Small Wars Journal

Ramazan Awareness and Opportunities for 2012

Fri, 07/13/2012 - 8:35am

Ramazan and Eid ul-Fitr provide excellent opportunities for everyone who is deployed – military and civilian, government or contractor – to make positive contributions that will help keep ISAF Soldiers, Civilians, and Afghan Allies safe and our missions successful.  Those working outside the wire can benefit the most from this report, but anyone who encounters Afghans, from village engagements to DFAC workers, can make significant contributions, even if they never leave the base.

Each day, everyone who is deployed has the opportunity to reinforce positive or negative stereotypes about ISAF forces and Western civilians.  These encounters are important, regardless of whether the interaction is with GIRoA or ANSF officials, prominent elders, unemployed sharecroppers, or a young man who is tasked with working in the DFAC or cleaning our toilets.  All of the Afghans we encounter have the potential to become supporters or detractors, allies or foes.  The experiences Afghans have – good and bad – in dealing with the Americans, and other members of ISAF, will be repeated many times to their family, friends, neighbors, and others. 

A pleasant smile or basic greeting is an easy way to connect with Afghans, while simultaneously refuting insurgent misinformation.  This is not simply an attempt to get Afghans to like us.  It’s a matter of gaining their trust and respect in a way that encourages them to take active steps to support our mission and our Soldiers.  This can occur in many ways, from telling other Afghans about their positive experiences with ISAF, to telling us about criminal and insurgent activity, including IEDs being placed and IDF attacks being planned.

The objective is to strengthen the similarity of purpose between ISAF and all of our Afghan partners, from GIRoA and ANSF to village elders, farmers, and DFAC workers.  To enhance mission success, we should encourage a tidal wave of support, with the expectation of success that overwhelms insurgent groups, leaving them physically and psychologically defeated.  These objectives go well beyond 2014, because this region will be important to global security for decades. 

Ramazan – Core Beliefs, Motivation, and Practices


Ramadan, usually called Ramazan in Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, and the Indian subcontinent, is the most sacred month of the year to over one billion Muslims around the world. The most common pronunciation is Ramadan, from the Arabic root “ramida” or “ar-ramad,” which means scorching heat or dryness. Ramadan originally occurred at a fixed time during the summer, which accounts for its root meaning.

Since Islam was brought to Turkey, Afghanistan, and the Indian subcontinent by the Persians, it is called Ramazan in these areas. In Urdu and Hindi, it’s pronounced Ramzan. The simple explanation for this is the consonants.  In Persian, the letter “z” replaces the Arabic letter “d.” Since this paper is for use in Afghanistan, I will use Ramazan. For those outside the area of Persian influence, change the word to Ramadan.

Ramazan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. It is calculated to start at the first sighting of the new crescent moon, which is expected to occur on July 19 this year in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia.  Ramazan is on the same days of the Islamic calendar each year, but since this is a lunar calendar, it comes approximately eleven days earlier each year on the Gregorian calendar, which is solar.  Since some Muslims rely on the actual sighting of the new crescent moon, locally or in Mecca, to determine the start of Ramazan and other events, the beginning and ending dates may vary by a day or two from one area to another. 

A number of important events occurred during Ramazan; the most significant being the revelation of the first verses of the Qur’an, also spelled Quran or Koran. The 185th verse of the second surah (also spelled sura) of the Qur’an states, “It was in the month of Ramadan that the Qur’an was revealed as guidance for mankind…so every one of you who is present [at home] that month should fast.”

Ramazan is a time for fasting, prayers, charity, and self-reflection. Many Muslims make personal resolutions for the coming year to improve one or more aspects of their lives. Ramazan is a time of spiritual and personal transformation of the body, heart, mind, and soul. It is the best time to begin practicing good habits and giving up things that are haraam (prohibited), discouraged, or unhealthy, such as alcohol, profanity, or smoking. In many respects, these personal vows are similar to New Year’s resolutions that Americans, and people from many other cultures around the world, make.

