ALEPPO — Syrians in ISIS-held areas are experiencing a Ramadan atmosphere that is different, in some instances, to what they have been accustomed to in the holy month. In some cases this is connected to the strict performance of the ritual fast itself and in others to the accompanying commercial activity, acts of devotion and social interactions. ISIS has not let the month of Ramadan pass without leaving its mark, positively or negatively, through a series of procedures and decrees. In the words of ISIS-supporter Mahmoud:
“What the Islamic State wants is for God to have forgiven the Muslims when Ramadan has passed — because they have performed acts of submission; because they have done good deeds through abiding by the Islamic Sharia and its regulations in the right way; and because they have rid themselves of heresy and polytheism.”
For the first time, Syrians have seen the punishment of whipping dealt out to people who break the fast before the appointed time. ISIS has whipped every person proven to have broken the fast openly during the month of virtue. The number of lashes in some areas has reached 70, as happened to a laborer in Al-Bukamal. Corporal punishment is followed by the offender being compelled to attend Sharia courses; a practice ISIS defends. According to one of the group’s preachers in Manbij, “the Prophet, peace be upon him, says: All of my Ummah are forgiven except those who commit sin openly.”
“As well as being in breach of the Sharia, those fast-breakers show scorn for Muslim society by mocking a great principle. How strange it is that some people, while they censure the punishment of fast-breakers, do not censure the punishment of those who throw banana skins on the ground in public gardens in Europe. It is as if they want us to chew our laws up, spit them out and abandon our religion.”
One thing that has been noticeable this year is the appearance of cages in ISIS controlled areas — cages similar to the one in which Muath al-Kasasbeh and the Kurdish prisoners who were captured in Ayn al-Arab were put. Locals believe that fast-breakers will be caged as a means of vilification.
ISIS has reaffirmed a decree issued last year ruling that Tarawih prayersmust include no more than eight prostrations, in keeping with the teachings of the Prophet Mohammad. According to the group’s decree, this is in keeping with the noble Hadith passed down by Aisha, may God be pleased with her, in which she said that the Prophet, peace be upon him, carried out no more than 13 ritual prostrations in one night. This has left many people with a feeling of derision and confusion. “Were we in breach of the noble teachings of the Prophet all those years? Is it really believable that Muslims are wrong and ISIS alone is right?!” Abu Osama, a teacher from rural Aleppo, asks in disgust. “While ISIS has clung to one Hadith, it has disregarded Koranic ayas and Prophetic Hadiths that encourage nighttime prayer and affirm the permissibility of increasing the number of prostrations without stipulating a specific number,” Manbij resident Sheikh Omar says, addressing the same subject. “The Ummah has abided by this correct interpretation from the era of the Prophet’s companions to our current era.” As Sheikh ul-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah said in Majmua al-Fatawa (the compendium of Fatwas): “He who thinks that the Prophet, peace be upon him, set a specific number for Ramadan prayers, that one must not do more or less than, is mistaken.”
ISIS has also forbidden all the ritual acts of remembrance that people in Syria are used to reciting after the second and fourth prostrations, such as blessing the Prophet, using prayer beads and reading Surat al-Ikhlas, on the pretext that such practices are heretical. Many people are angry at ISIS for issuing this decree. They say that prayers of remembrance cannot be considered heretical, as they are derived from, rather than added to, devotional ritual and are present in the honorable teachings of the Prophet.
On the other hand, some decrees, such as forbidding imams from reading less than one page of the Koran during each two prostrations, have been welcomed by many. “This could be the one decision the group has got right,” says Yassin, a Sharia student from eastern rural Aleppo. “For many people prayer had been reduced to a form of exercise. It most closely resembled the pecking of a rooster, and this was forbidden by the Prophet, peace be upon him.”
These decrees have paved the way for a series of rumors. They have prompted many people to compose stories and fabricate so-called truths that do not really exist. One of these rumors is that ISIS has forbidden Tarawih prayers in certain cities. Another says that traders have been barred from opening their shops before Tarawih prayers are finished. “All of that is untrue; prayer is being performed but with eight prostrations,” says Abu Musa, a man in his 40s from the town of Al-Bab. “Shops have not been closed, except during the usual mandatory prayers. All you have to do to open your shop is perform the Isha prayer.”
This year ISIS has handed out books to the mosques for the imam of each one to use in religious lessons given daily during the blessed month of Ramadan following the Asr prayer. The goal, ISIS says, is to spread religious awareness.
This Ramadan, the activity of the Hisbah religious police has increased, especially in the markets. In a number of areas there has been a noticeable presence of the women’s Hisbah. This has reached the level of women’s Hisbah members beating female transgressors in the street. Usually the violation is failure to abide by Sharia-sanctioned dress code. For example, Moroccan Umm Abdurrahman, Women’s Hisbah Emira in Al-Bukamal, beat a woman for not wearing the dara (a loose outer garment covering the entire body.) On the other hand, residents of ISIS-held areas deny the rumors that women have been forbidden from going to markets.
In addition to the decrees, the security situation has had an effect on the social situation during Ramadan. Visits have become less frequent, mostly taking place within the very tight confines of immediate family and close friends. Many families have been deprived from seeing their children who have travelled, either to work or to study, and prefer not to return because they fear ISIS might not let them leave again. That goes without mentioning the sons who are members of rebel factions and thus pursued by the group. Another thing that has had a big effect on Ramadan soirées is electricity. Now most people go to bed after Tarawih prayers. “Soirées used to go on until Fajr prayers, especially in the summer,” says Umm Ahmad from rural Aleppo. “We would drink tea and eat sweets with our friends and neighbors.”
The economic situation has also had an effect. This year markets have witnessed a sudden spike in the price of all goods. This is due to the depreciation in value the Syrian Pound. Last year, one kilo of sugar cost 110 Syrian Pounds; this year it costs 200. Last year a gallon of cooking oil cost 900 Syrian Pounds; this year it costs 1700.
Although they have gone up in price, locally-produced vegetables and other foodstuffs remain cheaper in ISIS-held areas than areas controlled by the rebels and the regime. The reason for this is that low production costs prevail in ISIS-held territory thanks to plentiful water supplies and the low price of fuel. On top of this, supply has outstripped demand, meaning that cucumbers and tomatoes have been sold for an average of 50 Syrian Pounds per kilo, zucchinis for 40 and potatoes for 60.
As the days of Ramadan pass, people around the world are looking forward to Eid al-Fitr. Meanwhile, people in Syria are waiting for the festival with lukewarm enthusiasm. No friends will get together for Eid and there will be no joy until stability returns and the killing and displacement stops.
This article has been translated from the original Arabic by Ullin Hope.