Probably most of us in the so-called West remain bemused by the strength of religious faith we observe among Muslims worldwide. We've been through all that – the fanaticism of the crusades to reclaim the holy places for Christianity, the religious wars and persecutions that wracked Europe for centuries, the terrors of the inquisition, deep divisions between Protestant and Catholic, followed by the rational inquiries of the Enlightenment, the scientific revolution of Darwinism, the growth of individualism and the rampant consumerism of our current capitalist era.
Included within that are the advances of feminism and the more liberal attitudes towards sexuality that exploded in the 1960s. We are both intrigued and repelled by those who do not think or feel as we do. Our repulsion arises out of fear, not merely of terrorist excesses committed in its name, but also a certain knocking at the gates that threatens to summon us back to what we perceive as less enlightened times. In a turbulent age people are often drawn towards systems and institutions that offer cohesion, order, conformity, a sense of understanding one's identity and knowing one's place.
When I first met my husband he would not have described himself as a devout Muslim. In fact, he was highly critical of the hypocrisy he had observed among the devout he knew. He didn't attend the mosque, he drank alcohol and when he came here happily ate meat from our local butcher or the supermarket. But he always observed the month of Ramadan. I told him half-jokingly that if ever he 'became a Khomeini' our marriage would be at an end.
Orthodoxy has crept up on him over the years, however, and we have had our arguments about it, but we are still together. Unlike some women I have known, I have not been tempted to convert. It simply doesn't compute for me, intellectually or emotionally. Besides, if the marriage does break down, and many do, how does the convert feel then? Some revert, but technically once a Muslim, always a Muslim. There's a high price for apostasy, but for the odd obscure nasraniya here and there it's probably not worth the bother of pursuit.
What I find most difficult to deal with are the areas of Muslim life that are non-negotiable. Once my husband became more conscious of his faith I found myself having to compromise on his terms. He stopped drinking alcohol about two years into our marriage, now some 23 years ago. That was not a great problem for me, since I have never been much of a drinker and to be fair to him he has never made an issue of alcohol being in the house or whether I might wish to drink it.
What was more difficult was his insistence on eating only meat that was designated halal. Now I have been to huge Muslim emporia in the south of France, and it might be true also of London and other big cities in England, but here in Edinburgh one is reliant on small Pakistani corner shops where the range and variety of meat available is very limited. When I complain, having a notion for a medallion of venison or a sirloin steak or a goose for Christmas, my husband will say, 'Do I stop you from eating whatever meat you want?.' No he doesn't, but we eat together and I have better things to do than make two separate meals every evening.
The month of Ramadan, however, is more demanding. For anyone who is not aware, the Muslim calendar is based on the lunar month and so Ramadan comes forward 10 days every year. When my husband first came here the month of Ramadan began in April and ended in early May. Since then it has come steadily forward through the winter months, then the autumn and is now in high summer, this year from early July to early August.
Now, as fasting takes place between sunrise and sunset, there is a greater variation between the winter and summer months the further north in the world you live. Here, when Ramadan falls during the winter months you can break your fast in the late afternoon, but in the summer you can't do so until 10pm or so. This will get worse over the next few years until Ramadan hits the shorter days again. Many people fast in the west from time to time to clear their systems and Catholics and Anglo-Catholics usually deprive themselves of some indulgence during Lent. Depriving yourself of all food and drink during daylight hours for four full weeks of the year is something else again, however. It is tiring and your breath smells bad. Frustrations boil and tempers fray more readily. The only street fights I ever witnessed in years of visiting Morocco took place during Ramadan.
Especially over these summer months, therefore, although I am used to it, I dread the approach of Ramadan. It's a strain and an inconvenience. Special foods have to be prepared, rituals observed, the exact time for eating every evening noted. Time slows down, we acknowledge each other, but we don't necessarily eat together, except occasionally when I simply haven't got round to organising an evening meal for myself.
This year it's taking its toll. Partly also due to the unexpected hot weather my husband is much more tired than he has ever been at this time and when he is not at work or at the mosque spends a lot of his time sleeping. As he works in the hotel trade this is the busiest time of the year, so it is not a convenient moment for him to take time off. It doesn't fit readily into our work and leisure rhythms.
When I was teaching latterly it was noticeable how the Asian pupils tended to be more frequently off school during Ramadan. It's a challenge, and it's not negotiable, although there are some very clearly specified exceptions: for the very young, the very old, the sick, women who are pregnant or menstruating or if you are travelling. But if you can you are expected to make up what you have missed at another time in the year.
I have to say I admire the self-discipline that enables so many Muslims to endure these restrictions. It was designed, as I understand it, to allow more time for spiritual reflection and to make people aware of the sufferings of the poor. However, many of the poorest on the planet are Muslim and still expected to fast. I remember a news item on television some time ago during one of those horrendous natural catastrophes that seem to afflict the developing world disproportionately. You were shown aid workers delivering supplies to suffering communities who were crying out for food. 'It's Ramadan. You should be fasting,' called out one of the workers, himself a Muslim. Not even that kind of calamity cancels out the demands, it would seem, unless it was a tasteless, thoughtless joke delivered off the cuff.
I just wish the demands were more flexible and less exclusive. There are also health and diet issues that might benefit from more objective analysis, but because it is an issue confined to one religious group I suspect it probably isn't scrutinised much, if at all. It's too sacred a matter to be criticised.
My husband persists because he believes in it. If he did not observe it he might attract bad luck, and although he is not so much bothered about those fabled houris he is undoubtedly anxious about his posthumous moral judgement. I've suggested that if there is an afterlife he will more likely head up than down; if not, he will never know. But it makes no difference. What could I, a mere woman, a Scot, a nasraniya, possibly understand about things like that?