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Ramadan at work July 15, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Religion.
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Islam2So, I work for Muslims.

Some people I know would wonder how I could do so (especially since I wrote this), if they were all Islamophobic and such, but it does not bother me.  I really don’t mind working for this Muslim family any more than working for Christians, Jews, or Hindus would bother me.  They are just people, who are from Syria, and who practice Islam.  From my perspective, it’s not much different than working for people, from Italy, who practice Christianity.  They are both silly religions with checkered pasts.

In the several months I have worked there, only once or twice has the issue of religion come up, and never in a proselytizing way.  They are fairly non-political (they have not expressed any strong opinions about what is going on in Syria right now, except to say that America should not be involved, and rarely talk about it at all as far as I know), they seem to support the concept of the separation of religion and government (their comments about groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood seems to indicate that religion should be separate from political and business decisions), and their two sons seem just as American-acculturated as any kids in the neighborhood.  They are not unlike most America citizens; they came here, love it here, and they have a cultural background they brought with them.  It just happens that theirs is a minority culture and religious perspective in America.

Hell, so is mine.

They are relatively observant Muslims.  They pray at least a couple time a day, that I see, in the back office (Muslims are supposed to pray five times a day, according to one of the five pillars of Islam).  They can be heard singing Arabic songs when in a good mood, they sometimes sit and read from the Koran when business is slower, and, well, recently it has become more obvious.

Ramadan feast

Ramadan feast

You see, recently Ramadan started and this has given me a peek into the reality that there is some cultural distance between us which was not as obvious before, but that distance has given me some perspective.  Watching them get more irritable as the day goes on (due to being hungry, thirsty, etc as they fast during daylight hours, which is longer during the summer) and watching the ritual of the sundown feast shows me, up close, how much these people are like everyone else I know from my mostly Christian family background.  Because while there is distance, culturally, between us, this distance is no so far as to make them alien.  In fact, they are so much like the Catholics on my father’s side of my family (many of whom dislike Islam greatly, for political reasons) in that the way they approach ritual and holy times is automatic and interwoven into their routine.

Have you even talked to a (moderately) practicing Catholic about why they do their daily or periodic rituals? Most of the Catholics I know don’t believe all the doctrines.  Hell, they likely don’t even know what most of the doctrine is, as I have had to explain concepts such as the Nicene Creed and other concepts to them, especially in historical context.  Ask a Catholic about the Council of Nicaea some time, and observe the blank stare you will probably get in return.  But when it comes to ritual, they’ve got it down.  There is a sort of sacred time and space and a set of behavior which provides order, meaning, and ‘right’ feelings at certain times.  When there is a baby, there is a baptism.  When they enter a church, they become serious and reverent where before they seem to not care about such reverence.  There is a seeming difference between everyday life and Catholic life, as observed from the outside.

What I have been observing recently is much the same at work.  Ramadan seems to be a sacred time, perhaps somewhat like how Lent is for Catholics, and it seemingly pulls them into a different space of awareness, because they have to fast during daylight which is a constant reminder.  I have not asked them much about it, mostly because they have been a little irritable (being hungry and all) but I suspect that following Ramadan for them is as natural as celebrating Christmas, baptizing one’s child, etc is for Christians.  I suspect that they don’t really think about why they do it, just like many Christians.  It’s just what you do, if you’re  Muslim.

There are other employees there who are Muslims as well.  When sundown comes, they eat with the family for the evening meal.  I have not been invited to join them.  Granted, I am not really hungry because I ate already, not being a practicing Muslim and all,  but I find it interesting that it does not even seem relevant to them.  They don’t even seem aware that this is happening.  As one of the few non-Muslims who works there, I am different.  I am an outsider.  I am kafir.  I don’t feel ostracized or discriminated against (that is, I don’t really care) but it highlights the role of cultural tradition and ritual to simultaneously pull together the in-group and to otherize the out-group.

Religion is not all bad.  However, one of its strengths, creating cultural bonds, has a complimentary function of clarifying cultural lines of division.  Religion fosters tribalism.  Thus, it’s only a strength to bring communities together for those in the community.

This is generally true, for all sorts of cultural traditions, rituals, or ideas.  Monogamy creates bonds within a coupling that others cannot be a part of, by definition.  There are levels of intimacy in all relationships, even in polyamory, which divide those inside and those outside the tribe, family, etc.  Pride of one’s national heritage, as in “I’m proud to be an American” serve the same function.  They pull together a group, but alienates at the same time.

Kirk: “Spock, you want to know something? Everybody’s Human.” Spock: “I find that remark… insulting.”

Kirk: “Spock, you want to know something? Everybody’s Human.”
Spock: “I find that remark… insulting.”

It’s quite unavoidable.  You can try to universalize the message, but this is only a temporary fix.  Define the in-group as humanity and if/when we make contact with alien sentient life, the other is them (I’ve been watching Babylon 5 again…).  It’s a tough knot to untie, and I am not sure there is a solution.  Because having groups of people who vary in importance to us, hierarchical or not, is a logistical and practical solution to only having so much time and energy to spend.  It’s nice to have people close to you, intimate with you, and who you can call family.  But the other side of this is the necessary alienation of others, especially those with whom we share few values.  Liberals, conservative; Democrats, Republicans; Capitalists, Socialists, Communists, Anarchists, etc.  There are people who are, in some way, ‘other’ to you.  Religion, tradition, ritual, and nationalism all use this aspect of human behavior to its simultaneous advantage and disadvantage.

And yes, it will be an improvement if and when humanity outgrows religion, nationalism, etc.  But I doubt that will solve the fundamental problem.  Personally, I’m not sure there is a solution.  I’m not writing this to say we should try to give up the concept of culture, and to transcend culture, because that would just create a new culture.  I’m writing this because we should all be aware of this phenomenon.  And those others who will not understand it are just stupid and evil, or something.  But we, the enlightened, will understand it.  Or something.

As for my employers and this Ramadan thing, I will say that the evening feast usually looks quite delicious.  Perhaps they are trying to convert me with the promise of delicious food.  It’s not working, alas.  Well, if the promise of 72 virgins (or raisins, whatever) won’t do it, food won’t do it, then I guess they are just going to have to verify their claims rationally and empirically.  Yeah, somehow philosophy wins over food and sex for me.  Sorry, religion.

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