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Ramadan vs. Ramzan: How to Do Things with Words

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Nationalism is a funny thing. It can be the source of bonding and camaraderie as well as the cause of animosity, chest-puffing, and downright silliness.

Just consider all the online debate about the recent article “Why are Indian Muslims using the Arabic word ‘Ramadan’ instead of the traditional ‘Ramzan’?“, written by Shoaib Daniyal.

The article details how, historically, the Arabic word for Islam’s sacred month “Ramadan” came to be pronounced “Ramzan” in the sub-continent and how, recently, many South Asian Muslims are reverting to the “Ramadan” pronunciation due to, as the author puts it, the effect of a “Saudi-influenced brand of Islam” and “cultural insecurity” on the part of said South Asians.

Apparently, this is a debate that has been cropping up annually in South Asian communities around Ramadan time, and there are a lot of competing socio-political tensions that underlie and color the conversation. As far as this article is concerned, however, much of it is little more than nationalism and thinly-veiled anti-Arabism masquerading as serious historical and linguistic analysis.

The Urge to Purge

Calls for abandoning “arabicized” language in preference for a more “authentic,” “traditional,” or “pure” use of language is hardly new and certainly not limited to South Asia. Historically, many nationalist movements in the Middle East have called for dropping vocabulary, pronunciation, and script associated with Arabs and Arabic. In 20th century Turkey, for example, part of Ataturk’s compulsory modernization program was replacing the Perso-Arabic script of Ottoman Turkish with a new Latin-based Turkish alphabet that was meant to be truer to the modern secular Turkish identity. In Iran also, government programs under the rule of Muhammad Reza Shah attempted to “purify” the Persian language by excising any and all Arabic vocabulary and replacing it with Farsi equivalents, even if that meant inventing a Farsi word from scratch. Historically, these calls for purging Arabic almost always coincided with efforts to secularize society and attenuate the influence of Islam in people’s lives.

Beyond the Middle East and Arabic in particular, attempting to reform the way people use language is often little more than a way to bolster, entrench, or cultivate nationalistic identities. Mundane linguistic details become the battlefield for ideological tug of war. What often features in these debates, however, is partisan historiography and what Prof. Reza Zia-Ebrahimi of King’s College in London calls “dislocative nationalism.” Prof. Zia-Ebrahimi’s research is concerned with how Persian nationalists in the 19th and 20th centuries invented an Aryan national identity that they then back-projected thousands of years to claim that Iran — as a cohesive nation with its own distinct identity, religion, and language — existed in ancient times and persisted throughout history despite the “corrupting” influence of invading forces and cross-cultural mixing. Nationalist reformers in modern times then attempted to “purify” what they anachronistically believed to be that essence of Aryanness by “decontaminating” cultural markers of anything believed to be foreign and non-Aryan, e.g., the Arabic language and even Islam as a whole.

What these nationalists failed to appreciate, however, is that the concept of a nation is a modern construction — strictly speaking, just a figment of our collective imagination — and that the history of any given geographic region is a rich tapestry of interweaving cultures, languages, and traditions. Only a highly selective (and, hence, inventive) reading of history could ignore all that diversity in partitioning off a specific nationalistic or racial essence. This kind of nationalistic essentialism is, of course, not unlike what renowned scholar Edward Said identified and bemoaned as being operative in Orientalism and Western colonialism generally.

Truth be told, this kind of caricaturing and mythologizing of history in service of contemporary nationalistic identity politics is ubiquitous, whether it is modern Egyptians feeling a sense of connection to and national pride for the Ancient Pyramids or modern Americans celebrating Thanksgiving as a commemoration of a peaceful partnership between the Pilgrims and Native Americans.

What does all this have to do with Ramzan?

We can see this selective and romanticized reading of history in Daniyal’s Ramadan vs. Ramzan article. For example, the author repeatedly uses the term “traditional” to characterize the “Ramzan” pronunciative variant. The question to ask is, what makes “Ramzan” so traditional? Given that the sub-continent is home to hundreds of distinct languages and dialects, each with its own storied history, why insist on this one particular pronunciation? As Mahtab Alam noted in his post on this issue last year, not all Indians, let alone South Asians, claim Urdu/Hindi as their mother tongue. Besides “Ramzan,” many South Asians have Ramojan, Ramjan, Rumjan, Ramazan, and so on. As he succinctly puts it, “Insistence on one [variation] is as hegemonic as the other one.”

Further selectivity can be seen in how Daniyal describes the historical influence of Persian/Farsi on the Indian native language as opposed to the purported influence of Saudi Arabia today. The author does not see anything problematic or objectionable about the adoption of Persian language and culture in the evolution of the sub-continent over the course of centuries. But, when it comes to the contemporary adoption of Arabicized speech patterns, that is somehow indicative of Saudi meddling and “cultural insecurity” on the part of Indian Muslims.

So why the inconsistency? If it is a legitimate, natural, organic process for language to shift over time in the sub-continent due to Persian influence historically, why is it suddenly illegitimate, unnatural, objectionable when that language continues to shift in present times due to an Arab (or American, or English, etc.) influence today? In other words, why does Daniyal take a laissez faire attitude when it comes to language transformation historically, but when it comes to modern transformations, suddenly “tradition” is so important and we have to preserve the pronunciations of old? What is so special, culturally iconic, and indispensable about this one particular Persian variant, “Ramzan”?

All that Daniyal has to offer in response to this is that “Ramzan” is traditional because that is how “most Muslim” Indians have been pronouncing it for a few hundred years. Of course, he does not cite any statistics or census results to substantiate this. But, lack of verification aside, if we go back in time, at one point that “Ramzan” pronunciation itself was brand new and unprecedented in the sub-continent, just like “Ramadan” is (supposedly) brand new and unprecedented today. Maybe in a few hundred years, “Ramadan” too will be considered the “traditional” and culturally correct pronunciation. Only Khuda knows.

