The Tradition of Ramadan
Which Image of God Determines the Ritual Behaviour?

The Islamic month of fasting began last Monday – in Europe too, where the majority society still knows far too little about the holy practice, which is a religious duty of all Muslims and one of the "five pillars of Islam". Emel Zeynelabidin says that for this reason, posing questions that are free of fear and born of interest is now a matter of great urgency

The fact that fasting during the month of Ramadan has been practiced by Muslims every year for 14 centuries is singular and an almost unbelievable accomplishment. It is a phenomenon of ancient, religious ritual that has endured to this day and that, upon first glance, cannot be logically explained by science. In my view, neither Muslims nor non-Muslims give this phenomenon the attention it deserves.

Today, if I as a female Muslim who is very familiar with the fasting ritual owing to my upbringing, talk to my non-Muslim friends about the particulars of Ramadan, and list for example the groups of individuals who are exempt from the obligation to fast, I am met with total ignorance. If Muslims and non-Muslims are supposed to have experienced a social rapprochement in recent decades, what exactly has occurred during this time?

Men praying in a mosque in Ramallah (photo: AP)
Time for reflection, time for self-discipline: For more than a billion Muslims, the fasting month of Ramadan began on Monday (1 August)

​​A practical discussion of the many different realities of life would enhance mutual understanding and create the trust necessary to jointly further the processes of social rapprochement between Muslims and the rest of the world. Gestures of respect towards Ramadan expressed through media statements by German politicians, have unfortunately so far failed to achieve this.

An Obligation to renounce

Muslim fasting involves renouncing all food, drink and sex. These days, the list also includes smoking. The daily fast begins at dawn and ends at sunset. Ramadan takes place during a lunar calendar month. This is why every year, the date moves back around 10 days in the Gregorian, or solar calendar. In the summer, when the sun sets later, the fasting days are much longer than in winter.

Exempt from this annual duty are children, pregnant women, those required to nurse babies, menstruating women, travellers, but also sick people. But renunciation is not acquittal: adults are required to make up for any fasting days lost. Ramadan provides the opportunity to reflect on what it means to endure hunger and thirst, and to control one's sexual urges. Many draw the necessary strength to do this from the sense that the fasting is a collective group activity.

As a practising Muslim, force of habit and upbringing meant I felt perfectly comfortable with my rituals. I had no reason to question exactly what I was doing. And if conflicts and pressures should arise as a result of what I was doing, then it was all simply part of the "earthly trial".

Open interest in faith

These days, I view these things from a different perspective and am left wondering why the "excluded" non-Muslim majority society, which is generally inquisitive and open to debate, does not enquire what it is perhaps missing out on. Curiosity must be aroused in this context, so that questions can be posed by all; questions that are free of fear and born of interest. Which image of god determines the ritual behaviour?

Muslims believe in a connection between actions and their consequences in this life, but also in the afterlife. In an edition of the monthly German-language "Islamische Zeitung" (Islamic Newspaper), readers discover that "Ramadan is every year a debt that one has with God and that one must pay back, in other words an obligation to Him."

Praying Muslim woman in the Philippines during Ramadan (photo: AP)
Free from religious compulsion: The valuable experiences surrounding the Ramadan ritual should occur not out of obedience and subordination to a prescribed obligation, but of one's own volition and out of sincere conviction, writes Emel Zeynelabidin


The article goes on to explain that Ramadan is a preparation for a reward in paradise, a reward that is described as a paradise garden and a house in paradise. For after all, "Allah makes things easy on judgement day if one has done something for Him."

So this is about a specific image of God, who demands that people make sacrifices so that He can reward them with a promise of paradise, a promise that can only be an unknowable and remote prospect for us all.

I am irritated by the idea of having to do something for an almighty God to gain his favour. In the case of fasting during Ramadan I ask myself the simple question of how, with the benefit of modern insight, such a physically stressful and socially potentially inflammatory practice can be ascribed to an almighty God who only has the best intentions for his flock.

Omnipotence, as I imagine it, should really have other criteria and yardsticks of perception, judgement and approach than we people. This inconsistency presents us with a great challenge, a need for explanation that we must finally meet head-on.

Aggravating circumstances

Working and studying make you hungry. During lifetime of the prophet Muhammed, people lived in the desert and were not by any means subjected to the same physical and mental challenges we face in our daily lives today. In Europe, where public life is not led in accordance with Islamic codes, working people and students who are fasting face considerable physical and mental stress.

Just as the Ramadan smoking ban was declared by a religious ruling, a similar ruling should be issued to add working people and students in a non-Muslim society to the list of groups exempt from the fasting rule. After all, clerics agreed that professional footballers should be exempted from fasting due to the nature of their job. Teachers and doctors could say a great deal about the physical problems of their pupils and patients.

