Don't Panic November 13 2002

What is Ramadan, and why is it so important?

Ramadan means "of or pertaining to the Ramada Inn hotel chain." Example: "Your bedspread and wallpaper are very Ramadan"

Oh, and Ramadan is also the ninth month of the 12-month Muslim calendar. It began this year on Nov. 6 and lasts until the evening of Dec. 5.

If you happen to hear the grumpy old Muslim man in your grandparent's nursing home make a complaint like, "It seems like Ramadan comes earlier every year, and these young people nowadays don't have any respect for anything," neither statement is a sign of senility. Young people nowadays really don't have any respect for anything, and Ramadan really does come earlier every year. The lunar Muslim calendar is 11 days shorter than our solar calendar. Ramadan therefore starts about 11 days earlier every year. (The fact that the same man tries to make telephone calls with his shoe is, however, a sign of senility.)

Most Americans who know Ramadan only know it as the month that, according to some TV talking heads, we're not supposed to drop bombs on Muslim countries. That's because Ramadan is considered a particularly holy month. It was during Ramadan that Allah (aka God) revealed the text of the Koran, Islam's holy book, to the prophet Muhammad. That was back in 610, our calendar.

During Ramadan, certain otherwise perfectly OK activities are restricted — the most famous example being fasting. During Ramadan, Muslims aren't supposed to eat or drink during the day. You're supposed to eat a big meal before sunrise. After sunset, you're supposed to break the fast with some water and dates, and then sit down with family for a big meal. If you're a wannabe Muslim and you've misplaced your watch, note that night begins when there is no longer sufficient light to distinguish a white thread from a black one.

Fasting during Ramadan is intended to instill in Muslims self-control and patience. It's training, just in case God ever has a difficult test for you. It's also a great opportunity for Muslims if they ever decide to commercialize Ramadan like the West has done with its holidays. In a country obsessed with weight loss, I can easilyimagine the Ramadan Diet taking its rightful place in the pantheon on fad diets, somewhere between Dr. Atkins and Herbalife.

In reality though, fasting is just part of the ritual self-denial that makes up Ramadan. Sexual activity also is restricted during Ramadan. Nookie between married people is not allowed during the day. If you and your spouse are unable to control your impulses and, for example, engage in a lunch-hour quickie, you're required to make up for it by either fasting for an additional 60 days or by feeding 60 poor people one meal each.

Wet dreams and accidental ejaculation resulting from looking at a woman do not break the fast and are not penalized. Sexual intercourse that results from forgetfulness also isn't penalized. Go figure. I guess all that not eating can make some people awfully forgetful.

The most bizarre Ramadan restriction that I've found is the ban on anal enemas. That's right, the use of anal enemas during Ramadan is a no-no. No explanation on how enemas came to be conflated with food and sex. Like Christianity though, Islam has very definite ideas about what should and shouldn't be inserted into our anuses.