Ramadan is supposed to be a time of peace. In Syria, that is almost a cruel joke. There are some factions, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, that have used the holy month as an opportunity to win hearts and minds through services. Others, namely the Free Syrian Army and the Bashar al-Assad regime are less concerned about religious observance than blowing each other up. Finally, the Iraq- and Syria-based Islamic State (also called ISIS) has used the occasion to further its control over civilian populations and foment global jihad. In other words, Ramadan in Syria looks a lot like the other months in Syria—but worse. It is even longer, bloodier, and more desperate.
During Ramadan, in addition to fasting, Muslims are instructed to refrain from sinful behavior, such as false speech (insults, curses, lies, and so on) and fighting. Before the war and the rise of ISIS, every Syrian Muslim learned during mandatory religion classes in school that, if you want to receive all benefits of hasant, you must be kind to other people during Ramadan, because relations with others are almost as important as relations with God.
Five years into the civil war, even groups that claim to fight on behalf of Islam do not appear follow this basic tenet. Even worse, some have radically reinterpreted the meaning of Ramadan to suit their own purposes. Thus, among Syria’s warring groups, there is a wide spectrum of meaning attached to the holy month.
In the Assad-controlled territory, Ramadan is observed, but with secular overtones. Although food is made available to Assad’s military for the evening meal (iftar), so too is alcohol—trucks loaded with beer and wine head daily to the front lines. Plenty would agree that, during a war, fighters should refrain from fasting to save their strength for battle, but many civilians are deeply troubled by the soldiers’ drinking—especially during iftar. Not only does “all the money go for alcohol for fighters,” one civilian living in regime controlled territory told us, “but also it makes them less of a fighter.”
The regime’s main opponent, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), has also taken a pragmatic view of the holiday. Some fighters aren’t observing it, a member of the group says, because they believe Islam permits fighters to break the fast during war. (The Free Syrian Army has even issued a special fatwa about it.) And so, during Ramadan, one can find FSA fighters in uniform eating and drinking during the day. And civilians seem to not only tolerate it, but even encourage such behavior because they want their soldiers to be ready for battle.
Islamist rebel groups such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra place more of a religious emphasis on Ramadan, but they, too, are using it for strategic purposes. Their fighters are observing the fast, even on the frontlines, but the message of Ramadan as a month of peace appears to have gotten lost. In Aleppo, these groups are even planning major battles, arguing as justification that Ramadan is historically a month of great victories. References to the Battle of Badr in 624 (the first war between Muslims and non-Muslims) are common.
ISIS does not simply enforce traditional codes of conduct during Ramadan, but is actively repurposing the holy month’s function and meaning in Syria. Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra are also taking advantage of Ramadan to win over civilian hearts and minds. For civilians under their control, they have made tithing (zakat) voluntarily and do not strongly enforce fasting. Although there is a punishment of 20 lashes for civilians caught breaking the fast in public, people are basically free to do anything they want at home. And, despite shortages of nearly everything in Aleppo, Jabhat al-Nusra has sponsored kitchens to prepare iftar meals with all the traditional foods—even chicken—for the community. Families usually send their children with bags and dishes to collect food, and the closer to iftar the bigger the line. Jabhat al-Nusra uses the occasion to socialize civilians with group leaders, and the members of various brigades with each other.
In contrast, ISIS has seen Ramadan as an opportunity to enforce greater social control over the population and foment jihad. ISIS does not simply enforce traditional codes of conduct during Ramadan, but is actively repurposing the holy month’s function and meaning in Syria. This Ramadan is a particularly important one for them, since it is the first anniversary of their declaration of a caliphate. Among other reasons, that might be why, far from laying down its guns for the month, ISIS has stepped up attacks.