During Ramazan, Muslims are expected to refrain from eating, drinking, smoking, swearing, and sexual intercourse between sunrise and sunset. There are exceptions for the sick and elderly, insane, children who have not reached puberty (generally under age 12), some travelers, and pregnant, menstruating, or nursing women. Women also avoid fasting for forty days after childbirth. Some Islamic scholars state that soldiers engaged in conflict are also excluded, though this is not universal. Regardless, many Muslim soldiers and insurgents will abide by the fast.

Those who are unable to fast for these reasons are encouraged to make up the days they missed as soon as they can. If they are unable to make them up, they should tithe money or grain to the mosque or directly to the poor. They should donate enough to feed at least one poor person for each day they break the fast.  Fasting during Ramazan (sawm) is for self-purification. It is the fourth of the Five Pillars of Islam.

The Arabic word for fasting means to refrain. During Ramazan the restraints encompass all bodily functions, including those associated with the mouth and ears. One should avoid speaking or listening to gossip, profanity, lying, slander, false oaths, and other such idle and inappropriate discourse. Muslims should always refrain from these acts, but especially so during Ramazan, when they are deemed more harmful, destroying the good that is obtained from fasting.

Ramazan is a period of inner reflection and spiritual renewal. Fasting is meant to focus a Muslim's thoughts on religious matters. Purity of thought and action through self-discipline and sacrifice are a means of spiritual cleansing and enlightenment that brings the person closer to God.

Muslims believe fasting and withdrawal from worldly pleasures is a reminder that many people throughout the world live in poverty, often lacking basic necessities, including adequate food and water. By personally experiencing hunger and thirst, Muslims feel they are better able to understand the suffering of the poor. This teaches humility and empathy, encouraging generosity to those who are less fortunate. It also encourages appreciation and thankfulness for everything God has given them.

The pace of life changes during Ramazan. Muslims still go to work, school, and their regularly scheduled activities, but they are expected to devote a major part of the day to prayers and the Qur’an. Businesses throughout the Islamic world adjust their schedules, with many working shorter or staggered hours that end prior to dhuhr, the midday prayers.  Some Muslims will go back to work after midday prayers, others will not.  During Ramazan, many stores and markets are closed in the afternoon, but do a flourishing business at night.  Most restaurants will be closed during daylight hours.

I encourage everyone working in Islamic countries to go without food and drink from sunrise to sunset for at least one day.  I suggest doing this at the start of Ramazan to understand what Muslims are going through, and how it affects their mind and body.

Daily Schedule in Afghanistan During Ramazan

During Ramazan, most people will be up by 02:30 so they can have the morning meal eaten before the call to prayer, which will occur at 03:16 in Kabul the first day of Ramazan and 03:47 on the last day.  Sunset in Kabul is at 19:04 on July 20 and 18:37 on August 18, 2011.  Times will vary slightly across the country.  After morning prayers, some Muslims go back to sleep; others study the Qur’an or prepare for work. Schedules vary in different parts of the country and as the month progresses.

Once the morning call to prayer occurs, Muslims are not supposed to eat or drink anything else, even though the sun will not rise for another ninety minutes or so.  Muslims will have nothing to drink or eat during the rest of the day, until after sunset.  Because Ramazan is occurring during the long days of summer, Afghans will fast for an average of 16 hours a day during the hottest time of the year.

The times for dhuhr, the midday prayer, are noon is in much of the Islamic world.  Afghanistan has traditionally had their midday prayers at 13:00.  I suggest verifying the times in the respective villages to be visited so that scheduled can be modified.  Most Muslims want to go to the mosque to pray for at least thirty minutes, but some arrive early or stay late.  They’ll need time to get to the mosque and complete the ritualistic washing prior to prayers.  Try to avoid scheduling meetings that go past 11:30.

At sunset, Muslims break the fast with a meal called iftar. In honor of the Prophet Muhammad, this usually consists of dates and water, because it’s believed Muhammad would break his fast this way.  Most Muslims follow up the ceremonial dates and water with a large meal eaten with family or friends.  Muslim communities come alive with shopping and socializing once the sun has set.  Many of the restaurants in large Muslim communities will feature iftar meals during Ramazan. 

