The topic of today’s class was Ramadan. On the basis of another magazine article, we discussed what it means to fast, and what it means when some people don’t. It is a huge transgression to ‘eat Ramadan’ in Morocco: it is worse to violate the pillar of Ramadan than it is to violate the pillar of prayer.* Apparently it is even illegal to eat in public during the month of fasting, and being caught can lead to jail time or fines. In fact, Ilyas explained, fasting is taken so seriously in Morocco that there is even a North African joke about it. There are five countries that make up North Africa, just like there are 5 pillars in Islam: Morocco, Mauritania, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya (apparently Egypt doesn’t really count – too much part of the actual Middle East, I guess). As it happens, each country seems to favor one pillar over the others. So the joke is that the North African countries divided up the pillars amongst themselves, each taking responsibility for one. Morocco has fasting, Tunisia has prayer. Mauritania has alms giving, Libya has pilgrimage, and Algeria has the profession of faith. Just a joke, said Ilyas, but there’s certainly some truth to it.
Obviously a failure to fast is a religious violation, and suggests that you disrespect the faith or maybe even that you are an atheist.** But perhaps even more so than a religious sin, it is a cultural violation. Not to fast is to turn your back on the community, to suggest a lack of identification with the rest of society, or even to imply that you stand above the rest. Religion is imposed in Morocco, Ilyas explained. It is not sold to the masses; it is forced upon them, and most people have no choice but to accept. Except for the rich few, the bourgeoisie (same word in Moroccan, just pronounced with a thick Spanish ‘r’); these people can afford to disregard society’s peer pressure. And these are often the people who do not fast. But, he said, once they turn 40, 45, all of a sudden they become concerned with fasting. Why did I think that was? Well, I began, perhaps they begin to fear death, and turn back to God?
No, Ilyas said. Not God. Culture. They want to belong, all of a sudden they become concerned with their identity as Moroccans. And that’s it, I am now thinking. I get the sense that Ramadan is not simply more cultural than religious; in fact, Ramadan is precisely what defines or maintains Moroccan culture for Moroccans. It reinforces and thus sustains precisely what Moroccans take pride in about their cultural traditions: solidarity, togetherness, hospitality, merriment. I mentioned at some point in the discussion that I had been so surprised to see my host family in such good spirits after a month of fasting and very little sleep. That’s not surprising at all, said Ilyas. That’s the point of it all, that’s Moroccan culture, and Moroccans take pride in this self-defined characteristic of always being good-humored and inviting. In fact, he explained, that’s why the terrorist attacks of May 2003 in Casablanca were such a blow to the country. Because who would do such a thing in this country where even those who have nothing are always smiling? And that’s what Ramadan is meant to remind us of: to be happy, be together, be kind, even when you must endure deprivation. If it weren’t for Ramadan once a year, Ilyas said, we would lose those values – we would lose what it means to be Moroccan.
Strangely enough though, despite this strong connection to culture and community, fasting is and remains an individual duty. I asked Ilyas if one person’s refusal to fast has repercussions for the whole community’s relationship with God. No, he said – each person is individually responsible for his or her relationship with the divine. Apparently, however, this individual duty does not translate into personal freedom to do what you wish. As I’ve mentioned already, religion is quite a compulsion in Morocco (and in most of the Muslim world, according to Ilyas). Religion may be an individual duty, but it is part of culture to urge one another to fulfill that duty. Religion has become the property of culture, convention, and tradition, and has thus moved from the realm of individual choice into community pressure.
*The basis for the practice of Islam rests on five ‘pillars’: the profession of faith, prayer five times daily, almsgiving, fasting during Ramadan, and pilgrimage to Mecca.
**The article had conducted a poll on this question: can someone who does not fast be a Muslim? Forty percent had said no, someone who fasts is not a Muslim. Ilyas confirmed again how inconceivable atheism is to some people. I am glad I didn’t reveal myself to my host family.