Young Saudis Reinvent Ramadan

By Faiza Saleh Ambah
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 27, 2008

JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia -- During Ramadan this year, Faten Jiddawi and a few friends from a charity packed into a hot van and delivered a new washing machine and refrigerator to a needy family.

Like many Saudis, Jiddawi used to mark the Muslim holy month by shopping, eating lavishly and watching television until the wee hours. Then she slept, sometimes all day until sunset prayers signaled the end of the daily dawn-to-dusk fast.

"That's what everyone did, but that's not really fasting," said Jiddawi, 28, a bank teller. "Fasting is about feeling your hunger, getting close to God and helping the poor."

In Saudi Arabia, one of the world's wealthiest Muslim countries, some people have started to criticize how many here observe Ramadan by essentially turning day into night to make fasting easier. Work and school hours have been shortened, shops stay open until right before dawn, and doctors and dentists offer appointments until 2 a.m.

But Jiddawi and many other young Saudis are trying to revive the holy month's original spirit of sacrifice and giving by volunteering during the day, attending religious lectures at night and spending more time reflecting on their faith.

"This is a religious duty, what we're doing," Jiddawi said. "And it's a wonderful feeling. This is really how Ramadan is meant to be."

The trend has partly been inspired by Ahmad al-Shugairi, a popular young preacher who for the past couple of years has been speaking out against the excesses of Ramadan. Several Facebook groups are also telling people to abstain from watching TV during the month, and at least half a dozen newspaper articles have criticized the lack of Ramadan spirit in the kingdom and the proliferation of soap operas made especially for the month.

"People used to get together to worship Allah during Ramadan," commentator Nourah al-Khereiji wrote in the English-language Arab News. "They would spend the night worshipping Allah and looking for the poor so they could do something to alleviate their suffering. These days we get together to watch TV!"

Salem Bajunaid, a university student who hosts religious lectures at his home during Ramadan, which ends next week, said that about a dozen people attended each session last year but that the number has risen to about 30 this year.

"Every year, there's more demand for this kind of thing," Bajunaid said. "I've noticed that people are hungry to return to the spirit of Ramadan."

Some young Saudis viewed a more puritanical interpretation of Islam as "cool," said Ali Ghazzawi, 22, a clinical pharmacology student. But after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, which were carried out mainly by Saudis, many gained a more moderate and spiritual understanding of the faith, and "now preachers in jeans, like Shugairi, are Muslim cool," Ghazzawi said.

"Spirituality is not about abstaining from food or performing physical prayers. It's about a closer connection to God. It's about intentions," he said. "Are you doing this to perform a set of movements you are meant to do, or are you doing it for God?"

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