Persian Confidential

To step back and comment on this entire debate, I just want to say that, ultimately, it does not matter how one pronounces Ramadan or if a Muslim says “namaz” instead of “salat.” From my own life experience and observing the cross-cultural Muslim communities in the West and abroad, I have found that these cultural debates are often nothing more than tribalism (`asabiyya) rearing its ugly head.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am Persian American and grew up saying “Ramezan,” “namaz,” “roozeh,” “sahari,” “Khuda,” etc. I still use these words when speaking to my Iranian family members and do feel a warm connection to my Persian heritage. At the same time, I have no issue using the Arabic equivalents when speaking to others, e.g., my Egyptian wife, or my half-Persian, half-Egyptian sons, who speak both Farsi and Arabic ma sha’ Allah. And, coincidentally, in Persian, my first name, “Daniel,” is pronounced “Daniyal.” Hopefully, my pronunciation of my own name “Daniel” instead of “Daniyal” is not cultural insecurity on my part.

As far as orthoepy is concerned, correct pronunciation is religiously significant when it comes to obligatory prayers as well as the study of the Islamic sciences, e.g., transmission of hadith. Beyond this, as Muslims we should also not lose sight of the fact that Arabic is a special language for a number of reasons, chief among them that it is the language Allah chose for the Quran, His final revelation to mankind. Also, it is the mother tongue of the beloved Messenger of God ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him). Given these two facts alone, how can any Muslim not feel a deep abiding love for lisan al-`arab? As an American and a Persian, I personally feel no contradiction in or threat to my sense of identity by acknowledging this love. And when we look at the history, literature, and scholarship of non-Arab Muslims the world over, we also see a reverence for Arabic.

Of course, it should go without saying that one’s appreciation of Arabic has no bearing on one’s opinion of the Saudi government or any other state institution. And, furthermore, this love of classical, formal Arabic, i.e., fusha, does not give modern Arabs the right to look down on non-Arab Muslims as somehow less authentically Muslim for any reason, least of which the fact that non-Arab Muslims use the words “Ramzan,” “sehri,” etc., in lieu of the formal Arabic counterparts. Keep in mind that the first and, arguably, most influential book of Arabic grammar ever written was completed in the 2nd century of the Hijri calendar by the Persian Muslim scholar Sibawayh, who was a non-native speaker of the language to boot.

Whether we like it or not, if we go far enough back in time, all of our personal family and cultural histories are inevitably an amalgam of a multitude of cross-cultural influences, regardless of the modern national identities we may currently associate with. In that wider sense, vociferously insisting on a nationality and imbuing so much significance on a singular national identity and language just seems historically illiterate, chauvinistic, and, well, silly.

And a Final Note…

In this post, I have made a big deal about historical diversity and the intellectual inconsistency of essentializing and mythologizing the past in order to serve modern nationalism. But, as it turns out, this is precisely the reasoning many modern academics use to argue that there is no essential, definitive “Islam” with a capital “i”. Rather, there are only “islams,” i.e., myriad historical interpretations, all equally legitimate and normative because who’s to say otherwise? According to this reasoning, it is nothing more than crass essentialism and historical constructivism to pick out an “orthodox Islam” and try to tie that alleged orthodoxy to a past community, e.g., the Sahaba, the Salaf, the Khalaf, etc.

As I have argued elsewhere in response to this argument, there is a brazen double standard in modern academia where religions, like Islam, are portrayed as lacking the robust objectivity and internal coherence — in a word, an essence —that Western normative systems, like liberalism, secularism, communism, capitalism, etc., are believed to have. No one is charged with essentialism, for example, by claiming that liberalism stands for, say, equal rights for all. That is just what liberalism means, and then further details can be debated by scholars in an analytic way. Whereas for Islam, there are as many equally valid interpretations as there are interpreters, for liberalism, Marxism, feminism, etc., not any and every interpretation is valid. This is because those thought systems have an essential meaning that it is the job of a scholar to study and understand.

In other words, Western ideas are typically studied for their own independent merit as abstractions with logical implications completely apart from any sociological, cultural, or historical contextual considerations. When you study Descartes’ Meditations in modern introductory philosophy classes, for example, little attention is given to Descartes’ social or cultural milieu; the only concern is to understand the thesis of the work as Descartes intended it. Contrast this with how the Quran, for example, is treated in Islamic and religious studies departments. Little attention is paid to trying to understand what the Author of the Quran could be propounding and whether those propositions have any independent logical merit. After all, who’s to say what the text of the Quran even means? It is all open to interpretation, and any claim about the text is more a reflection of the biases and cultural and political commitments of the commenter than the text itself.

Now imagine if we took this same approach to an economics or analytic philosophy class, arguing that the concept of “democracy” is open to interpretation, and while in the cultural context of the US, we might understand democracy to mean one thing, in North Korea, it means something else entirely, and who’s to say which interpretation is more “correct” or “orthodox”? Or how about a physics class. Unless one’s physics professor is an unabashed postmodernist, he is not going to be amused by a student arguing that he does not deserve an ‘F’ on his midterm because Isaac Newton’s Principia or Albert Einstein’s The Field Equations of Gravitation are open to interpretation and the professor’s understanding is merely an ahistorical projection of biases onto the text in constructing an “orthodox physics.”

