Ramadan 2014 – Is Ramadan Morphing into A Meaningless Holiday Season?

This article comes on Day Nine of our special Altmuslim/Patheos Muslim Ramadan #30Days30Writers blog project, in which we are showcasing the voices of 30 Muslim leaders, activists, scholars, writers, youth and more (one on each day of Ramadan) as part of our commitment to own our own narratives and show how we are one Ummah, many voices. To demonstrate how our Ramadan experiences are shared yet unique to each of us.

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaking at a State Department iftar.

By Shahed Amanullah

I belong to a very particular generation of Muslims, one who formed a Muslim identity well before the turning point of 9/11. Those days were very different — it was a time when Muslims in America were still primarily under the radar. It was also a time before the Internet flooded us with information (and misinformation) about Islam and Muslims. I still had to explain to work colleagues why I wasn’t ordering anything at lunch during Ramadan, and conversations around me didn’t always revolve around my Muslim identity or global politics. It was much easier to be a normal American, and to be seen as one as well.

Under the cover of this relative isolation, my Ramadan experiences were different then they are today. It was a much more intimate affair — I would spend my evenings in quiet prayer and then break my fast either at the mosque with my community or in small home gatherings with friends and family.

These experiences forever defined within me the scope, power, and meaning of this month. It was certainly a time to be social, to reconnect with community and family, but the heart of it still lay with my relationship with God. It was relatively apolitical as well — we didn’t argue about moon sighting methodologies or getting Eid on school calendars.

Fast forward to modern American Muslim life. Ramadan has taken on a completely different form, and I’m as guilty as any in indulging and reinforcing it. Within our communities, invitations to iftars/social events get sent out weeks in advance, often overlapping so much that the truly determined “iftar-hop” in order to get them all in.

In a month devoted to the abstinence of food, we paradoxically spend our days preparing it, and our evenings feasting on it, making sure to Instagram culinary creations that took the better part of a day to finish. We have turned our attention from celebrating the month inwardly to making sure others know about it. We spend an increasing amount of time blogging, lobbying and spending on Ramadan.

The greatest shift, however, is in how Ramadan is perceived by society at large. I regularly get unsolicited “Ramadan Mubarak!” messages from friends, colleagues, even strangers — both in person and on social media. Where I live in Washington, D.C., the iftar has become a public celebration, where all sorts of institutions outside the Muslim community — non-profit organizations, think tanks, embassies, city halls and federal government institutions — jockey to claim one of the days of the month for iftar dinners that are open to the public (I know this because I spent the last three years organizing the State Department iftar, a much sought-after ticket among the upwardly mobile, Muslim or not).

What is happening to the Ramadan I used to know?  I feel we are inadvertently following the model of Christmas and turning the month into a “season” that is a time for socializing, indulgence and consumerism above all else. Corporate America is sensing this and is responding accordingly with Ramadan promotions and special events (latest example: the DKNY Ramadan launch this week), using a barely-modified Christmas playbook.

Our need for belonging makes us applaud any public acknowledgement of our holiday, whether it is a Best Buy ad, a politician’s Ramadan greeting or a department store Ramadan display. I regularly attend public iftars where nearly half the attendees are not Muslim, and any religious aspect is relegated to a small side room so as to not get in the way of networking and socializing. When you start seeing people like Wolf Blitzer at iftars, you just have to wonder what is happening to our most precious religious holiday.

None of what I’m seeing is inherently bad, of course. It certainly is a mark of recognition and cross-community understanding that we’ve been able to cement Ramadan into the public landscape while keeping it relatively free of the geopolitics that so infects our identity these days.

Our economic power has convinced corporate America to respect us as a demographic group, and our increasing political clout has enabled elected officials to calculate that they would gain more votes than they would lose if they cater to us. When you consider the beating we take in certain elements of the public sphere, these are certainly things to be proud of.

But in pursuing the advancement of our communities, it would be a shame to lose what Ramadan is really about and what it was meant to be. How do we make sure that doesn’t happen?

Shahed Amanullah is the founder and original editor-in-chief of Altmuslim, CEO and co-founder of LaunchPosse, CEO and founder of Halalfire (parent company to zabiha.com) and a former senior advisor at the U.S. Department of State.

  • Balooh

    Good article highlighting the sad harsh reality of today. Muslims have forgotten the true essence of this month, the month of blessings n a time to reflect. Many fill their bellies up then become too lazy to do any ibadat. Some people cannot give up the haram even in this blessed of all months, an injustice to ourselves. Truth is you can only guide someone and hope they walk the right path. Never lose hope in them but ultimately the choice to do good lies within themselves.

  • Truman Golden

    the muslim community is varied and the spectrum runs from the ultra religious who do embody the spirit of Ramadan and in the farthest corner of the spectrum there are those who represent the people you have described. I presume it has always been like this.

  • siraaj

    As long as we’re fasting, praying, reading Quran, staying away from debate, and remaining generally productive, i think the festive side is good, especially in the West. I’m always struck by how our counterparts in the east view our Ramadan as lackluster by their standards and tends to be festive all 30 days (though I’m not in favor of the “sleep all day, eat all night” lifestyle prevalent in certain parts of the Muslim world).

  • shaz

    This article is nicely written, as it takes the stance of Muslims before 9/11 and after 9/11.
    I agree it was different before 9/11 Ramadan/eid was more of a quiet affair.The public at large really had no idea what Ramadan existed, but also before 9/11 and after 9/11, one thing to also take into consideration is that there is a larger number of Muslims in this country that have immigrated here, which means that the traditions are of eating and “iftar hopping” was brought over.

    I know when I used to go overseas during Ramadan, (prior to 9/11) to a Muslim country, “iftar hopping” was already in existence, but there was a balance of praying right and eating and , instead of simply just hopping to the next house, or shopping for eid. ( When else would you go shopping for eid, not on eid) I think the US is embracing the religion, in the best way they know how. But, it will take sometime to get the right balance.

  • Krush Krushemz

    i get what he says about before 9/11 but where i live in England we still do that the boys goes to mosque to pray for iftar or taraweeh time and sometimes read at home with family, most families around my areas prepare and eat together and on the last days of Ramadan cousins will get together and eat together so its not like that everywhere but its still the same.

  • mfaraday

    Well most of Arabs from Hijaz(Saudi) leave their country during Ramazan to come to America and specifically to Los Angeles. You see them sitting at Johnny Rocket and eating Pork Burgers. I understand they feel they are rich and don’t need Islam. I understand that. However, the rest who stay back in their country spend money to create division among moslems. This is not Islam. Have fear!

  • Jimmy Malik

    The only difference is today with social media you can share your experiences with the world with the click of a button. Some people take it overboard and try to showcase how “cool” they are for Fasting and it may get over done.

    But the general saying ” is Ramadan becoming a meaningless holiday season” is a sin itself.

    Ramadan is and will always be a sacred, holy and sacrificing month for those whole follow and cherish the meaning.

    You shouldn’t attempt to take away from it. It’s wrong.

  • http://ashrafali.net Ashraf Ali

    I took a deeper inspection of the article and found it to be a frustrating assessment of Ramadan going mainstream. It encourages a harkening for yesterday when things were “better.” In Mr. Amanullah’s eyes, it seems as the Ramadan spirit is fading away because it’s going mainstream.

    Rather than clutter the comment box, I wrote a fully-developed response to this article on my blog. I take a close look at Amanullah’s arguments and conclude that as Muslims, we need to see this trend as an opportunity.


  • Nabeel

    Guys, this is hardly an American phenomenon. De-spiritualized practice of Ramadan has been the norm in Muslim-majority countries for quite a while.

    • Wesley Brock

      True. I saw it first hand not only with the holiday but the religion itself in Afghanistan. The practice of Islam was more social/traditional/political then religious. Our Afghan partners insisted that we be invited over on Eid al-Fitr and there was a lack of religion at all during the time. Curious about this I began looking more closely at the culture of the Afghans I came in contact with and noticed Islam was practiced not so differently from how Christianity is largely practiced here. There were those who were strongly devoted and others who seemed Muslim simply because they were born into it and when religion was brought up it was either because of a holiday, marriages, births, deaths, or politics. Kind of like what I’ve experienced with Christianity in America.

  • Nora

    Guys, everyone is entitled to practice how ever they please. Please don’t sit here and be negative and talk about ramadan in a negative way. For crying out loud theres people in the world that worship a orange nobody cares but because were Muslims its an issue. I am an americanized Muslim and its hardly an american phenomenon, i have american friends that have no idea what ramadan really is.. so please enough with your negative bull and trying to convince people something Ramadan isn’t. Like why bother bringing up 9/11? what does that have anything to do with this holy month. DOES anyone know what ramadan is really about? It has no negative thought to it. I was born & raised here and all my parents (who are straight off the boats from the middle east) ask me is to fast every year and I do. & it just reminds me how much closer I am to god. FOR the first time in my life i have read the holy quarn and its such a beautiful reading, everyone is entitled to their own opinion and you decide for yourself. Its so sad the world we live in today bevause if it was any other religion nobody questions it. its