Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Feasting in Ramadan

Like many Westerners who try to be charitable towards other people's religion while also abhorring violence done in the name of religion, I have a troubled relationship with Islam. As I mentioned in an earlier post there are many aspects of Islam that I admire deeply. I love Islam's radical monotheism, their unwavering devotion to the doctrine that God is one. I love the way in which the ritualized prayers, prayers which use the entire body, in which every movement is significant, help blur the line between the sacred and the profane. Prayer for a devout Muslim is not an intellectual exercise, but rather an act which comes from the depths of one's being, and incorporates that whole being, as a profane body is used for a sacred purpose. And I love the season of Ramadan, a season which challenges one's commitment to religious life.

I used to go to a Middle Eastern restaurant, Babylon, owned and operated by an Iraqi immigrant seeking refuge from the regime of Saddam Hussein. He had been a history professor, and had a rule for his restaurant: if you could ask him a question about Middle Eastern culture, history or politics that he couldn't answer to your satisfaction, you got your meal for free. While I was never able to threaten his knowledge sufficiently to earn a free meal, I did once get my tea and baklava for free, after paying for my salad and main course.

One knock on Islam is that in areas where it is most prevalent, it is imposed on the population. People are observant because there are serious consequences for a lack of observance. Reading Azar Nafisi's popular memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran helped bring that point home to me. In it she laments the imposition of the veil on all women, because it calls into question the devotion of her grandmother, who wore the veil long before the government enforced it. In fact, she says, when her grandmother wore the veil, Iran was such a Westernized nation that that was an act of defiance, rather than the other way around.

But sitting in Babylon for lunch on any day during Ramadan shows you that Islamic observance does not die without a tyrannical government to impose it. In fact, during Ramadan Babylon's owner was most happy to see a Western face, because all of his regulars observed the fast, and so could not eat from sunrise to sunset, really cutting into his lunch business.

I remembered my long-forgotten meals at Babylon (I stopped eating meat, and they went out of business, though I doubt the two are linked) after reading this article in the Christian Science Monitor, about charity feasts in Cairo in the Ramadan dusk. Included in it is this telling passage:

Plates and glasses clink and inky-glasses of sugary tamarind juice are drained. The stringy pulp of dates are sucked from their pits, then the 2,000-odd diners turn to the business of a meal.

There are hundreds of locations similar to the ad hoc charity dinners on Hoda Sharawi throughout Cairo this month. Neighborhood merchants, mosques, film stars, and even belly dancers set up tables on streets, under overpasses, and along the Nile where all are invited to eat. But the convention is that only those that really need it should avail themselves.

Not too many years ago, signs alongside the tables would ostentatiously announce the identity of the benefactors, but that has since gone out of fashion, largely because of the impression that seeking public approval for charity isn't charity at all. No one knows how many free meals are dished out nightly, but it clearly runs into the hundreds of thousands.

I am particularly impressed with the notion "that seeking public approval for charity isn't charity at all," which reminds me of the famous teaching from chapter four of the Diamond Sutra about giving gifts without attachment:

Moreover, Subhuti, when bodhisattvas give a gift, they should not be attached to a thing. When they give a gift, they should not be attached to anything at all. They should not be attached to a sight when they give a gift. Nor should they be attached to a sound, a smell a taste, a touch, or a dharma when they give a gift. Thus, Subhuti, fearless bodhisattvas should give a gift without being attached to the perception of an object. And why? Subhuti, the body of merit of those bodhisattvas is not easy to measure.

In a little commentary on that passage from the Diamond Sutra, I wrote:

We give gifts for many reasons. Sometimes we give gifts out of love for a person. Sometimes we give gifts because we wish to be seen giving gifts. Often we give gifts because it is socially acceptable, or somehow required of us. But, whatever our motive, we often have expectations for the person who receives our gift. If and when they fail to meet our expectations for them, we manufacture suffering, both in ourselves and in others. Therefore, when we give a gift (as in all situations) we should not be attached to anything, but simply give our gift, for the sake of giving our gift.

That, in Cairo, Muslims reject the giving of charity with the attachment of building social merit speaks to the wisdom of that religion, a wisdom which we - who often focus on the many levels of foolishness in certain manifestations of Islams - generally fail to recognize. I have written often here on the culture wars, by which I generally mean a war within our own society between (at least) two competing visions for our collective culture. But as Western leaders ramp up their anti-Muslim rhetoric, and as jihadists lash out against us (and I could just as easily put those two in the opposite order, since it is not so much a matter of one coming first and being followed by the other as it is a matter of the two together creating an endless spiral) it is becoming increasingly clear that the most dangerous culture war may be one that is sometimes called the clash of civilizations. That is, a war between two cultures which apparently have a great deal less in common than red staters have in common with blue staters.

In this war we are often hesitant to see Islam in a charitable light. And, given the prevalence of violence in the Muslim world - violence which includes rival factions blowing up each other's sacred houses of worship on holy days - it is admittedly difficult to look at Islam charitably. But any religion with such a rich history of charity - and charity of the best kind, which bridges social and economic gaps authenticating the basic humanity of all who come to the table to feast - deserves to be treated with at least a little bit of charity. And anyone who wishes to somehow defuse the growing war between Islam and the West had better learn how to see the points where Islamic values overlap with our own, so that we can focus on those points of commonality and learn how to build on them.

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