I, of course, do believe the Quran and the Islamic sciences in general have an internal logical coherence and intrinsic meaning (within a range of diversity of opinion). The question then is, why is such essentialism acceptable here but unacceptable in the case of nationalism? Answering this question in full is beyond the scope of this already long post, but part of the answer is that, over the centuries, scholars of Islam put a lot of time, energy, and thought in preserving the religion, preserving the Sunnah, and actively warding off  illegitimate deviation. And, importantly, they were perfectly aware that that was what they were doing — that was their explicit intent, as the historical record shows. Nationalism, in contrast, lacks that historical continuation and self-reflexivity since, of course, the concept of a “nation” is only a couple hundred years old and anything even approximating contemporary nationalistic identities are notably absent from the historical record. Furthermore, when we look at historical discourse, say a thosand years ago, we do not find Indian or Persian scholars, for example, theorizing about the Hindustani or Aryan essence or concerning themselves with preserving an ethnic discursive tradition or racialized normative system til the end of time. With Islam and Muslim scholars, however, we do see this concern with preserving the normative vision of Islam indefinitely, and that is a crucial distinguishing factor. WaAllahu`alam.

Daniel Haqiqatjou was born in Houston, Texas. He attended Harvard University where he majored in Physics and minored in Philosophy. He completed a Masters degree in Philosophy at Tufts University. Haqiqatjou is also a student of the traditional Islamic sciences. He writes and lectures on contemporary issues surrounding Muslims and Modernity. Email Daniel here .

16 Comments

16 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Daniel Haqiqatjou

    June 24, 2015 at 4:45 AM

    PS: The whole Ramadan/Ramzan debate can be understood through an analogy with food. For example, I am Iranian, but I am not ashamed to admit that my favorite cuisine is South Asian food. That doesn’t take anything away from my Persian-ness. Of course, I grew up eating Persian home cooking, and I do love Persian food and it has a place in my heart. But there’s also a special place in my heart for desi food… I guess I have a big heart (and high cholesterol)! Ultimately, each individual will have his or her own dietary preferences, especially in our increasingly globalized world. And when we even look at the history of different cuisines, we also see a smorgasbord of cross-cultural mixing. For example, one of my favorites, Biryani, is conventionally a South Asian dish. Some gastric historians, however, locate the origin of Biryani in classical Persia. Arabs also have many different versions of what is essentially Biryani, e.g., makloubeh, etc. Obviously, it would be impossible to try to tie a dish like Biryani to one nation since there is much influence from a great number of cultures over the course of centuries, as recipes and spices traveled throughout the Muslim world. But, at the end of the day, who cares? Let’s just enjoy the delicious Biryani together, whether for iftar or for suhur/sehri/sahari! Anyway, don’t know if that was coherent. Fasting is obviously affecting my brain…

  2. Avatar

    Mohammed Khan

    June 24, 2015 at 4:56 AM

    Masha Allah. You made the common sense prevail with objectivity.

  3. Avatar

    Mohammed Khan

    June 24, 2015 at 5:02 AM

    I want to believe that Biryani is Hyderabadi :-)

    • Avatar

      Haider Rehman

      June 27, 2015 at 3:50 AM

      Biryani is Pakistani ;)
      At least for me.

  4. Avatar

    Maleeha

    June 24, 2015 at 7:38 AM

    a really objective, thought provoking and an interesting read! Thank you for the article :)

  5. Avatar

    Ali

    June 24, 2015 at 8:26 AM

    Nationalism, the one type of cancer that will never be cured.

  6. Avatar

    June

    June 24, 2015 at 9:35 AM

    Assalamu Alaykum,
    Nice article. Very well put. The whole nationalism/tribalism being used to remove Arab influence in order to shift toward secularism really struck a chord with me. My in-laws are from Tajikistan and recently the country has been creating some very xenophobic laws very specifically against Arabic influences (and Islamic influences despite their claims against these accusations) for fear of Islamic radicalism (or, you know, just regular Islam. Men with beards?! Women wearing hijab?! EXTREMISTS!) They banned the use of Arabic names for anyone born from now on. As if having the name Muhammed or Khadija will turn you into a terrorist! grrrr….

    • Avatar

      Chang

      June 26, 2015 at 5:16 AM

      That was ridiculous

  7. Avatar

    Abdullah Ali

    June 24, 2015 at 4:37 PM

    Masha’Allah excellent article, and relevant discourse. Just because prior generations appeal to ignorance with regards to the linguistics of a foreign language, doesn’t make it OK for the next generations to adopt or accept an error based on the same logic. Sure, it can be a cultural exception for a particular generation based on the history of the error, but not a linguistic one. Words symbolize meaning. Although the variation of the word may mean the same semantically, the fact that two Muslims will pronounce an Arabic word differently, will in itself become a decisive factor in the interpersonal relationship. Atleast one of the two individuals will be cognizant of the difference, and therefore the word will become symbolic of not a different meaning, but ultimately a difference within the dyad. Whether they pay any mind to it or not, may also boil down to individual cultural norms. EXAMPLE: ‘door’ in Urdu would be transliterally pronounced ‘dharvaza’. No Urdu/Hindi/Punjabi speaker would be ok with someone saying ‘zharvaza’. It would be an error, that if used enough, could make one easily subject to correction by the native speaker. Where this issue gets stickier, is that the word Ramadan is used in the Qur’an. It’s meaning is derived from the Qur’an. Whenever it’s used by a foreign speaker, it’s almost always used in an Islamic context. Changing even a letter from the Qur’an can be easily discerned as a huge error. So when nationalism and history get in the way of acknowledging and correcting an error that gets passed on to new generations as norm, the idea of unity as a holistic society would demand we have this discourse. It’s not a debate. It’s about respecting the language of our faith. Fasting has nothing to do with this discourse. It’s about education, and the linguistics of a foreign language. The morphology of Arabic is very intricate, and even the smallest difference can change meaning. Committing to learning this intricacy with the right intention, could also reap spiritual benefit in this month as well. No debate necessary, just commitment to objectivity. Jazak’Allah khair!

  8. Avatar

    LearningArabic

    June 24, 2015 at 5:13 PM

    I’m a South Asian guy who used to say Ramzan as a child, but then started using Ramadhan once I started to learn Tajweed and proper Quranic recitation.