A man praying before breaking his fast in Pakistan (photo: dapd)
Between joyous fast-breaking and gluttony: Breaking the fast after sunset, also known as "Iftar", is usually celebrated with opulent meals often enjoyed with friends and family. The 30-day fasting period is traditionally brought to an end with a three-day festival ("Eid al-Fitr")


Historical accounts from the time of the first Muslims report of years of great shortages, when the faithful had to be content with eating nothing but dates during Ramadan. In any case, people for the most part lived by the dietary recommendation of Muhammad himself, to reserve a third of one's stomach for water, a third for food, and leave the remaining third free for breathing. These days, unfortunately, the end of a fasting day results in consumption of unhealthy amounts of food, tantamount to gluttony.

Consistent renunciation as a behavioural yardstick for self-discipline is an important therapeutic experience. It can make you physically very strong, be a key ingredient of self-control, train decision-making ability and confirm one's own strength of will. Viewed from this perspective, this temporary renunciation of food and pleasurable activities, a renunciation of the urge to meet natural needs, is an important method with huge benefits.

Will and faith are all that count

But does every healthy adult have an equal need to pursue such a method? When clerics created a collective movement by decreeing a religious ritual as an unshakable duty, are there other interests at play?

Ideally for me, these valuable experiences should occur not out of obedience and subordination to a prescribed obligation, but of one's own volition and out of sincere conviction, and where possible, lead to a learning process of self-knowledge and exemplary social competency.

However, the permanent pressure of obligations imposed by the Islamic legal system makes scope for self-determined action hugely difficult. In this context, even the Koran warns against self-deception and hypocrisy. There is a great need now for some clarity to be shed on this contradiction, with the courage for honesty.

Just as it does every year, after four weeks of the fasting ritual comes the long-awaited end of Ramadan. Celebrations will go on for three days, and many of the negative aspects so worthy of debate will be forgotten again. The sweet-talking that surrounds the advent of Ramadan every year is far too one-sided and does nothing to create a basis for discussion that would establish a different, namely better quality of faith for future generations.

How many more of these Ramadan months have to begin before on the one hand, non-Muslims ask questions of fasting Muslims in order to understand, and on the other hand Muslims ask critical questions in examination of their religious imagination?

Emel Zeynelabidin

© 2011

Emel Zeynelabidin, born in 1960 in Istanbul and raised in Lower Saxony, Germany, is a journalist whose special focus areas are questions of contemporary Islam and inter-religious dialogue.

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Editor: Lewis Gropp/

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Comments for this article: Which Image of God Determines the Ritual Behaviour?

In the traditional Islamic society that was largely agrarian and governed by the classical Islamic law (Sharia) the month of Ramadan was a month of feasting that included fast-breaking parties, late night entertainment and rich pre-dawn meal. Fasting people would normally have a short fasting day (as they will get up late and take a nap in the afternoon) and a long and festive night. No doubt it is quite different today, especially for the working people in the West. So is there a way out for them?

There will be no point to search an answer in Islamic theological literature as they resonate with the blessings of fasting. A simple ontological debate can be set up for people in stressful jobs to reflect and to decide what is best for them.

From the Qur'anic perspective there are ONLY two criteria for earning God's approval for all humanity who believe in the Unity of God: Good deeds and the exercise of taqwa - an umbrella notion of universal piety that embraces i) heeding one’s conscience, ii) preserving oneself against gross appetites of life, iii) heeding God. The Qur'an describes fasting as a means of acquiring taqwa (2:183, 2:187) and to glorifying God for His guidance (2:185). People who are unable to fast for any reason (other than the excepted categories such as sick, travelers etc.) are allowed redemption by charity (feeding a poor at the least), though the Qur'an adds a rejoinder that its is still better if people kept the fast. However, the Qur'an does declare that God desires ease for people (2:185) and there are reports of the Prophet breaking his fast under exhaustion. Thus, it will be for an individual Muslim man and woman to decide whether or not to keep a fast. If fasting reduces the capability of a person to do full justice to his lawful job - he/she may consider skipping fasting because lawfulness of earning is also an important tenet of the Qur'an - though God knows best.

mohammed yunus16.08.2011 | 19:38 Uhr

"Ideally for me, these valuable experiences should occur not out of obedience and subordination to a prescribed obligation, but of one's own volition and out of sincere conviction"

When a person CHOOSES to be part of a faith group, they perform the religious rituals based on a choice they made for themselves, OF THEIR OWN VOLITION.

Through religion you can gain "self knowledge" and achieve "exemplary social competency." These values are not just learnt by going to self-help clinics, out of your own volition.

Rejecting "obedience and subordination to a prescribed obligation" (religious obligations in your case) just leads to "obedience and subordination" to the SELF, and the tyranny of the SELF.

You talk about the conspiracy of the clerics and "the other interests at play," then why are waiting for a ruling from them to exempt you from fasting?

Abdullahi Kassim21.08.2011 | 23:14 Uhr