Prague, 29 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Today the world's Muslims celebrate the last day of Ramadan or Ramazan. The final day of the fasting period is called in Arabic "id al-fitr," in Persian "Eyd-e Fetr" and in the Turkic-speaking world the day has various names -- Oraza Bairam in Turkmenistan, Ramazan Bairam in Turkey and Ramazan Hayit in Uzbekistan.
The Ramadan period this year was marred by violence in Algeria and Afghanistan, both Islamic countries. Violence has occurred during Ramadan in the past, but to American and European minds unused to the ways of Islam, it seems incongruous that a holy period could be shattered by any kind of hostilities. Even most Muslims would say that it should not be. But is it really an exceptional sin to commit violence during Ramadan as opposed to other times of the year?
Ramadan is a holy period of fasting which is, in fact, one of the five pillars of Islam. The other four pillars are ritual prayer (Salat), alms-giving (Zakat), a holy pilgrimage (Hajj) and the obligation to bear witness to the unity of God and the prophethood of Muhammad (Shahada).
Ramadan occurs in the ninth month of the lunar year. At this time, it is incumbent upon Muslims to fast during daylight hours, abstaining from food, drink and sexual relations. In his authoritative book "The History of Islamic Societies," Ira Lapidus says that this fasting, along with Salat and Shahada, "humbled men before God and made them open to his will." Ramadan is thus a time to reflect on God's presence and role in one's own life.
But there are exceptions. If one is ill or traveling during Ramadan, for example, he or she is temporarily exempted from the daytime fast but is expected to compensate by abstaining later at the first opportunity.
Another exception needed was obvious even before Muhammad died. The first so-called Holy War --"Jihad"-- of Islam broke out in 624 AD., two years after Muhammad had been forced from Mecca to Medina. Since then, there has seldom been a time when an Islamic state has not been at war with another state or in a civil war. So from the earliest days of Islam, Holy War excluded warriors from Ramadan abstinence.
The Sura (meaning Koranic verse or chapter) that speaks of Jihad comes almost immediately after those on fasting and Ramadan in the Koran. It says: "Fight in the way of God against those who fight against you, but do not commit aggression.....Slay them wheresoever you find them, and expel them from whence they have expelled you, for sedition is more grievous than slaying.....Fight against them until sedition is no more and allegiance is rendered to God alone; but if they make an end, then no aggression save against the evil-doers (Koran, Sura ii, vv. 186 sqq.)."
Given this holy writ, the question of violence committed during Ramadan becomes only a matter of point of view. Thus, just prior to the start of Ramadan, the "anti-Taliban" coalition in Afghanistan proposed a cease fire during the holy month. The Taliban, usually branded as Islamic fundamentalists, rejected the offer and have been bombing the coalition-held Bamiyan airfield regularly throughout Ramadan. And, two years ago, north of Afghanistan in Tajikistan, the spiritual leader of the country's Muslims, Fathullo Sharifzoda, was murdered in his home along with his family.
In Algeria over the past month, more than 1,000 men, women and children are reported to have been slaughtered, many of them horrifically, by Islamic fundamentalist terrorist gangs. This is the sixth and most murderous Ramadan in Algeria's civil and religious strife, which was set off in 1992 when the military regime canceled elections due to be won by the Islamic Salvation Front (known as FIS in the French acronym) and banned the party. The total carnage in the past six years has been estimated to be as high as 85,000 people. These massacres and other Ramadan violence may seem incongruous to European and European-derived societies as well as to many Muslims. But those Muslims who believe that the Koran provides spiritual backing for violence simply cite the Sura: Fight "against those who fight against you...(and) if they make an end, then no aggression save against the evil-doers."