    Nothing to do with trying to be more Arab or letting go of my heritage. I don’t speak Urdu with an Arabic accent so why would I use Arabic words with an Urdu accent. I suspect many South Asians started to use Ramadan when they realized that it is the correct pronunciation.

  9. Avatar

    Mansoor

    June 24, 2015 at 11:44 PM

    This deconstruction is devoid of context. There is a creeping rejection of many cultural elements in sub continental societies along with a countervailing adaptation of such elements from the Arabian peninsula; not to mention some people rewriting their family trees to now trace their roots to that part of the world. This is seen by many (myself included) as a symptom of that creeping trend.

  10. Avatar

    Ali

    June 25, 2015 at 5:06 AM

    Assalamu alaikum warahmatullahi

    May Allah (swt) bless the writer of this article with ‘aafiyah, wisdom, and persistence. Ameen.

    JazakAllah Khayran. I love when Persians like you defend true Islam, because of the hadith of Rasulullah (saAllahu ‘alayhi wasallam). I hope that hadith is a source of happiness for you too.

  11. Avatar

    Mariam

    June 26, 2015 at 9:48 AM

    And to the dismay of my bretherns of South Asian descent, defending “ramzan”: If we were to live in a South Asian bubble this would have been easier to defend. I really think it is a matter of globalization. My spell-check doesn’t even recognize “ramzan”. The rest of the Muslim world is not Desi, and therefore, they would rather stick to Arabic “Ramadan” than Desi “Ramzan”. If you want to function with the rest of the world, gotta stick with original/approved spelling. After all, prez Obama says Ramadan ;)

    Ramadan, unlike how we would like to think, is not a food item. It is a religious month.

    We, south Asians, can now move on to patent the word “samosa” instead of Arabs “messing” it up by saying “sambosa” . After all, ours always tastes so much better!

    • Avatar

      Khaled Ahmad

      June 29, 2015 at 1:32 PM

      LOL, I’m always asking my Desi friends to hook it up with the Sambosas; now I feel ashamed….

  12. Avatar

    D G Ahmed

    July 3, 2015 at 4:00 PM

    In India-Bangladesh-Pakistan Subcontinent there existed fighting between ulemas (Pls note Ms. Mariam My spell-check doesn’t even recognize “ulema” – although it is most recognized word for meaning “Islamic Scholars”) over the last word of Suratul Fatiha. It is pronounced “DaLe-en” correctly by all today. But some 50 years before there were a group of ulemas- mostly from Deoband, who used to pronounce it as ‘ZuaLe-en”. In those days supporter each group would not go for prayer in a mosque in which his opposite was an Imam. Some times there would be physical assaults. So far I have gathered information ( Pardon me, I am not a linguist), in Turkey the Arabic letter ‘Duad’ is to be pronounced as ‘Zuad’. And dispute started from there. But in Egypt, which claims their Arabic is purer and classical, they pronounce the letter as ‘Duad’. Most of the eminent reciters of Holy Qur’an came from Egypt so the letter now found its original phonetic place. Now no one pronounce ‘ZuaLe-en’. True, in Subcontinent we have tremendous Persian influence as Persian was official language for 7 hundred years. Only British Raj drove Persian out from offices, but influence of Persian remained popular in Islamic Schools- we call “Madrashas’. Because of rise of nationalism Persian language is loosing its charm. True, now days Saudi Arabia is spending lot of money in these countries building mosques and other institutions to promote their version of interpretation of Islam encouraging Muslims to renounce 4 Schools of Imams, disrespecting Sufi Dervishes (who actually brought Islam to most of the Subcontinent), everywhere finding ‘shirk’ but no shirk in inviting America to protect them instead of seeking help from Allah Subhanu wata’ala. In fact Islam & Muslims are passing through a very critical moment in history now. May Allah Guide us through ‘Siratul Mustaqim’.

  13. Avatar

    Zia-e-Taiba

    October 31, 2016 at 8:45 AM

    Everybody should read this article The Campaign of Protecting the Sacred Words

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#Society

Eid Lameness Syndrome: Diagnosis, Treatment, Cure

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How many of you have gone to work on Eid because you felt there was no point in taking off? No Eid fun. Have you ever found Eid boring, no different from any other day?

If so, you may suffer from ELS (Eid Lameness Syndrome). Growing up, I did too.

My family would wake up, go to salah, go out to breakfast, come home, take a 4+ hour nap and then go out to dinner. I didn’t have friends to celebrate with and even if I did, I wouldn’t see them because we stuck to our own immediate family just as they did.

On the occasion that we went to a park or convention center, we would sort of have fun. Being with other people was certainly better than breakfast-nap-dinner in isolation, but calling that a memorable, satisfying, or genuinely fun Eid would be a stretch.

I don’t blame my parents for the ELS though. They came from a country where Eid celebration was the norm; everyone was celebrating with everyone and you didn’t have to exert any effort. When they moved to the US, where Muslims were a minority, it was uncharted territory. They did the best they could with the limited resources they had.

When I grew up, I did about the same too. When I hear friends or acquaintances tell me that they’re working, doing laundry or whatever other mundane things on Eid, I understand.  Eid has been lame for so long that some people have given up trying to see it any other way. Why take personal time off to sit at home and do nothing?

I stuck to whatever my parents did for Eid because “Eid was a time for family.” In doing so, I was honoring their cultural ideas of honoring family, but not Eid. It wasn’t until I moved away that I decided to rebel and spend Eid with convert friends (versus family) who didn’t have Muslim families to celebrate with on Eid, rather than drive for hours to get home for another lame salah-breakfast-nap-dinner.

