Nimrah Bakhsh calls “Keeping up with the Kardashians,” the E! reality series, her “guiltiest, grossest pleasure.” But during Ramadan, she doesn’t see much of Kourtney, Kim, and Khloe, the celebrity sisters at the center of the show.
Ramadan, the holiest month on the Islamic calendar, which ends on Sunday, is not only a time to fast from food, water, and sex during the daylight hours. Muslims also try to abstain from worldly sins and distractions — including gossip and backbiting, which the Koran likens to eating the flesh of a dead brother.
That’s easier said than done in a world saturated with social networking, texting, and reality TV. So, many young Muslims reevaluate their consumption of frivolous media and electronic communication during Ramadan. Some choose to scale back, or tune out altogether.
For the 28-year-old Bakhsh, executive assistant to Imam Suhaib Webb and website manager at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Roxbury, nixing even the occasional indulgence in reality TV is spiritually invigorating.
“It allows me to fill the space of my mind and thoughts with things that are cleaner, purer, more relevant, rather than unnecessary entertainment,” she said.
Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, is when Muslims believe Allah revealed the Koran to the Prophet Muhammad. Muslims believe the gates of heaven are open during this month, and God is especially close.
“It’s a month of reflection, really, on one’s behavior,” said Ali Asani, director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies Program at Harvard. “The idea of Ramadan is to try to sort of realign oneself, and to really think about what it means to be human, and bring out the best qualities, so you are worthy of being called God’s noblest creation.”
Fasting during this period is one of the five pillars, or main principles, of Islam. At its most basic level, the Ramadan fast requires not eating, drinking, or having sex with one’s spouse between sunrise and sunset, a practice meant to teach self-discipline and promote solidarity with the poor.
But Ramadan is also an important opportunity to practice being a better person. So Muslims also engage in an internal fast from bad behavior, such as lying, swearing, smoking, arguing, and gossiping. They also try to avoid exposure to evil done by others. Ideally, the changes will stick long after the holy month ends.
“My goal is to not only to stay away from food and drink and sex. I am to start working on other things — like how I talk, how I treat people, how I engage people,” said Webb, imam of the Roxbury mosque.
Webb said Islam is particularly concerned with backbiting — defined as saying something about someone else, in that person’s absence, that the person would not like — because it destroys a person’s social relationships, which are directly correlated with a person’s relationship with God. The Koran forbids backbiting at any time of the year, but the prohibition takes on special importance during Ramadan.
“We believe human beings are sacred,” Webb said. “So when you make fun of someone for how they look, you are making fun of who made them. You are insulting the Creator.”
Avoiding idle chatter and meanness is not so easy, though, in a contemporary world filled with snarky status updates, jeering tweets, and celebrity gossip. Even Muslims who strenuously avoid gossip and backbiting themselves can’t control what their friends post.
“That’s why I think people are staying away from social media,” Asani said. “They don’t want to encounter something they feel would break the spirit of the month and make them do things they don’t think are appropriate.”
Yasmeen Ali, a 29-year-old substitute teacher from Newton, said she stopped instant messaging altogether this Ramadan. “It’s just easier to use the regular telephone,” she said. “I don’t have much free time in general. I try to spend the day with friends and family and go to the mosque.”
But not everyone thinks avoiding normal use of technology is a great idea. Imam Talal Eid, founder of the Islamic Institute of Boston and Muslim chaplain at Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women’s hospitals, said Ramadan is meant to help people rid themselves of their bad habits, not to withdraw from their regular lives.
“In my opinion, this is like going from one extreme to another,” he said. “The idea is to … make sure the chatting is meaningful and educational, not gossiping or destroying relations.”
Some young Muslims embrace social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter to display photographs of people worshiping or quotes from the Koran.
Nour Tabidi, 16, of Hyde Park, an incoming freshman at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said she and her friends tweet positive messages about their experience of Ramadan. The other day, when she was returning home from the mosque near dawn she saw the moon. “It was so breathtaking, and it was in a crescent shape, which is kind of the symbol for Islam,” she said. “I tweeted, ‘The moon is beautiful.’ And some of my friends were like, ‘Retweet!’ ”
Ramadan is already bearing fruit for Hisham Mabrook, a young management consultant, who said he has checked Facebook far less frequently during the last month, and has found that he is far more productive.
“Even though I’m spending a lot of time just praying, I still have a lot more time because I don’t waste as much,” he said.