On Monday evening Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hosted an Iftar dinner at the State Department, following a tradition begun under the Bush administration of commemorating the Muslim celebration of Ramadan. During the month, adherents fast from sunup to sundown, and the evening meal known as Iftar that breaks the fast is a nightly celebration anticipated by the world's 1.6 billion Muslims. President Obama hosted a similar dinner at the White House a few weeks ago near the beginning Ramadan, which ends on Sept. 20.
U.S. officials may be entranced by the disciplines on display and the opportunity to participate in a Muslim tradition (well, the breaking-fast part, if not the fasting part). Clinton ended her opening remarks to U.S. Muslim leaders invited to the event with, "And now please enjoy your food!" What she and others probably don't realize is that in most Islamic countries Ramadan---not unlike the American celebration of Christmas---has come to be typified by its excesses more than its asceticism. Health experts say that overall Muslims actually gain weight during Ramadan, as Iftar meals have grown into hours-long food-fests that sometimes actually run straight into the pre-dawn breakfast known as Sahur or Sari. In more developed countries like Turkey, magazines and newspapers are full of tips for surviving the feasts, and a Ramadan Diet has become a post-celebration fad.
Here's how one friend, an American physician living in Pakistan, described it to me:
"Because Muslims are allowed to eat at sundown, they stay up most of the night eating, then they get up at 3:30 a.m. to have breakfast before the sun rises. Then they go pray and then go back to bed. This effectively turns their day upside down for one month. Most gain weight during this month by overeating fatty foods. The messed-up sleep cycle makes them drowsy during the day. They mope around, thinking about not eating, refusing to work hard, telling each other how much trouble they are in."
Last year during Ramadan I was traveling in Iraq, Turkey, and Syria. In every city I visited, but especially in places like Istanbul, long lines began to form well before sundown at restaurants advertising Iftar specials (often a lavish multi-course meal). And tables would still be full at 2 a.m. with hearty revelers. The food and fellowship, I must admit, were exceptional, but overall it's a 30-day lesson in keeping the letter of the law while breaking the spirit of it. Christians and other minorities living in Muslim countries often eat behind heavy drapes to avoid causing offense during the month, and abstain from cooking and baking that may send food aromas toward their neighbors' houses. Medical personnel seek special permission from mosques during the month because many patients will refuse prescribed medication---such as eye drops, even, if they can be tasted at the back of the throat---in the belief that these constitute breaking the fast.
My friend in Pakistan calls this "right out of the Pharisee Handbook in the New Testament." He said the month is a great opportunity to mention to his Pakistani friends that "no one can pay for his sin and live because the penalty for sin is death." When he tells Muslim friends fasting should be a time to put aside worldly things to seek God and hear Him, he gets a bewildered response because most, he said, believe a personal relationship with God is impossible.
Muslims talk instead of "burning away their sins" through the fast; in fact, the word Ramadan comes from "ramida," which means "burning hot" or "scorched." Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar and describes the hot, dry weather of much of the Arab world in late summer and autumn. In the Quran the term is also used metaphorically to describe how Allah cleanses the soul of sin through a burning, parching ritual. It is striking that in Christian teaching the element used for this kind of cleansing is water, and the method is washing---something that can only be accomplished by the kindness of an outside source.