Many Muslims will provide iftar meals for the poor as a form of charity that is especially encouraged during Ramazan, Eid ul-Fitr, and Eid al-Adha.  After consuming a large evening meal, some Muslims will go back to the mosque for one to two hours of recitation and special prayers.

Lailat al-Qadr (Night of Power)

Lailat al-Qadr is translated as the Night of Power, the Night of Decree, the Night of Measures, or the Night of Glory. This is the time when Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad received the first verses of the Qur’an from Allah through the angel Gabriel.  While the actual date of this event is unknown, most Muslims believe it occurred on an odd numbered night during the last ten days of Ramazan, August 8 to 18 this year.  Most Sunnis observe Lailat al-Qadr on the 27th day of Ramazan and Shi’as on the 23rd day of Ramazan. 

Lailat al-Qadr will begin at sunset and continue until sunrise of the next day.  Most Sunnis will celebrate it beginning on August 15 and continuing until sunrise.  Most Shi’as will celebrate it beginning on August 11, 2012. 

However, these dates may vary based upon when Ramazan actually starts in the respective community. There are some sects that recognize one of the other odd numbered dates within the last ten days of Ramazan as being most significant. 

Muslims regard this as the most important and sacred event in history.  The first five verses of the 97th surah of the Qur'an, Al Qadr [Power, Fate] states the significance of this night. The words will vary with different translations.

In the name of Allah, the Almighty, the Merciful (1) We sent it down on the Night of Glory. (2) What will explain to you what the Night of Glory is? (3) The Night of Glory is better than a thousand months; (4) on that night the angels and the Spirit [the Angel Gabriel] descend again and again with their Lord’s permission on every task; (5) [there is] peace that night until the break of dawn.

Many Muslims believe good deeds performed this night, reap rewards as if they were done for 1,000 months (82 years). Mosques will be open all night and many Muslims will spend most or all of the night praying at home or in the mosque, believing that the benefits of their prayers and deeds will be significantly greater than on any other night.

Some insurgents believe the Night of Power is a good time to become a martyr.  Try to avoid becoming a target of opportunity during these two days.  The reduced presence of ISAF will be much appreciated by Muslims, who will be focused on staying up all night praying, during the Night of Power.  The next day, they will be trying to make up for lost sleep.  They will not want to see or hear CF.

Settling Disputes

The last ten days of Ramazan are a good time to settle disputes or forge a truce between leaders, groups, or tribes. Muslims consider this time to be the most blessed days in the most blessed month. Muslims are encouraged to resolve differences and forgive others. This is the best time of the year to apologize to individuals or groups for misunderstandings, regardless of who is at fault.  Eid ul-Fitr is also a good time for this.

Eid ul-Fitr – Breaking the Fast – A Three Day Celebration

Ramazan ends after 29 or 30 days, with the sighting of the new crescent moon. The holiday of Eid ul-Fitr marks the end of fasting.  Eid ul-Fitr is a combination of Arabic words that mean “festivity” and “breaking the fast.”

The three day Eid ul-Fitr festival is anticipated to begin on August 19 or 20.  The dates of Eid ul-Fitr may vary depending upon the actual sighting of the new crescent moon. 

Eid ul-Fitr will officially begin with the breaking of the fast the night before the three day celebration.  The next morning, Muslims will get up early, pray, and eat a small meal to symbolize the end of Ramazan and the renewal of their spiritual self. This is a joyful, three day celebration of feasting and socializing with family, friends, relatives, and neighbors. It is the chosen time of the year for Muslims to go home. Most work comes to a halt and many businesses will close. People will put on their best clothes, new ones if they can afford them.

Muslims are not supposed to celebrate Eid ul-Fitr until they have paid at least a token amount to charity. Food, clothing, and money are donated to the poor. Muslim children often receive new clothes, money, and gifts.