In its year in power, ISIS has made a number of significant adjustments to religious practices, including a major modification to the Taraweeh prayer, which is an extra prayer performed by Sunni Muslims at night during Ramadan. This prayer is usually 20 Rakaat (the unit of prayer), but in ISIS controlled territories, it is now only eight and the imams have to read a page from Koran in each Raqqa. Previously, the Taraweeh prayer took 45 minutes to complete, but now it can easily take more than double that time. Second, after the last prayer (Ishaaa) there is traditionally a reading of the Koran or from the collected sayings of Muhammad, but that is no longer permitted. ISIS deemed it un-Islamic, since the practice was added after Muhammad’s death. Now, after the last prayer, there is only silence. It is unclear why ISIS chose to modify this particular tradition, but it serves to signify its power to transform long-enduring customs as it sees fit.
Despite the threat and severity of harsh punishment, some are happy with the way the group has used Ramadan. ISIS’ ability to restructure Ramadan varies depending on how much power and control it has in any given territory. In Raqqa, where the group is well entrenched, it strictly enforces adherence to its own rules of fasting and tithing during Ramadan. If a man is found eating or drinking during daylight hours, he will be put in a cage in the center of the town, where he will be made to sit until the end of the month of Ramadan. That punishment would be brutal anywhere, but in June in Syria, it would be unbearable. And so far, very few people have stepped out of line—most are adhering to the strict codes of conduct. Elsewhere, in Mosul, for example, women are not allowed to go outside during Ramadan. ISIS explained to us that this is because “if a man sees a women, imagines her shape and her face, he will be more likely to break his fasting.”
In other areas, ISIS has had less transformative effects on Ramadan. In Deir ez-Zor, for example, local customs remain strong, and civilians have been more successful at resisting ISIS. We are told that the most ISIS is able to do it is temporarily and quietly jail or apply lashes to people who are caught breaking the fast. When the group attempts more, local tribes intervene.
Despite the threat and severity of harsh punishment, some (particularly ISIS adherents) are happy with the way the group has used Ramadan. According to one man who pledged allegiance to ISIS and now works for the group in Dier ez-Zor, “You feel like you are in Mecca in the time of the Prophet Mohammad now; Ramadan in the city is just like Ramadan 1400 years ago.” When he was asked, however, about a particular ISIS Ramadan policy he supports, he hesitated. “I like that my wife is not watching TV any more, because she used to watch 10 TV serials in each Ramadan from the first day to the last one”.
To be sure, positive sentiments are relatively rare. In Deir ez-Zor, many are upset that ISIS fighters are demanding increasingly luxurious iftars of fish—a delicacy in a war-torn region whose access to the sea has long been blocked. Civilians also complain about the collection and distribution of food aid during Ramadan. ISIS is collecting mandatory zakat of 2.5 percent of household income to distribute to the poor through a governing body it calls “House of Muslims.” In Deir ez-Zor, the group even adopted a card system (red cards for extremely poor families and yellow cards for moderately poor), but the distribution system has not kept people from starving. According to a local resident “ISIS is not helpful at all—they are not opening kitchens for the poor in Syria, so there are people who have to search though the trash cans near the ISIS HQ to survive.”
Syria’s combatants seem to have forgotten the message of Ramadan, even those who claim to fight in the name of Islam. Ramadan could have been an important opportunity for dialogue, but not the way it is practiced in Syria today. Ramadan should offer a time for reflection, negotiation, and rebuilding. Instead, it has become a month of destruction. Unfortunately, this outcome is not unique to Syria. For example, in 2014, fighting broke out between Hamas and Israeli Defense Forces in Gaza. During the 2003–07 Iraq War, insurgent attacks continued during the Ramadan period. And, of course, the 1973 Yom Kipur War, also called the Ramadan War, took place during the Muslim Holy Month as well. Entrepreneurial elites and insurgent groups see Ramadan as an opportunity to rally the faithful behind violent causes and attach religious meaning and significance to violent acts. Increasing, it appears that the strategy in Syria is just as it has been in other conflicts in the past. The month is not over yet, and violence there appears to be escalating daily.