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Christmas Parallels
The Meaning of Ramadan


 
 
Christmas Parallels

     In the legends and sacred scriptures of the world’s religions are many stories of the birth of great religious leaders.

     The Buddha was born as his mother journeyed to her hometown, four kings attended him, and wise men who saw a heavenly sign brought him gifts. At the birth of Confucius, the sky was filled with music, and a voice said, “This night a child is born. He shall be a great king.” The Midrash describes a remarkable star appearing at the birth of Abraham. Herakles was born of a virgin whose husband refrained from consummating the marriage until after the birth. Krishna had to be hid in order to escape a slaughter of infants. A dream led authorities to search for the infant Zoroaster, to kill him.

     The traditions of Christianity parallel each of these stories; there seems to be a widespread, if not universal, religious interest in the birth of a savior or great leader or tathagata.

     Early European customs included bonfires and the yule log to carry light from the shortening days into the solstice, when the sun was reborn. Originally Iranian, Mithra was a sun god; his birth was – naturally – the winter solstice, observed within the ancient calendar on December 25; and when Christianity replaced Mithraism in the Roman armies, the birth of the Christ child was celebrated on this date, with this selection first recorded in 336 and formally designated by Pope Julius in 349.

     Christmas as we observe it draws themes, symbols, and stories from many religions. We get mistletoe from the Druids, Christmas laurel from ancient Rome, and holly from the Celts. The Christmas tree, the tannenbaum, originates from primitive and pagan German practices symbolizing life in a time of death, of green vitality against the still white snow.

     Knowledge about the many sources of Christmas festivities is not the result of recent scholarly discovery. Our Puritan forebears were very aware of many origins for Christmas celebrations, but they did not approve. In 1660 the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed a statute saying, “The Observance of Christmas having been deemed a sacrilege, the exchanging of gifts and greetings, dressing in fine clothing, feasting and similar Satanical practices are hereby forbidden.” Sporting a sprig of holly resulted in a public flogging and three days in stocks on bread and water. In Boston children went to school on Christmas Day until the last century. Indeed, Christmas was not even a legal holiday anywhere until 1836 in Alabama, with other states taking action by 1890.

     Today, rather than forbid Christmas because its customs arise from other traditions, most of us find increased meaning in the fact that so many of the world’s religions, like Christianity, make an affirmation that seems almost universal: that even in the cold of winter, in deep despair, there blooms the flower of love, which can transform us as we cannot transform ourselves.

     This may be the inner meaning of each of the world’s great religions, though variously expressed. The birth of the Child, the birth of the New Being, emerges from the possibilities of the universe, as a flower emerges from the ground, a leaf from a branch, and a baby from the mother, as the sun’s days lengthen after a pattern of growing darkness.

    May the joy of this special season be a guiding star to the birth of the New Being within each of us.

Hanukkah

     Hanukkah (“dedication”) is a minor eight-day Jewish festival observed this year beginning the night of December 21. Because Hanukkah often falls near Christmas, it receives special emphasis in our culture by (1) Christians desiring to acknowledge Jewish traditions during this season and (2) by Jewish families pulled into the commercialism, gift giving, and other Christmas customs that overwhelm children — and all of us.

     As a result of power struggles after the death of Alexander the Great, Israel came under the domination of the Seleucid Dynasty. At first benign, the Syrian-Greek rule became hostile under Antiochus Epiphanes who tried to force religious conformity throughout his empire. The Temple was desecrated and robbed. An idol to Zeus was placed upon the altar and Jews were commanded to worship it or die.

     Judas Maccabee and his brothers of the priestly Hasmonean family led a tiny force into guerrilla warfare against the great armies oppressing them. After three bloody years, in 164 BCE they gained a truce that permitted freedom of Jewish worship.

    The Temple was cleansed and rededicated. Enough uncontaminated oil was found to light the menorah for only one day, and it would take more than a week to prepare an additional supply. Miraculously, the single cruse of oil lasted eight days, until the new supply was ready.

     When our American forebears struggled for Independence, it was also an ugly and violent revolution. Yet somehow the result justifies its savagery. Similarly, the Maccabees brought out of the war’s horrors the blessing of religious liberty. Although the original meaning of Hanukkah is narrow, its significance can be understood broadly, so that all who love the freedom of the spirit can honor it.

Kwanzaa

     Kwanzaa was developed in 1966 to call African-Americans to an awareness of a common heritage despite their many countries of origin and individual family histories, by Dr Maulana “Ron” Karenga (who became chair of the black studies department at California State University at Long Beach).

     Originally described as a “cultural” rather than a “religious” holiday, and still unlisted in most books on religion, it has since taken on spiritual significance for many of those who celebrate the seven-day holiday.

     While its meaning is unrelated to either Christmas or Hanukkah, its dates (December 26-January 1) associate it with the Christmas holiday; and its lighting of seven candles in a kinara (candelabrum) recalls the eight candles (plus the server) in the Hanukkah menorah, corresponding to the days of the Jewish festival.

     Kwanza means “first” in Swahili. An additional “a” was added to the festival’s name make the word seven letters long.

     During Kwanzaa, friends and family celebrate their African-American heritage by exchanging symbolic, rather than extravagant, gifts.

      The cultural significance of Kwanzaa lies in seven fundamental principles: Unity, Self-determination, Collective Work and Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity, and Faith. The seven principles are represented by seven candles (three red, one black, and three green) placed in a special candelabrum.

    The holiday is increasingly observed by those who want to affirm solidarity with African-Americans and who cherish the values promoted by Kwanzaa.


The Meaning of Ramadan

How the Fast Developed

     Ramadan is the name of the ninth month in the Islamic (Hijra) calendar and is also known as the Month of Fasting. It was in this month that the Muslims’ holy book, the Qur’an, was first revealed to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh – the abbreviation for “peace be upon him”). Unlike the conventional Gregorian calendar based on the solar cycle, the Hijra calendar is based on the lunar cycle. The significance and rationale of this is elaborated upon later.

     Fasting is not a new concept unique to Islam; in fact, the practice of fasting is common in many religions, including Christianity and Judaism. In Islam, however, it has special importance and is mandatory for all adult Muslims, except those who are old or have health problems, pregnant women and nursing mothers, and those on journey. Several verses in the Qur’an  refer to this. For example, in Sura II, verses 183 and 184, God says, “O Believers, fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, [so] that you may [learn] self-restraint. The fast is to be observed for a fixed number of days . . . .” Further on, in verse 185, God says, “. . . therefore from now on, whosoever witnesses it [the Month of Fasting], it is obligatory on him to fast the whole month . . . .” Fasting for a fixed number of days in the former verses and the whole month in the later may seem confusing, but a consideration of the temporal aspect of the revelation of these verses clarifies the point.

     Islam proceeded step by step and by degrees in the imposition of most of its obligatory duties; the same happened in case of fasting. At first, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was directed by God to advise Muslims to fast three days in a month, but without making it mandatory. Then, in the second year of Hijra, the command to fast during Ramadan was revealed. Even then, people who otherwise were able to fast were given the option not to fast provided they could feed a poor person as an expiation of one day’s fast. Then, after some time, the final commandment, contained in verse 185, modified this by withdrawing the concession for able-bodied persons but retaining it for old, sick, and wayfaring persons, pregnant women and nursing mothers. In addition, fasting for one full month during Ramadan was made obligatory, canceling the earlier directive of fasting for three days in any month. Thus was established, in a gradual and psychologically acceptable manner, the requirement for month-long fasting during Ramadan. This practice constitutes one of the five pillars of Islam and is followed by about one billion Muslims all over the world.

The Beginning and End of Ramadan

     The onset of the month of fasting is based upon sighting of the new moon. The month of Ramadan begins from that time and, depending upon the appearance of the new moon in its next cycle, lasts for 29 or 30 days. The following discussion of the Islamic lunar calendar highlights the rationale, significance, and marvel of this unique system.

     Since the lunar year consists of 354 days, it is 11 days shorter than the solar year (12 in a leap year). Ramadan, as all other months in the Islamic calendar, moves back by about 11 days each year. This means that, if Ramadan began from, say, May 21 in 1985, it would begin on May 10 in 1986, April 29 in 1987, and April 18 in 1988, etc.  Thus, we see that in three years it has moved back by over a month. This, in turn, means that the month of Ramadan will rotate through all seasons — winter, spring, summer and fall. In winter the days are short and colder, making fasts very easy (only about nine or so hours long); but in the summer, the days are hot and long (over 16 hours), making fasting more difficult. Spring and fall represent intermediate conditions.

