Fasting in the summer of discontent

Around the world, Muslims will begin a month of dawn-to-dusk fasting in observance of one the pillars of Islam, fasting in the holy month of Ramadhan. The Islamic calendar is based on the lunar cycle, therefore out of sync with the solar based calendars in use widely today. This means that the Islamic months shift forward 11 days each year, bringing this year’s Ramadhan to early August, a very hot month for the middle and northern hemispheres.

The issue on everyone’s mind is will they be able to keep the fast, when the days are long, the nights are short and the temperature soars? Even in countries such as the UK, where the temperatures are always bearable in the summer, some people are anxious about their ability to work and fast while appearing to manage well.

A new religious edict or, to use the media friendly term, fatwa has been issued by the General Authority for Islamic Affairs and Endowments in the United Arab Emirates in response to an oil rig workers question about the permissibility of breaking the fast due to extreme heat and thirst. The ruling states that if a person fears for their health due to these two factors, they may break the fast and compensate for it at a later date. A similar ruling is found on Ayatullah Sistani’s site which allows only eating and drinking the minimum possible amount and then a compensatory fast after Ramadhan.

Now based on my personal observation when I was in Iraq the previous Ramadhan (Aug/Sep 09), a large chunk of the population is likely to act according to this ruling. That is because unlike the UAE, the Iraqi people also have to contend with power cuts, lack of drinking water and congestion-building checkpoints. One look at the weather for Thursday (most likely the day Ramadhan starts) shows temperatures of 44C/111F for Mosul, 46C/115F for Baghdad and 48C/118F for Basra, perfect conditions for heatstroke. Faced with only 8 hours of electricity a day, high humidity and poor water supply, the last thing a person wants to do is fast in Iraq right now.

The younger generations mostly avoid fasting anyway, despite the religious obligation and the occasional lecture from their parents. They complain that even their parents did not have to fast in such arduous conditions, and the parents have not much to say in response. The middle aged working class do try to fast, but it depends on the job they do, say a taxi driver with no air conditioning in his car and a civil servant in a nice office in the Green or ‘International’ Zone. The middle classes are less religious and more likely not to fast, but the poorer classes are more observant despite it being obviously harder for them. The older aged, especially the retired, are probably the ones who are most likely to maintain the fast. I noticed that more women fasted than men, and that the non-fasting were more open about it, like soldiers and policemen drinking water in plain view (a very rare sight in previous decades).

However, even the person that does not fast is not happy about it, feeling some guilt perhaps, but this channels more discontent with the situation in Iraq. Add to this that the new government still has not been formed more than 5 months after the elections, rising violence throughout the provinces and a general lack of services and infrastructure, and you get an idea of the anger that is brewing among the people. The politicians, of all parties and sects, are pushing the people to the edge, possibly leading to a backlash.

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