That was a game-changing Eid for me. It was the first non-lame Eid I ever had, not because we did anything extraordinary or amazing, but because we made the day special by doing things that we wouldn’t normally do on a weekday together. It was then that I made a determination to never have a lame Eid ever again InshaAllah.

I’m not the only one fighting ELS. Mosques and organizations are creating events for people to attend and enjoy together, and families are opting to spend Eid with other families. There is still much more than can be done, as converts, students, single people, couples without children and couples with very small children, are hard-hit by the isolation and sadness that ELS brings. Here are a few suggestions for helping treat ELS in your community:

Host an open house

Opening up your home to a large group of people is a monumental task that takes a lot of planning and strength. But it comes with a lot of baraka and reward. Imagine the smiling faces of people who would have had nowhere to go on Eid, but suddenly find themselves in your home being hosted. If you have a big home, hosting an open house is an opportunity to express your gratitude to Allah for blessing you with it.

Expand your circle

Eid is about commUNITY. Many people spend Eid alone when potential hosts stick to their own race/class/social status. Invite and welcome others to spend Eid with you in whatever capacity you can.

Delegate

You can enlist the help of close friends and family to help so it’s not all on you. Delegate food, setup, and clean-up across your family and social network so that no one person will be burdened by the effort InshaAllah.

Squeeze in

Don’t worry if you don’t have a big house, you’ll find out how much barakah your home has by how many people are able to fit in it. I’ve been to iftars in teeny tiny apartments where there’s little space but lots of love. If you manage to squeeze in even two or three extra guests, you’ve saved two or three people from ELS for that year.

Outsource Eid Fun

If you have the financial means or know enough friends who can pool together, rent a house. Some housing share sites have homes that can be rented specifically for events, giving you the space to consolidate many, smaller efforts into one larger, more streamlined party.

Flock together

It can be a challenge to find Eid buddies to spend the day with. Try looking for people in similar circumstances as you. I’m a single woman and have hosted a ladies game night for the last few Eids where both married and single women attend.  If you are a couple with young kids, find a few families with children of similar age groups. If you’re a student, start collecting classmates. Don’t wait for other people to invite you, make a list in advance and get working to fend off ELS together.

Give gifts

The Prophet ﷺ said: تَهَادُوا تَحَابُّوا‏ “Give gifts to increase love for each other”. One of my siblings started a tradition of getting a gift for each person in the family. If that’s too much, pick one friend or family member and give them a gift. If you can’t afford gifts, give something that doesn’t require much money like a card or just your time. You never know how much a card with kind, caring words can brighten a person’s Eid.

Get out of your comfort zone

If you have ELS, chances are there is someone else out there who has it too. The only way to find out if someone is sad and alone on Eid is by admitting that we are first, and asking if they are too.

Try, try, try again…

Maybe you’ve taken off work only to find that going would have been less of a waste of time. Maybe you tried giving gifts and it didn’t go well. Maybe you threw an open house and are still cleaning up/dealing with the aftermath until now. It’s understandable to want to quit and say never again, to relent and accept that you have ELS and always will but please, keep trying. The Ummah needs to believe that Eid can and should be fun and special for everyone.

While it is hard to be vulnerable and we may be afraid of rejection or judgment, the risk is worth it. As a survivor and recoverer of ELS, I know how hard it can be and also how rewarding it is to be free of it. May Allah bless us all with the best Eids and to make the most of the blessed days before and after, Ameen.

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#Current Affairs

Were Muslim Groups Duped Into Supporting an LGBTQ Rights Petition at the US Supreme Court?

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Muslim organizations, Muslim groups

Recently several Muslim groups sent an amicus brief to the US Supreme Court to support LGBTQ rights in employment.  These groups argued“sex” as used in the Civil Rights Act should be defined broadly to include more types of discrimination than Congress wrote into the statue.

A little background. Clayton County, Georgia fired Gerald Lynn Bostock. The County alleged Bostock embezzled money, so he was fired. Bostock argues the real reason is that he is gay. Clayton County denied they would fire someone for that reason. Clayton County successfully had the case dismissed saying that even if Bostock is right about everything, the law Bostock filed the lawsuit under does not vindicate his claim. The case is now at the Supreme Court with other similar cases.

The “Muslim” brief argued the word “sex” should mean lots of things, and under the law (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act), LGBTQ discrimination is already illegal.  American law has developed to provide some support for this argument, but there have been divisions in the appellate courts. So this is the exact sort of thing the US Supreme Court exists to decide.

The Involvement Of Muslim Groups

In Supreme Court litigation, parties on both sides marshal amicus briefs (written arguments) and coordinate their efforts to improve the effectiveness of their advocacy, there are over 40 such briefs in the Bostock case. Groups represent constituencies with no direct stake in the immediate dispute but care about the precedent the case would set.

The Muslim groups came in purportedly because they know what it’s like to be victims of discrimination (more on that below). The brief answered an objection to the consequences that could come with an expansive definition of the term “sex” to include gay, lesbian, and transgender persons (in lieu of its conventional use as synonymous with gender, i.e., male/female). In particular, the brief responded to the concern that “sex” being defined as any subjective experience may open up more litigation than was intended by making the argument that religion is a personal experience that courts have no trouble sorting out and that, like faith, courts can define “sex” the same way.

While this may be interesting to some, boring to others, it begs the question:  why are Muslim groups involved with this stuff? Muslims are a faith community. If we speak *as Muslims* is it not pertinent to consult with the traditions of the faith tradition known as Islam, like Quran, Hadith and the deep well of scholarly tradition?  Is our mere presence in a pluralistic society enough reason to ignore all this and focus on building allies in our mutual desire to create a world free of discrimination?

Spreading Ignorance

In July of 2017, the main party to the “Muslim” brief, Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV), was expelled from the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) Convention bazaar.  I was on the Executive Council of the organization at the time but had no role in the decision. The reason: MPV was dedicated to promoting ignorance of Islam among Muslims at the event. The booth had literature claiming haram was good and virtuous. Propaganda distributed at the table either implied haram was not haram or alternately celebrated haram.

