Ramadan as an anthropologist

By Lilian Ebbelaar

Ramadan to me was always something that was so interesting. It had this kind of mysterious feeling and always felt strange to me. Why are Muslims fasting? What does it feel like? Does it really bring them closer to Allah? And how are Muslims ‘surviving’ this whole month?

I started Ramadan kind of hesitantly; I had said yes very enthusiastically when my friend asked me to participate this year. It sounded good, it would be a challenge, I would be able to recognize and know what Muslims are going through or are feeling every year for a month, it would be anthropologically interesting, and I would be able to have Iftar a couple of times with her family, which I loved!
But then, of course, the overthinking came in. Would I be able to do it? Will I still feel okay enough to proceed with my regular routine? But most importantly, wouldn’t this be religious appropriation? This was something I was really stuck on, because I did not want to offend anyone, including the people who will read this post. I discussed it with many fellow anthropology students, to get their opinions, but most importantly I talked about it with my friends who had invited me to participate. Would it be offensive to anyone in the community in our neighborhood? Would it be weird for me to participate, but not actually be able to ‘value’, or grasp the meaning of Ramadan considering that, in Islam, it’s a holy month? And so many more things. I was really aware of people’s body language, faces, and the words they spoke in their reactions to my participation in Ramadan. And actually, all the reactions were really positive; people had respect for the fact that I wanted to try, and were impressed that I was willing to do this to be able to understand them. People were generally positive.

Ramadan Calender

The month started kind of rocky, the first two days were so hard that I was ready to give up on the whole month already. But then after those first two days, it actually started to become easier. I did still feel the hunger, and I still was thirsty, but it bothered me way less, and I had much more energy than usual. The iftars with my friend’s family were so fun, and the food was so good. And with that, I could also bring food with me to thank them, and contribute to the meal. I tasted the most delicious Syrian dishes and bonded over the fact that we were all staring, almost drooling, at the food right in front of us until the very last minute before the iftar.

During Ramadan, I started noticing different things each and every time I visited them. They would be even happier to see me if I would bring food they were surprised every single time, they talked more about their country of origin, Syria, and were so enthusiastic when I asked them certain things about Islam. We had more and more discussions about fasting itself, why it was so hard, and also why it was a month of opportunity and devotion to religion to them.

We had discussed this in our anthropology classes before, going through the same experiences, and spending more time with people, will get you a better insight into their lives. And in this case, it was mostly because I was going through the same experience as them, the family had found a way to relate to me. They started telling me more and more about habits, their habits back in Syria, the differences in how they celebrated here and in Syria, and how there were certain parts of their culture that remained, but that also transformed into something they could also adhere to in the Netherlands. It was interesting to see how everything I had learned really came to practice as I sort of did participant observation.

In practice, Ramadan is the embodiment of one of the five pillars of Islam. The literal bodily experience of a ritual, habit, or practice. Even though, as I mentioned, I am not Muslim myself, I could participate in the bodily experience the Muslims have every year. And that was the point we bonded over, the similar experience. The big difference is that for Muslims, Ramadan is an embodiment of one of the central aspects of the Islamic tradition. For me, it was merely about experiencing the same and thus gaining a deeper understanding and a more meaningful connection.  

Lilian Ebbelaar is a third-year bachelor’s student of cultural anthropology and development sociology

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