Eid ul-Fitr is a good time for ISAF to make donations to the poor, to mend personal relationships, and forge alliances.  I suggest donations for Eid ul-Fitr celebrations and the poor be dropped off to villages just prior to the end of Ramazan.  Appropriate gifts include food and essentials for the poor, candy and sweets for Eid ul-Fitr, Qur’ans and prayer rugs for the mullahs, elders, and people of influence, and toys, candy, and clothing for the children.

Coalition Forces and civilian representatives will be welcome to participate at Eid ul-Fitr celebrations in some communities, but the level of local enthusiasm for these visits should be gauged prior to scheduling trips to Muslim communities. 

The month of Shawwal, which immediately follows Ramazan, is the time for six additional days of voluntary fasting. The fast during Ramazan is said to be equal to ten months of fasting and the six days during Shawwal equal to two months of fasting. Together, they provide Muslims with the spiritual rewards of fasting throughout the year.

Impact of Ramazan and Eid ul-Fitr Upon GIRoA and ANSF Operations

ISAF can expect to see a significant reduction in ANSF initiated military operations during Ramazan and Eid ul-Fitr.  The month of Ramazan has an impact upon the activities and productivity of GIRoA and ANSF, especially when it falls during the long, hot days of summer.  The pace of work, including the willingness to participate in governmental duties and military operations in the afternoon and evening will diminish, especially during the last ten days of Ramazan.  Try not to schedule afternoon meetings, activities, operations, and training. 

During the celebration of Eid ul-Fitr, most work will come to a halt.  Many GIRoA/ANSF officials, soldiers and linguists will travel home to celebrate with family and friends.  The specific impact upon GIRoA and ANSF operations during Ramazan, including the lingering effects, will differ, based upon the individuals, location, and other factors.

Issues that impact GIRoA/ANSF operations during Ramazan

  1. Most GIRoA and ANSF officials will be getting very limited sleep.
  2. They will be going without food and water for an average of 16 hours a day.
  3. Their focus is supposed to be on spiritual matters, but it will also be on their exhaustion, hunger, and thirst.  Their mental and physical capacity will diminish.
  4. Some ANSF units may forge an unofficial truce with the primary insurgents operating in their area, especially if they have friends with these groups.
  5. Most GIRoA and ANSF officials will have reduced expectations, capacity, and follow-through during Ramazan and Eid ul-Fitr. ISAF officials should be selective and tactful in prioritizing and pushing projects for GIRoA and ANSF to complete.


COIN should be more than a buzz word.  The core concepts of this doctrine should be an accepted way in which we think about and execute our mission in Afghanistan and similar theaters of operation. 

Counterinsurgency is best approached from a holistic perspective, with an implicit understanding of what is important, and why...and how it can best be achieved.  Embracing and implementing the key concepts of COIN will help keep our Soldiers safe and their missions successful, requiring less resources and enabling a seamless extraction that is virtually imperceptible to the population and security within their respective areas of operation. 

Effective counterinsurgency, from the micro and macro level – village to national government – provides an enduring capacity, confidence and motivation.  This enables local security forces and populations to seize their future from the insurgents, denying negative foreign influencers, including governments, terrorists, and criminal networks, from gaining an emotional and physical base of operations. 


Supplement for distribution to troops


1. Good manners dictate that ISAF members avoid eating, drinking, chewing gum, and the use of all tobacco products in front of Muslims during the daylight hours of Ramazan. Profanity, sexual references, and inappropriate language and behavior should always be avoided around Muslims, but especially during Ramazan. Do not offer Muslims food or drink during the days of Ramazan. If you do need to eat, drink, chew gum, or use tobacco, try to do so out of the direct view of Afghans and other Muslims.

2. During Ramazan in Kabul, sunrise will occur between 04:55 on July 20 and 05:16 on August 18. Sunset takes place between 19:04 on July 20 and 18:37 on August 18. It will be most effective to schedule morning appointments, while individuals are nourished and fresh. Try to complete appointments by 11:00, so as not to interfere with the call to prayer. In the afternoon hours, Afghans will be focusing on prayers and family.