     Furthermore, the seasons do not remain the same in all parts of the world; winter in the northern hemisphere means summer in the southern hemisphere. If Ramadan were not based upon the lunar cycle, Muslims in a particular geographic location would have to be perpetually fasting in the same month and in the same season. A lunar cycle obviates this problem. Muslims, whether they live in North America or Australia, become accustomed to fasting in all seasons, sometimes with greater ease and sometimes with greater hardships. Another significant point about the lunar calendar is the fact that a new moon can be sighted by a nomad in the desert as well as by a city dweller — by one who is totally illiterate or by one who can read a calendar.

     Ramadan ends with sighting of the new moon. The first day after Ramadan, called Eid al-Fitr, one of the two major Muslim festivals, is marked by offering congregational prayer in the morning. All Muslims are required to give to charity to help the less fortunate members of the society, who do not have the means to feed and clothe themselves or their family members. The day of Eid is a day of rejoicing and includes visits to friends and relatives, sharing food and sweets, and merrymaking.

Rules of Fasting

     Making the intention to fast for the sake of God and to seek His pleasure is the prerequisite. Fasting is from dawn to sunset. It is strongly recommended by Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) to partake of a small meal or a nourishing snack, called suhoor, before dawn. From dawn until sunset a person is prohibited from eating, drinking, smoking and, for married persons, sex. At sunset one breaks the fast, usually with dates, juice or fruit. Breaking the fast is called iftar, and is followed by offering the evening prayer. One can partake permissible food and drinks after iftar and before suhoor. About 75 to 90 minutes after sunset comes the time for the night prayer, which in Ramadan is followed by a special, 20-units long Traweeh prayer.

     Despite the limited intake of food and requirement of additional prayer and predawn rising for suhoor, a Muslim is to carry on his normal obligations of job and work. In other words, Ramadan does not mean relaxing at home and staying away from work. Such an idea is totally un-Islamic.

Medical Considerations

     The human body is very complicated . . .  The digestive system stores and processes food, and performs the unique function of converting food into energy, enzymes, fats and other components needed to sustain all our activities. This process of conversion is continuous and operates throughout one’s entire life. However, during the month of Ramadan, when food intake is very low, the digestive system functions at a very low level, thereby providing it with needed rest and reprieve. Allan Cott (1975) in his Fasting as Way of Life notes, “Fasting brings a wholesome physiological rest for the digestive tract and central nervous system and normalizes metabolism.”

     Modern medicine recognizes that breakfast is the most important meal of the day because it provides energy throughout the day. Similarly, the suhoor provides energy to carry a person through the entire day. And that may be the reason why Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) so strongly recommended it.

     Traweeh prayer involves considerable standing, bending, bowing and sitting, in a sequential manner for at least 30 minute – generally longer. Dr S Athar (1984) in his article, “Therapeutic Benefits of Ramadan Fasting,” stated that Traweeh prayer burns up 200 calories. He writes, “. .  . salat (including Traweeh) is a better form of physical exercise than aerobic exercises because it is mild and uses all muscles and joints of the body.”

Summary

     In conclusion, Ramadan teaches the individual to achieve control and exercise restraint over one’s basic instincts for food, drink, and sex. It makes one actually experience the pangs of hunger and thirst rather than merely know about them. This great self-regulatory process brings about mental peace and tranquility to the individual.

     Thus, by observing the commands of God, Muslims not only please the Creator but also acquire the physiological, psychological and physical advantages that enable them to lead a moral and balanced life. It also makes them more compassionate toward the have-nots of the society.

From Governor Graves’ 1997 Proclamation:

     Whereas the citizens of the State of Kansas enjoy the blessings of the heritage of religious liberty, and

     Whereas the people of the State of Kansas observe many traditions of faith, and

     Whereas each community of faith deserves the recognition, respect, and protection of all others, and

     Whereas the citizens of the Muslim faith are sincere and proud Americans serving their communities in many capacities, and . . .

     Whereas Muslims observe [the holy month of Ramadan]  by fasting from sunrise to sunset in order to remind themselves that others hunger, and to relieve the hunger of others, to practice discipline through self-denial, to nurture family relationships, and to strengthen commitment to God, and

     Whereas Muslims also commemorate . . . Ramadan by recalling the first revelations of the Qur'an by God to the Prophet Mohammed over 1400 years ago, and

     Whereas observing the month of Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam,

     Whereas many citizens of the State of Kansas are not acquainted with the meaning of Ramadan to their Muslim neighbors,

     Now, therefore, I, Bill Graves, Governor of the State of Kansas, declare [Ramadan] a month of special assistance to the needy, . . . and call upon citizens of the state of Kansas to recognize the dedication and service of Muslims as an important part of the fabric of religious pluralism which enriches us all.

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