poor people. When we go through life on an empty stomach, we look inside ourselves and spend more time thinking about our faith and our tradition. Islam stresses justice. During Ramadan, we have a greater chance of helping the needy. Whoever needs to come is welcome here – whether he is poor or rich."
Dr. Altintas says that especially during Ramadan no distinction between Orthodox Muslims and Shiite Muslims exists: "Theology is another story, but during Ramadan we all have the same feelings."
In order to supply an average of 500 to 600 free meals to Muslims each day, the DITIB relies on membership dues and donations from large Muslim companies in Germany.
Differences in the Muslim world
But what is the difference between Ramadan as it is celebrated in Germany as compared to the Islamic world? Are there any differences at all? Bekir Alboga, the DITIB's representative for dialogue, has experienced the differences first-hand, and says: "For example, here no one goes through the streets in the middle of the night, drumming and calling out to Muslims: 'Get up! It is time to eat breakfast before the dawn. Soon your day of fasting will begin’! Out of respect, we don't do that here."
Another example is the cannon fire that always rings out in Islamic lands so that the people know it is time to begin with the breaking of the fast, Alboga explains:
"That was one of the most wonderful experiences of my childhood: We would always go onto the roof of our house and wait there expectantly. First we saw the light and then we heard the sound of the cannon. Every now and then we think about what might happen if we also did that in Cologne. What would people think of it? In addition, we don't hear the call to prayer from the minaret. These are all things we miss in Germany. And I hope that one day, with the maturation of German democracy, in addition to our identity we will also be allowed to introduce some of these elements in order to enrich the culture in Germany."
Nevertheless, DITIB members in Cologne are quite pleased that the Ramadan events have become increasingly popular over the last three years – with Muslims as well as with interested guests from other religions – despite certain boundaries in the way the respective religions are practiced.
Dr. Ismail Altintas sees it this way: "I don't feel as if I'm part of the Diaspora here. I feel a close tie to my hometown. The Turkish people have been living in Germany for 40 years now, and we are grateful to this nation, the Federal Republic of Germany, for giving us so many opportunities to observe our tradition and practice our religion."
Translation from the German by Mark Rossman
© Qantara.de 2006