By 11:00, most Afghans will have been up for over eight hours, and will have gone without food and water since about 03:15.  They will be thirsty, hungry, tired, and feeling the effects of the fast, increasingly so as we get further into Ramazan.

3. Convoys should be out of the villages by 11:30. Verify when midday prayers occur.  Do not schedule afternoon appointments during Ramazan.

4. Most Afghans, including many GIRoA, ANSF, and contract employees, will be fasting during Ramazan. They will be freshest in the morning. By late afternoon, Muslims will become tired, hungry, dehydrated, and perhaps a bit cranky. This tends to accumulate as Ramazan progresses, diminishing effectiveness and capacity. Try to avoid afternoon operations and activities that task them intellectually or physically.

5. Muslims cannot drink anything during the day, so keep your appointments short and frame your questions so they can be answered concisely, with a minimal amount of words. If you keep your appointments short, and include one or two brief comments about Ramazan or Islam, you will show cultural awareness and respect. This can help take your personal relationship to the next level.

6. The behavior of Muslims will change during Ramazan. While much focus is put into self-judgment and purifying ones behavior, the deprivation and strain of Ramazan makes some people irritable.  Afghans may be less talkative and less social during the day. This is due to the focus on spiritual matters, combined with the effects of hunger, thirst, and lack of sleep.

7. This primarily applies to all women on ISAF bases – military and civilian.  DO NOT wear shorts, sleeveless tops, and similar items, especially during Ramazan.  If shorts are necessary for PT, consider having PT at a time and place when Afghans – ANSF and civilians – are not present.  Wear long pants over the shorts if you are going to be seen by Afghans on your way to PT areas.  “Free Will” is trumped by our desire not to offend Afghans or give talking points to insurgents and radicalized mullahs.  We don’t want any of our Soldiers to die, because the offended Afghan helped plant an IED.

8. Please avoid disturbing Afghans, or walking in front of them, during prayers. 

9. Muslims are encouraged to avoid gossip or speaking badly about someone, especially during Ramazan. Some Afghans may be reluctant to provide a candid assessment of individuals or groups. Be tactful, and avoid pushing this issue or making critical or negative comments about others during Ramazan.

10. Avoid appointments and meetings during Lailat al-Qadr (Night of Power) and the next day. Muslims will spend this day studying and praying. Some will spend the entire night in prayer and reciting the Qur'an. The next day they will need rest. The Night of Power is deemed a desirable time for suicide attacks. Consider cancelling all activities outside the wire these two days so as not to become a target of opportunity.

11. Donations to the poor should be made to strategic villages for the celebration of Eid ul-Fitr.  Try to deliver most of these during the last week of Ramazan.

12. Consider going without food and water, from sunrise to sunset, for at least one day during the start of Ramazan. This will increase your understanding, empathy, and respect for what Muslims experience.  It will also give you something positive to talk about with the Afghans you encounter on both sides of the wire. 

13. There are a number of talking points contained in this report to use during and after Ramazan to improve rapport with Muslims. Everything good in Afghanistan, and similar cultures, happens through personal relationships. This is the key to obtaining information, cooperation, and support. It can mean the difference between success and failure. Whatever else we achieve, otherwise, may be meaningless if we have not established and maintained the appropriate personal relationships with the most powerful, influential, and helpful people in our respective areas of operation. 

About the Author(s)

James Emery is a cultural anthropologist, who has covered insurgencies, terrorism, narcotics trafficking, corruption, and political events in Afghanistan and around the world for thirty years. He has worked with and against insurgencies, from making numerous trips into Afghanistan with the mujahideen during the Soviet occupation and working with tribal groups in Southeast Asia, to countering terrorists, insurgents, and narcotics traffickers in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. He provides training and research papers on Afghan, Arab, Asian, and African culture, issues, and events. He lectures on cultural anthropology, cross-cultural communication, Islam, strategic village programs, KLEs with positive and negative influencers, IO and PSYOP, COIN, counter-IED programs, narcotics trafficking, and other topics. For additional information about this report, or other topics, please contact James Emery at: