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Ramadan Amid the New Middle East Crisis

06/27/2014 09:42 pm ET | Updated Aug 27, 2014

In 2014 the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, for the Islamic year 1435, is to begin on the night of Saturday, June 28, and end on July 27, once the dates are confirmed by moon sightings. Ramadan will be followed by a celebration of the feast of fast-breaking (Eid al-Fitr). Ramadan is a defining annual religious event for more than a billion believers worldwide, celebrated as the month in which the Quran was revealed to the prophet Muhammad. It comprises fasting through the daytime and prayer before, during, and after the fast.

Ramadan is an occasion for generosity and introspection, leading to purification as the participant recites the daily prayers. The practice of fasting is rigorous: It includes a ban on drinking water, smoking, and sexual relations during the daylight hours. Self-control by those honoring Ramadan should encompass refraining from and refusing to hear ill-intended speech.

Peacemaking is among the good deeds incumbent on Muslims during the holy month of fasting and prayer. Distribution of charity and food, customary at Ramadan, is needed especially by people displaced by conflict. How, then, will Ramadan be celebrated in the countries worst affected by the latest Middle East crisis, particularly in Iraq, where millions are refugees, destitute and famished?

We cannot expect Ramadan peace gestures from the fundamentalist ultra-Wahhabis of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has occupied large areas of Iraq. ISIS threatens, in the name of Sunnism, to displace the Baghdad government with a revived Islamic caliphate -- a political system based on religious authority. The group's Arabic title is sometimes translated as ISIL, rendering the traditional name for Greater Syria (i.e., Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and Jordan), "al-Sham," as "the Levant." ISIS, a successor organization to al-Qaeda, considers the Shias who now direct Iraqi governance to be apostates from Islam who should be targeted for death and presumably would not consider any petition from Shias for a truce to facilitate an Islamic observance.

Furthermore, the Iraqi government itself, and the regional authorities in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in the country's north, are engaged in desperate actions to repel ISIS and conceivably cannot draw back from pursuing their defensive mission during the holy month. ISIS despises the Kurds, who are known for favoring metaphysical Sufism, which the Wahhabis also consider un-Islamic and worthy of homicidal treatment. Wahhabi extremists interfered in Iraqi Kurdistan before the fall of Saddam Hussein and were beaten thoroughly by the Kurdish leaders afterward.

But in contrast with the Kurds, who are mostly Sunni but whose outlook is patriotic and non-sectarian, both ISIS and its ruling Shia foes in Iraq have committed themselves to radical ideologies in place of religious sentiments.

The exemplary, moderate Iraqi Shia chief cleric, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, has called for a national struggle to defend his country, uniting Shias, Sunnis and members of the various religious minorities -- Chaldean and Assyrian Christians and others -- in the population. Yet official Baghdad has aligned with Iran, which supports the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, opposed mainly by Sunnis. Neither of the two leading forces in the new Iraq war can be said to be driven by spiritual motives, although both may call for prayers to aid their adherents.

ISIS and Baghdad seek domination first, with sectarian claims a pretext. Yes, the regime of Saddam Hussein favored Sunnis, and by all testimony its successor, led by Shias, pursued discriminatory policies against Sunnis. Crimes by the Sunnis, however, did not justify uncontrolled retaliation by Shias, and brutalities imposed by ISIS in Iraq do not redeem Sunni victims of official disrespect.

A few voices will doubtless be heard, faintly, and perhaps uncertainly, in Muslim lands and Muslim-minority communities, appealing for a Ramadan effort to end the slaughter in Iraq and Syria. But so far in the new Middle East confrontation, too much blood has flowed, and too many gross atrocities have been recorded, to expect calls for Islamic unity to be obeyed or even taken seriously.

The Ramadan fast is broken customarily each day with a glass of water and eating of dates. Evening prayers are then performed, usually at a mosque, followed by an iftar, or fastbreaking dinner. After the meal comes the night prayer. Sunni Muslims include tarawih, or additional prayers following the night prayer, and many will recite sections of the Quran through the month.

Non-Muslims are invited to iftar events, embodying the open heart demanded of the Muslim during Ramadan, and food is distributed to the poor and hungry at each iftar in many Muslim countries and Muslim-minority communities.

The Quran exempts those who are sick or traveling from observing the Ramadan fast, although it should be made up later by those capable of doing so. Today the elderly and pregnant and nursing women may decline to fast. Missing the fast may be compensated for by payment of fidya or kaffara, a donation for feeding a destitute person. If Ramadan is not to be a basis for peace, will conditions of war permit Muslims from Iraq who cannot find water or dates, and who are driven against their will to starvation, postponement of their obligation to fast? Would such unfortunate people not deserve donations in place of fasting?

The holy book warns, in a verse coming directly after the description of Ramadan and caution against violation of divine law, of the sin of usurpation of the lands and property of others. But there is no prohibition on war during Ramadan, and Muslims have fought with arms many times during Ramadan, through Islamic history.

The demon of sectarian vengeance is abroad in Syria and Iraq, and there is little hope that it will be defeated soon. Ramadan will likely be observed in strict segregation according to Sunni or Shia affiliation, without the sense of communal solidarity that it should express, in Syria, Iraq, and perhaps in the neighboring countries. Iraqi Christians are dying in the crossfire between the two contenders and can hardly be encouraged to view iftar invitations as examples of simple hospitality, as they are in other Muslim societies.

As Ramadan 1435 A.H. begins, it seems useless to assign blame to the horrors transpiring in Syria and Iraq. Two great centers of Islamic civilization are tearing themselves to shreds, and the world looks on, aghast but, it appears, impotent to prevent the ongoing carnage.

Nevertheless, Muslim believers will wish each other a blessed and generous Ramadan -- Ramadan Mubarak, Ramadan Karim -- even as their hearts are filled with woe. In Iraq, innocents of all faiths are denied the necessities of survival and access to relief, while they are deluged by hateful propaganda and images of catastrophic violence. The lessons of Ramadan, one may argue, were never more relevant, and have seldom been disregarded more flagrantly.

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