For any Muslim organization dedicated to Islam, it is not a difficult decision to expel an organization explicitly dedicated to spreading haram. No Muslim organization, composed of Muslims who fear Allah and dedicate their time to Islam can give space to organizations opposed the faith community’s values and advocates against them in their conferences and events.  Allah, in the Quran, tells us:

immorality

Indeed, those who like that immorality should be spread [or publicized] among those who have believed will have a painful punishment in this world and the Hereafter. And Allah knows, and you do not know.

It would be charitable to the point of fraud to characterize MPV as a Muslim organization. That MPV has dedicated itself to promoting ignorance of the religion within the Muslim community is not in serious dispute.  The organization’s leader has been all over the anti-Sharia movement.

Discrimination against Muslims is bad, except when it’s good 

The brief framed the various organizations’ participation by claiming as Muslims, we know what it is like to be on the receiving end of discrimination. This implies the parties that signed on to the Amicus petition believe discrimination against Muslims is a bad thing. For at least two of the organizations, this is not entirely true.

MPV is an ally of another co-signer of the Amicus petition, the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC).  Both have records that show an eagerness to discriminate against Muslims in the national security space. They both applied for CVE grants. Both have supported the claim that Muslims are a national security threat they are somehow equipped to deal with. I have written more extensively about MPAC in the past; mainly, it’s work in Countering Violent Extremism and questionable Zakat practices.

MPAC’s CVE  program, called “Safe Spaces,” singled out Muslims as terrorist threats. It purported to address this Muslim threat. In June of 2019, MPAC’s academic partner released an evaluation Safe Spaces and judged it as “not successful” citing the singling out of Muslims, as well as a lack of trust within the Muslim community because of a lack of transparency as reasons why the program was a failure. Despite its legacy of embarrassment and failure, MPAC continues to promote Safe Spaces on its website.

MPV was a vigorous defender of MPAC’s CVE program, Safe Spaces.  MPV’s leader has claimed the problem of “radicalism” is because of CAIR, ISNA, and ICNA’s “brand of Islam.”

Law Enforcement Approved Islam

In 2011, former LAPD head of Counter-Terrorism, Michael P. Downing testified during a congressional hearing on “Islamist Radicalization” Downing testified in favor of MPV, stating:

I would just offer that, on the other side of the coin, we should create opportunities for the pure, good part of this, to be in the religion, such as the NGOs. There is an NGO by the name of Ani Zonneveld who does the Muslims for Progressive Values. This is what they say, “Values are guided by 10 principles of Islam, rooted in Islam, including social equality, separation of religion and state, freedom of speech, women’s rights, gay rights, and critical analysis and interpretation.” She and her organization have been trying to get into the prison system to give this literature as written by Islamic academic scholars. So I think there can be more efforts on this front as well.

Downing was central to the LAPD’s “Muslim Mapping” program, defending the “undertaking as a way to help Muslim communities avoid the influence of those who would radicalize Islamic residents and advocate ‘violent, ideologically-based extremism.” MPAC was a supporter of the mapping program, which was later rejected by the city because it was an explicit ethnic profiling program mainstream Muslim and secular civil rights groups opposed.  MPAC later claimed it did not support the program, though somehow saw fit to give Downing an award. Downing, since retired, currently serves on MPAC’s Advisory Council.

Ani Zonnevold, the President and Founder of MPV, currently sits on the International Board of Directors for the Raif Badawi Foundation alongside Maajid Nawaz and Zuhdi Jasser.

MPV has also been open about both working for CVE and funding from a non-Muslim source, the Human Rights Campaign, and other groups with agendas to reform the religion of Islam. It’s hard not to see it as an astroturf organization.

Muslim Groups Were Taken for a Ride

Unfortunately, Muslim nonprofit organizations are often unsophisticated when it comes to signing documents other groups write. Some are not even capable of piecing together the fact that an astroturf organization opposed to Islam, the religious tradition, was recruiting them to sign something.

There are many Muslims sympathetic to the LGBTQ community while understanding the limits of halal and haram. Not everyone who signed the brief came to this with the same bad faith as an MPV, which is hostile to the religion of Islam itself. Muslims generally don’t organize out of hostility to Islam. This only appears to be happening because of astroturfing in the Muslim community. Unfortunately, it was way too easy to bamboozle well-meaning Muslim groups.

Muslims are a faith community. MPV told the groups Islam did not matter in their argument when the precise reason they were recruited to weigh in on the case was that they are Muslim. Sadly, it was a successful con. Issues like the definition of sex are not divorced from Islamic concerns. We have Islamic inheritance and rules for family relations where definitions of words are relevant. Indeed, our religious freedoms in ample part rest on our ability to define the meaning of words, like Muslim, fahisha, zakat, daughter, and Sharia. Separate, open-ended definitions with the force of law may have implications for religious freedom for Muslims and others because it goes to defining a word across different statutes, bey0nd the civil rights act. There would be fewer concerns if LGBT rights were simply added as a distinct category under the Civil Rights Act while respecting religious freedom under the constitution.

Do Your Homework

Muslim organizations should do an analysis of religious freedom implications for Muslims and people of other faiths before signing on to statements and briefs. A board member of MPV drafted the “Muslim” Brief, and his law firm recruited Muslim nonprofit organizations to sign on. CAIR Oklahoma, which signed up for this brief, made a mistake (hey, it happens). CAIR Oklahoma’s inclusion is notable. This chapter successfully challenged the anti-Sharia “Save our State” law that would have banned Muslims from drafting Islamic Wills. Ironically, CAIR Oklahoma’s unwitting advocacy at the Supreme Court could work against that critical result. For an anti-Sharia group like MPV, this is fine. It is not fine for a group like CAIR.

CAIR Oklahoma is beefing up their process for signing on to Amicus Briefs in the future. No other CAIR chapter signed on to the brief, which was prudent. CAIR chapters are mostly independent organizations seemingly free to do whatever they want. CAIR, as a national organization needs to make sure all its affiliates are sailing in the same direction. They have been unsuccessful with this in the past several years. CAIR should make sure their local chapters know about astroturf outfits and charlatans trying to get them to sign things. They should protect their “America’s largest Islamic Civil Liberties Group” brand.

Muslim Leaders Should Stand Strong 

American Muslims all have friends, business associates and coworkers, and family members who do things that violate Islamic norms all the time. We live in an inclusive society where we respect each other’s differences. Everyone is entitled to dignity and fair treatment. No national Muslim groups are calling for employment discrimination against anyone, nor should they.

However, part of being Muslim is understanding limits that Allah placed on us. That means we cannot promote haram or help anyone do something haram. Muslim groups do not need to support causes that may be detrimental to our interests.  Our spaces do not need to be areas where we have our religion mocked and derided. Other people have the freedom to do this in their own spaces in their own time.

Some Muslim leaders are afraid of being called names unless they recite certain words or invite particular speakers.  You will never please people who hate Islam unless you believe as they do.  Muslims only matter if Islam matters.

If you are a leader of Muslims, you must know the limits Allah has placed on you. Understand the trust people have placed in you. Don’t allow anyone to bully or con you into violating those limits.

Note: Special thanks to Mobeen Vaid.

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A New Eid Tradition: Secret Gift Exchange

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Eid Al Adha, Eid Gift Exchange

Gift exchanges–they’re common traditions for many gift-giving holidays in America. I’ve participated in gift exchanges in religious and secular contexts and I’ve loved being a member and even a host of them in the past! This past Eid al Adha and Eid al Fitr, I organized a secret gift exchange (we called it “Secret Bakra” from the Urdu “bakra” which means goat) with my siblings, cousins, and their respective spouses who live all over the US and it was one of the most memorable and fun things I have ever done for Eid in my life! The best part of a gift exchange like this is that I don’t have to feel the pressure of gifting 13 people gifts every Eid, but I feel as if I have!

Here’s a quick guide and some tips to help you and your family or friends organize an Eid gift exchange!

Gift Exchange Basics

A gift exchange requires: 

  • a group of 3 to 40 people
  • a budget range for the gift
  • deadlines for sending/receiving gifts
  • an organizational system to assign members who they will be giving gifts to

Optional parts of a gift exchange can be:

  •  some sort of exchange party (in-person or virtual)
  • gift recommendations/interests for each person to help nudge the gift-giver in the right direction)
  • an anonymous/secret exchange system with a reveal during the party/after everyone has gotten their gifts

Why a (Secret) Eid Gift Exchange? 

Following the Sunnah and Bringing People Together

The most important motivation anyone can have to organize or participate in a gift exchange is taken from a hadith of the Prophet (S) in which he says, “Mutual gift-giving increases the love between people.” This hadith can be taken as advice for a way to bring people closer together and with the intention of following the teachings of the Prophet (S). 

Celebrating Eid and Creating Meaningful Traditions

Another important motivation is to celebrate Eid, as the Prophet (S) has mentioned is a main annual holiday for Muslims, and to also make Eid special for you, your family, a group of friends coworkers, masjid volunteers, etc. Not only is it important for individuals and families to establish Eid traditions that everyone can look forward to (Eid shouldn’t just be fun for kids!), but it is particularly important in communities in which Muslims are a minority. I’ve always been a firm advocate for making fun, memorable Eids with exciting, wholesome Eid traditions and festivities. 

Manageable Way to Give Gifts within a Large Group of People

A gift exchange is a great way to give gifts in a large group of people without breaking the bank and without exhausting yourself trying to think of gifts for a bunch of people and then buying or making them. My cousins and I have gotten closer more recently due to an upswing in family weddings, and I really felt like giving all of them gifts last Eid.  But realistically, I didn’t have $200 to get all 9 people in this group a decent gift, or the time to make 9 gifts that were meaningful and special for each person, or the energy to come up with different gifts for all 9 individuals. A couple of years ago, my husband and I sent ice cream gift cards and personalized Eid cards to each one of our cousins (allocating $5 per cousin per family). It felt great to extend an “Eid ice cream on us” gesture, but for $45, it didn’t seem like we really got much of a bang for our buck. By doing a Secret Bakra Gift Exchange, we both spent under $30 total for our gifts, but it felt like more of a meaningful gift.  It also felt like each one of my siblings/cousins gave a gift to everyone in the group–and that’s the magic of gift exchanges! Although we didn’t give and receive 9 gifts on Eid, we all came together to celebrate our family ties and Eid in a special way and everyone felt like they scored on Eid. Lastly, if there’s a dedicated group of people that you always do a gift exchange with, such as extended family in my case, theoretically everyone will end up giving everyone else a gift when you consider probabilities if you do a gift exchange every Eid for enough years, right?  

Bridging the Gap: Togetherness Despite Age, Distance, Financial Means, etc.

One thing that was super magical for my cousins and I this past Eid was having the feeling that we celebrated Eid together. We’re always lamenting the fact that we seldom get together and rarely with all of us or talking about how if we were closer to each other then we’d do xyz awesome, fun things together all the time. This gift exchange wasn’t just about giving each other gifts–it was also about making time for a video call in which we all made it despite being strung across three different time zones and having work/school the next day to unwrap our gifts and wish each other a blessed and joyous Eid. It was also about creating a more tight-knit group and welcoming the newcomers to our extended family (we’ve had two weddings in one year and we’re all still getting to know the new spouses and vice versa). We’re all different in many ways–age, gender, religiosity, personality, etc.–and we may interact with each other (and even be fond of each other) at varying levels. Doing an anonymous gift exchange is a great way to force a person’s hand into making a greater effort to connect with another person in a wholesome, beautiful manner. Lastly, we considered our budget range to accommodate our financially-dependent younger cousins in high school, our unemployed bunch, our students, etc. No one felt burdened by the price tag for the gifts and everyone felt like they made a meaningful contribution no matter what their lifestyle or financial means allow. 

eid gift exchange

Tips on Making Your Secret Gift Exchange Easy, Fun, and…Did I Mention Easy?

With the business of worshipping in Ramadan and Dhul Hijjah on top of daily life struggles, who has the time to monkey around with extra nonsense like a gift exchange for Eid? Following these tips will help YOU pull off a great gift exchange with minimal time, effort, stress, and hiccups! (These tips will be particularly useful for people conducting a long-distance gift exchange.) 

  • Use a self-generating exchange system like “Elfster.” Have one person do it (it only takes 5 minutes to set it up) and send out the sign up link. You can even take turns every time you do a gift exchange. This way, nobody has to sit out the game because the website takes care of matching people in the group and can also let an administrator get in behind the scenes in case a problem arises (like someone doesn’t send their match a gift.) For the rest of the participants, signing up takes less than 5 minutes if you’re a first-time user and less than 2 minutes if you already have an account. The site draws names, notifies everyone of who they received, provides your match’s address, etc. It basically takes out all of the headache stuff that would discourage someone from wanting to organize one of these exchanges.  It can also allow for anonymous messaging, which can be handy for contacting your match to inquire about clothing sizes, color preferences, delivery options/issues, etc.
  • Set a budget range that’s friendly for the people of less financial means in mind. Think of the spread of your participating group members and make the exchange accessible to those who have the least means. Gifts don’t have to be expensive to be meaningful and you don’t want to set a $80 budget if someone in the group is struggling to make ends meet every month. My recommendation is to choose a budget range so that each person isn’t busting their brains to try to get a gift as close to $15.00 as possible, for example. Determine whether or not you’d like to include shipping costs inside this budget. If someone is making a gift, then estimate how much you’d buy whatever is made if you got it from the store (this is probably a bit harder than just buying something that has a price tag associated with it.) Give a $3-7 range around a price point everyone seems comfortable with. Our budget for the last exchange we did was $12-17. Most participants bought gifts at the $14-17 range (which I think is better.) Some good budget range recommendations I have are the following: $14-17, $15-18, $18-22, $20-24, $25-29. For a higher budget: $28-33, $38-42, $48-53. 
  • Set a strict deadline for receiving the gifts before Eid and keep in mind your gift exchange party date/time. Make sure everyone knows that they need to have the gift delivered on or by a certain a date. Don’t have a “send by” date, that doesn’t really make any sense, and don’t have a deadline that spreads across a couple of days because it’s too confusing. My personal recommendation for the deadline is to have the deadline at least one or two days before the earliest day anyone in your group might be celebrating Eid (#MoonWars). This way, everyone can take care of their gift before the Eid madness sets in which can make Eid more enjoyable because no one is stressed out about their gift being delivered on time, and it gives a little bit of a buffer if there are any complications with delivery or fulfilling an order/shipment. 
  • Virtual exchange party: set it before Eid prayer. Eid day is just too crazy because people have a lot of things going on. Now take into consideration the fact that people celebrate Eid on different days…exactly. If you set your virtual exchange party for the night before the earliest Eid’s prayer, you’re nearly guaranteed to be able to catch everyone because no one will have an Eid dinner invitation for that night. Additionally, it will feed into the excitement for Eid which will be on the next day or two. 
  • Alternative virtual exchange party. You can have everyone send a video recording of themselves opening their gift on whatever day the gift deadline is or whatever day you want to have your “party.” This way, everyone can participate despite schedule conflicts. If there are a handful of individuals who can’t make the actual party, you can also have them send videos beforehand instead of joining into the party on the video call. This might also be helpful if you’re doing an exchange party in-person if you can have the one or two people who can’t make it video-call in or send video recordings beforehand (if it’s before, then that person would need their gift before the party.)
  • Anonymous gift-sending and guessing who the gift-giver is. Make sure that the person giving the gift does not reveal their identity in any way, whether that’s putting gifts in a dark room before the party starts or making sure that their name is not on the package being sent at all. What we like to do is to have the person guess who they think gave them the gift after they’ve opened it. Our rule is that if the person guessed correctly, then the gift-giver should confirm it was indeed them that gave the gift. This is one of the most fun parts of the exchange party in my opinion.
  • Have a code word in your package to signify that it’s a gift from the Eid exchange.  Let’s face it–online shopping is convenient and becoming increasingly so. It’s more likely than not that you will order something from online during the gift exchange, so in order to prevent confusion, include a code word in the name of the person you’re sending the Eid gift to. We chose to write “Bakra” as the middle name, so it’d look like “Muhammad Bakra Ahmad” on whatever package was intended to be their gift for the Eid gift exchange.

I hope all of these tips were useful! If you end up doing this Eid gift exchange in your family, let us know what the best gifts were this time around! 

Here are the gifts that we had in our Eid al Fitr gift exchange this past June!

  • Juvia’s Masquerade Eyeshadow Palette
  • NASA Worm Logo Shirt + The Great Wave off Kanagawa Tapestry
  • Jade Roller for Face
  • Music Record
  • Nose Frida
  • Campfire Mug
  • DSLR Camera Remote
  • Llama String Art Kit
  • The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*** + Knife Sharpening Stone
  • Philadelphia Eagles Sun Hat
  • Golden State Warriors Mug

May Your Eid Be Blessed!

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